C.R Ashbee's Contribution to Social, Industrial, and Aesthetic Reform

Meghan Edwards '06, English/History of Art 151, Pre-Raphaelites, Aesthetes, and Decadents, Brown University, 2004

decorated initial 'T'he study of Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942) reveals a striking challenge in distinguishing Ashbee's work and thoughts from that of the British Arts and Crafts movement as a whole. C.R. Ashbee's design work influenced the movement to such an extent that many of his ideas became synonymous with the rhetoric of the Arts and Crafts ideology. The social and moral motivations for the Arts and Crafts movement found their origins in the realization that industrial and machine-age progress did not necessarily see itself accompanied by a corresponding improvement in the quality of human life. This fear, embodied in the terrifying conditions of factory life, gave birth to an eternal campaign for social, industrial, moral, and aesthetic reform.

In the 1880s Charles Robert Ashbee was a relatively recent recruit to the cause of architecture, socialism and the crafts. He had just emerged from a conventional upper-middle-class education at Wellington and King's College, Cambridge, where he read Ruskin. In 1886 he began training to be an architect under G.F. Bodley while living at London's Toynbee Hall, the university settlement house meant to bring undergraduates into contact with the people of East End. Ashbee joined Toynbee as the only architect in resident. In the early 1880s Ashbee went to hear his friend, the socialist writer Edward Carpenter, speak to the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League at Morris's house. When he met Morris, Ashbee found himself won over by the idealism of his new colleagues. Ashbee spent the first fifteen years of his career as a designer in the East End, establishing the Essex House Press as well as the Guild and School of Handicraft founded by Ashbee in 1888. Ashbee began at Toynbee by organizing evening classes where men and boys from the slums could study the writing of John Ruskin. Encouraged by the success of his Ruskin classes, he also began to teach drawing and decoration. By way of these classes, which stimulated the students to undertake practical work and eventually became the foundation of the Guild and School of Handicraft, Ashbee gained an awareness of the realities of life for the working man. Members of the Toynbee Hall classes formed the core of his Guild, which began with four members and a working capital of only 50 pounds. Ashbee founded the Guild with the revolutionary idea that training in art and design could be conducted alongside actual production, a dramatic departure from contemporary practice. He sought to restore lost traditions associated with pre-industrial production and the bonds of comradeship that he thought humanized the workshop, and urged that silversmiths, craftsmen, and designers should work together.

The Guild's chief production and best known crafts became metalwork, silverware, and furniture. Ashbee began initial experiments with precious metals, such as a salt cellar with onyx bowl from about 1893, composed with spheres, whirling patterns, and openwork pedestal support. The guild began silverware in 1893 that marked a momentous departure from the contemporary preference for flawless finish and highly ornamented, machine-produced wares. In contrast, the Guild's metalwork featured hammer-texture finish, completed with a small, round planishing hammer, which communicated human endeavor and a personal touch. The Guild's new techniques included punched and cast beading, saw-piercing, and notable innovations such as the use of applied semi-precious cabochons, colored enamels, and extruded wire for supports, handles, and finials. Occasionally Ashbee incorporated found objects into some of his designs, such as Turkish cigarette mouthpieces of carved ivory used as knife and fork handles.

Ashbee's work incorporated simple and energetic forms that often recall medieval silverwork and naturalistic motifs characteristic of Art Nouveau. He designed simple dishes and salvers, adorned with marks of the hammer, as well as more elaborate incorporations of wirework, semi-precious stones and enamel. Some of his favorite design motifs included the peacock, the ship, sun, and tree of life. He produced a range of silverware for private as well as ecclesiastical clients, but each piece was individually conceived and executed, with the result that many were deemed works of art in their own right and often met with the approval of critics. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, Ashbee had achieved national and international fame. He exhibited in most of the Arts and Crafts Exhibitions, and often saw his work, even the family house Magpie and Stump, which he built in Cheyne Walk, London in 1895, discussed and illustrated in journals and magazines. In 1896, Ashbee completed the first of several visits to America, where he met many American designers and Architects, such as Elbert Hubbard, Charles Sumner Greene, and Frank Lloyd Wright, to whom some art historians contribute Ashbee's later change in ideology.

The Guild flourished and expanded, and in 1890, while simultaneously opening retail premises off Bond Street, it moved to Essex House, a stately mansion in Mile End. During these early years, Ashbee and his guildsmen were self-taught, learning by trial and error. Ashbee believed in mastering a craft through development of an individualistic style, which he believed should emerge from team work and shared experience. However, Ashbee still conceived of a haven from the trials of the city in a rural setting where he hoped to find a simpler life. In the summer of 1902, the Guild, comprised of some 150 men, women, and children, relocated to the medieval town of Chipping Campden, probably due to more idealistic than practical motives.

Ashbee saw the move as an opportunity to renew his educational efforts and two years later he had established the Campden School of Arts and Crafts as a counterpart to the Guild's endeavors. The Guild had eight workshops that produced everything from furniture to printed books. Aesthetic excellence was the primary goal, though members claimed that production from good fellowship came first. The school incorporated facilities for swimming, gardening, cooking, carpentry, lectures from his friends, dying crafts such as lead glazing, domestic science classes, drama -- all of which Ashbee termed "the life and duties of the citizen" (Nayden 170). However, the Guild's remote location meant that it was unable to compete for profit with the cheaper renditions of its designs, which were marketed by Liberty and Company and others. These immediate and practical problems were intensified by a contemporary preference for antiques, which Ashbee observed to be "turned out in hundreds to the hum of the latest American machinery" (Nayden 171). In 1907 the Guild found itself defeated by the cost of removal to the country and the difficulty of sending goods to London for sale. Voluntary liquidation took place in 1908, but a revised and less formal association lived on through guildsmen who continued the Guild of Handicraft under a trust until 1919.

In 1908, Ashbee remained convinced of the soundness of the ideology of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He still believed in the formation of a guild or co-operative system that could meet contemporary industrial needs without losing the individuality and freedom of personal expression that he believed essential to his work. However, only three years later his thoughts seem almost completely changed, as he openly recognized the role that industry and machinery inevitably had to play in the practice and teaching of art. By 1911, Ashbee urged that schools develop more concrete links with industry, no longer denying the machine-made object an aesthetic value. In Should We Stop Teaching Art?, he wrote:

It is often supposed that there cannot be beautiful machine products, or that the beauty of a mechanical object lies in its conformity to the standard of a hand-made piece. But experience does not bear out this supposition. In modern mechanical industry "standard" is necessary, and "standardization" is necessary. The principle in each is sound and the community needs both." [Nayden 176].

Ultimately, Ashbee found himself forced to recognize the need to reconcile the claims and perceptions of the individual with the requirements of the mass market; he saw that the Arts and Crafts ideals of truth to material and individual expression would require application to the machine-made product. Perhaps this realization was urged by the undeniable fact that the Guild witnessed a stark disconnect between their ideals and their achievements. When they idealistically abandoned the idea of practical expediency through industry, their dreamed of society couldn't help bearing little relationship to contemporary reality. As a result, the consumption of their products saw itself confined to an affluent and intelligent elite whose lifestyle departed from the simplistic yet individualistic ideology of the Guild. With the realization of this dilemma, Ashbee represents the acknowledged British concern for social, economic, and aesthetic dilemmas of design and architecture.


1. Ashbee's work triumphed individuality and the creation of a new art, a personal British aesthetic that disassociated itself from the stylistic extravagances of Art Nouveau and preferred to direct its endeavors towards a social end. He focused not only on end-products, but on the society that shaped them, designed them, made them, sold them, and bought them. In fact Ashbee had a strong contempt for Art Nouveau that inspired him to write a verse on the subject:

I'm in the fashion -- non-controversial,
And the fashion is nothing if not commercial,
Pre-Raphaelite once, with a tiny twist
Of the philosophical hedonist,
Inspired by Whistler -- next a touch
Of the 'Arts and Crafts', but not too much.
Then Impressionism, the daintiest fluke;
Then the German squirm, and the Glasgow spook,
A spice of the latest French erotic,
Anything new and Studiotic,
As long as it tells in black and white,
And however wrong comes out all right,
'Id est', as long as it pays, you know,
That's what's meant by L'Art Nouveau! [Naylor 168]

What can we make of this verse? What did Ashbee find so distasteful about Art Nouveau, and how did it clash with his conception of the ideal role of art and design?

2. The originals members of the Guild included John Pearson, John Williams, W.A. White, and William Hardiman, and the cabinet maker C.V. Adams. Ashbee met White at Toynbee Hall, where White worked as an assistant in a City bookshop. Ashbee himself defined Hardiman's equally romantic origins as deriving from his work "earning 15s a week by trundling catsmeat barrow. He came to the School of Handicraft in the evenings, and I was struck with the extraordinary fidelity and feeling with which he made a copy of the St. Cecilia of Donatello" (Naylor 168). The romanticized origins of the Guild's founding members may remind us of certain members of the PRB's affinity for adopting lower class women and fashioning themselves as their educators and benefactors (recall D.G. Rossetti's relationship with Lizzie Siddal and Janey Morris, etc.). How does this romanticizing of lower class origins play into the ideologies of each movement? Does it fulfill a parallel role for each group?

3. Ashbee wrote, "'The Arts and Crafts Movement' means standards, whether of work or life; the protection of standards, whether in the product or the producer, and it means that these things must be taken together" (Denker 7). Ashbee here expresses his desire to avert mankind's enslavement to the machine. He wanted to save the mass product and the home from mechanical dictatorship and standardization through a return to individualized workmanship. How do these goals seem nationalistic?

4. By invoking the rhetoric of a "protection of standards," Ashbee's goals seem in themselves normative -- to what extent was the Arts and Crafts movement self-contradictory or paradoxical in its proclamation of individualism as a movement? Do you think that the elite who purchased Ashbee's work did so for the authenticity and individuality of each piece, or because the work was in itself part of a trend? If they were attracted to its authenticity, what explains the success of Liberty and Company and others who sold more cheaply produced renditions of Ashbee's designs?

5. Can we see any concern similar to the Arts and Crafts preoccupation with the social purpose of design and architecture in the PRB movement? Why or why not?

6. In Modern English Silverwork, Ashbee describes how "style and character" are formed by the acquisition of technical skills, combined with an awareness of past achievements:

It is in the learning how to do things and do them well, that many fresh design motives are evolved. So it comes that when a little group of men learn to pull together in a workshop, to trust each other, to play into each other's hand, and understand each other's limitations, their combination becomes creative, and the character that they develop in themselves takes expression in the work of their fingers. Humanity and craftsmanship are essential. [Naylor 167]

Can we find the influence of John Ruskin in this passage? Do the PRB and Ashbee's Guild take the same cues from Ruskin, or do they interpret his ideas differently?

7. Ashbee wrote,

Each pupil is taught first to conceive the design, and then apply it through the help of the other classes to the different materials, the wood, the metal, the clay, the gesso, the flat surface for painting. The effort here, therefore, is not to emulate the ordinary Technical School but to follow in the lines laid down by leading artists who have the encouragement of the handicrafts at heart, in the belief that the modern cry for the education of the hand and eye can only be fully achieved in the education of the individuality in the workman. [Naylor 167]

How does Ashbee's conception of the process of design place itself in opposition to industrialization?

8. Preoccupation with furniture and decoration reflected a concern for the decorative arts that had intrigued the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates for a long time. They shared the idea that artists should involve themselves in the so-called lesser arts and along with other groups wished to attack academic exclusiveness. Several PRB artists, such as Ford Madox Brown and William Holman Hunt identified decorative design as part of a purported true artist's ambition. How did the ideology of the PRB play into the development of Ashbee's Guild of the Handicraft and the Arts and Crafts Movement in general?


Anscombe, Isabelle. Arts and Crafts Style. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1991.

Braznell, Scott W. "The Influence of C.R. Ashbee and His Guild of Handicraft on American Silver, Other Metalwork, and Jewelry" in The Substance of Style. Ed. Bert Denker. Winterthur, Delaware: The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1996. 25-45.

Crawford, Alan, C.R. Ashbee: Architect, Designer and Romantic Socialist. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Naylor, Gillian, "Ashbee and the Craft of the Machine," The Arts and Crafts Movement: a Study of Its Sources, Ideals and Influence on design theory. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1971. 166-170.

Stansky, Peter, William Morris, C.R. Ashbee, and the Arts and Crafts . London: Nine Elms Press, 1984.

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Last modified 23 November 2004