This review originally appeared in the April 1987 American Historical Review.
Like John Ruskin and William Morris, C. R. Ashbee demands a biographer with a wide range of interests, sympathy, and expertise. He has found one in Alan Crawford, who has written an exemplary critical biography of this major figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. Ashbee offers much "of interest to the historian of architecture and of design, of social reform, technical education, homosexuality, conservation, the folksong revival, University Extension, 'Back to the Land,' pacifism, town planning, Jerusalem under the British Mandate and America seen through British eyes" (p. 427), and he also has much to offer to students of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold and to all those concerned with the influence and afterlife of high Victorianism.
Crawford's critical biography divides into three sections, the first of which contains eight chapters tracing Ashbee's life. The six chapters of the following section treat in turn his contributions to design, architecture, furniture and interior decoration, metalwork, jewelry and fine printing. The final section's two chapters sum up his reputation and influence. Valuable appendixes list Ashbee's writings and architectural projects, items printed at his Essex House Press, and public collections containing his work. This lavishly illustrated volume exemplifies the fine design and production standards that characterize Yale's London-based publications on British art.'
One of the greatest strengths of this well-written biography lies in its skillful use of manuscript materials, and another lies in its many thumbnail portraits and background sketches. Whether relating him to Carlyle and Ruskin, life at Cambridge, late Victorian homosexuality, typography, design in America, or any number of other topics crucial to an understanding of Ashbee's career, Crawford's incisive, well-informed prose provides background needed to understand Ashbee's life in its many contexts. He sympathizes with his subject, and the chapters that gracefully blend biography with cultural and political history have an energy and a satisfying fullness not present in the drier, more summary chapters on Ashbee's contributions to individual arts—perhaps because these contributions are not as impressive as the man himself.'
Although he wrote a number of books, he was not a great writer as were Morris and Ruskin, and, although he designed and built some influential structures, he never produced the quantity of buildings of those with larger reputations. Nonetheless, his extraordinary range of interests and activities does not seem to have limited his achievements in any one particular art or enterprise, and, as Crawford shows, Ashbee repeatedly picked up and then dropped various interests after carrying them as far as he could. The financial failure of Ashbee and his Guild of Handicraft when equally dedicated rivals were prospering seems particularly significant. Crawford relates his bitterness at the success of Liberty and othe.r firms, which supposedly cluttered the market with inferior, imitative work. But was the work of Ashbee and his Guild of Handicraft much superior? Looking at Adrian J. Tilbrook's and Gordon House's Designs of Archibald Knox for Liberty Co. (1976), I was struck by the sheer range, abundance, and quality of Knox's work. In other words, the market may have acted justly. Certainly, Ashbee's fate as a jewelry designer parallels that as a town planner, furniture designer, social reformer, typographer, and architectural preservationist: he made major contributions, inspired others, and left his mark on America and Europe, but this honorable heir of Ruskin and Morris who cared about the conditions of labor neither dominated, nor achieved greatness in, any single field.
Crawford, Alan. C. R. Ashbee; Architect, Designer, and Romantic Socialist. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1985. Pp. 499. $45.00.
Last modified 29 July 2012