By Dayna Woolbright
“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” William Morris
The words of William Morris seemed to be an appropriate introduction to a blog focusing on the Arts and Crafts movement. My inspiration for this topic came from crates 17 and 18 which contained a beautiful collection of Arts and Crafts furniture which came into the Norwich social history collection in 1995 as a bequest from a Mr D.W Harvey of Norwich. The collection contained 22 objects and records state that much of the furniture was made by the donor’s father in the early 1900’s when the Arts and Crafts movement was at the height of its popularity.
Beginning in Britain around 1870 the Arts and crafts movement was the result of a reaction to the “decorative excesses of the mid-nineteenth century.” The founder of the movement was artist William Morris (1834-96) best known today for his wallpaper and textile designs. Morris’s ideals were at the heart of the arts and crafts movement, he was much inspired by the middle ages and honest craftsmanship. The Industrial Revolution had changed the way that items were manufactured, machine made, mass produced products flooded the market and traditional techniques began to fade out. For artists like Morris and his close friend (and fellow artist) Edward Burne-Jones there was a need to return to the beauty and simplicity of the past, re-establishing traditional craft and craftsmanship. The Great Exhibition of 1851 also played a part in establishment of the Arts and Crafts movement. As the first ever international exhibition there was a desire for exhibitors to outdo one another in luxury and creativity, various stylistic periods were imitated and the result was perceived by some contemporaries as a vulgar expression of art. Writer, John Ruskin widely criticised the Great Exhibition believing it to be no more than ‘a greenhouse larger than had ever before been built.’ Ruskin believed that architecture and decorative arts were a reflection of society and that by reinstating traditional crafts, workers could once again take pride in their creations and exercise their creative freedom. Morris was greatly influence by Ruskin and their shared ideals informed the basis of the arts and crafts movement. Morris was not the only one, the writings of John Ruskin also informed the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, which was established by the artists William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris worked closely with Pre-Raphaelites artists and in 1861 the company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. was formed with members including Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Charles Faulkner, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, P. P. Marshall, and Philip Webb. The purpose of the company was to create and sell medieval inspired handicraft for the home, they also decorated a number of churches as the Church of England went through a spate of remodeling. The Firm exhibited in the 1862 International Exhibition attracting much attention causing their business to flourish and what had once been considered as minor household arts became the decorative arts, as a result ‘Art’ furniture grew very popular with the middle classes. However, in 1874 Morris decided to reconstruct the partnership of the company causing dispute between the friends. In 1875 Morris and Co was founded under the sole ownership of William Morris. In 1877 a retail outlet opened at 499 Oxford Street retailing furnishings and decorative arts including Morris’s own designs of textiles and hand printed wallpapers. Many of Morris’s designs incorporated naturalistic motifs, sinuous trailing vines were a common feature, so to were allegories from the Bible and literature, Celtic motifs and upside down hearts. Morris took great pride in creating objects which reflected the quality of the material it was made consequently these were often simple forms with little ornamentation.
Mr Harvey may have been inspired to create furniture based on designs by the popular Morris and Co, two chairs, believed to be produced by Harvey are stylistically similar to the ‘Sussex’ chair produced by Morris and Co from 1865 onwards. The ‘Sussex’ chair had a simple design with a rush seat and stained, turned and spindle back, it was light weight and could be used in the dining-room or bedroom. The ‘Sussex’ design was much copied by other companies so there is a good chance Mr Harvey would be familiar with the style.
After Morris death in 1896 Morris and Co was taken over by W.A.S Benson which continued to sell decorative arts products, but by the 1920’s interest in the Arts and Crafts were beginning to wane, products made by Morris and Co could not compete with the cheap prices of industrial manufactured goods and much that the company sold had never been affordable for the lower classes, something that Morris, a socialist had always regretted. Fashions were once again changing and the company continued until 1940 until it went into voluntary liquidation.
Today William Morris and the creations of Arts and Crafts artist alike are once again popular. The William Morris gallery in London now holds a large collection of Morris designs and has just re-opened after a large re-development and was winner of the 2013 ArtsFundMuseum of the Year award. See http://www.wmgallery.org.uk/ for details.
Arts and Crafts is closely linked to Art Nouveau, another artistic movement which captivated Europe from 1880-1910, running almost simultaneously with arts and crafts period. Art nouveau, French for ‘new art’, took much of its inspiration from the arts and crafts movement sharing the same beliefs in quality goods and fine craftsmanship. Nature and the female form are prevalent subjects and were applied to decorative arts, furniture and architecture. Stylistically it can be recognised by the use of organic flowing lines and sinuous curves. The materials used became more exotic moving away from the humble origins of the arts and crafts movement, pieces incorporated coloured glass, precious metals and gemstones. The Royal Arcade in Norwich city centre is a testament to the art nouveau style. Built and designed by architect George Skipper, the 247 foot long arcade boasts high ceiling, stained glass and patterned tiles, with motifs inspired by the natural world. See http://www.enjoynorwich.com/royal-arcade/ for images. It seems that Mr Harvey was also taken with Art Nouveau decoration. Many of the cabinets have art nouveau fittings, such as handles and hinges.
The most impressive is an over-mantle bookcase with large ornamental, copper hinges. The design of the bookcase is simple and almost plain but it is the hinges which really make it stand out, it exemplifies the mixture between the art nouveau and arts and crafts movement, and this is why it is my favourite piece in the Harvey collection.
Like many social history objects there is a strong connection between the item and the person that made, used or owned it. The object becomes an embodiment of the person, their life and stories. By collecting the provenance of an object (where it came from) the museum is able to tell these stories to its visitors. However, not every object in our collection has detailed provenance and in this case I had to do a bit of detective work! Inscribed on the glass panel of a book case were the names:
David William Harvey
Also the names ‘W.E. & D.W. Harvey, Thornton Heath’ are engraved on a brass plaque situated beneath the face of a long case electric wall clock. But who was May Harvey and the mysterious W.E? Well with a bit of digging and a little help from the online database ancestory.com I was able to find out!W.E refers to William Edward Harvey, the donor father and furniture maker who was born around 1869 in Saxmundham, Suffolk, England. William is registered in the 1911 census as living in Thornton Heath, Surrey and his occupation listed as telephone clerk. His spouse is May Harvey and I believe May 14th refers to her date of birth. At this time of the census the couple had two children, David William Harvey and Dorothy Winifred Harvey. Birth records show that David was born April 19th 1907, reiterating the date etched onto the glass. The names of both father and son on the wall clock may suggest that this was a joint project?*
Since the pieces are homemade they are likely to be unique and some show signs of much use, from this I would infer that the pieces had a practical use and possibly stood in the Harvey household for a number of years. The added personal touches emphasis the fact that this furniture was hand made for a purpose, adhering to the principles of the arts and crafts movement.
A few miles down the road from the superstore is the coastal town of Holt, the location of Voewood House, a sprawling mansion affectionately nicknamed the ‘Butterfly House’ as its design is architecturally akin to that of the shape of a butterfly, with a central body and wings. Voewood was built by the architect E.S Prior for Reverend Percy Lloyd around 1903-5 for a sum of £60,000! The history of the house is firmly rooted in the Arts and Crafts Movement, much of the building materials were excavated from the site it was built on and only local craftsmen were employed. Voewood is one of only three butterfly houses left in Norfolk; the latest custodian is Simon Finch, an antiquarian book dealer, who has lovingly restored the 14 bedroom house. Each room is unique and incorporates an eclectic mix of traditional arts and crafts style with contemporary art, furniture and textiles. The house is open for tours every Wednesday see http://www.voewood.com/ for more details.
* I am able to reveal personal details about the donor and his family because the data protection act only applies to personal data which relates to a living individual who can be identified.