Wren's City Churches
Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo
Woodcut on handmade paper
12 x 9 inches
Lent by the Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.
Catalogue Entry by Timothy R. Rodgers
Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo's title page for Wren's City Churches documents the influence of English design upon European Art Nouveau. Conceived in the same spirit as later European Art Nouveau designs, the title page exhibits complex relationships of positive and negative space, visual rhythms, and abstract forms based upon the natural growth of plants. Although scattered examples of English proto-Art Nouveau designs have. been noted in the histories of Art Nouveau, Mackmurdo's designs for furniture, wallpaper, and books produced at the Century Guild between 1882. and 1900 represent the most consistent utilization of the visual energy inherent in Art Nouveau.
Mackmurdo's earliest artistic influence was John Ruskin, who had been a major source of inspiration for both first- and second-generation Pre-Raphaelites. Mackmurdo learned the tenets of Pre-Raphaelite design from William Morris, who convinced him to establish the Century Guild, which he founded in 1882 with Selwyn Image, Herbert Home, Benjamin Creswick, Clement Heaton, George Esling, and Kellock Brown. The Hobby Horse, which became the official magazine for the guild, provided a forum for discussing the Arts and Crafts movement and publishing examples of its designs. Because work done at the guild was cooperative, one often finds disentangling individual contributions difficult. However, Mackmurdo's designs have a distinct styleÑa hybrid of Morris's Medieval Revival style and Art Nouveau
Wren's City Churches, besides being clearly signed by Mackmurdo, displays his characteristic style that further autographs this work. The illustration — nearly identical to Mackmurdo's design carved on the back of a dining room chair produced about i882 and to Thorns and Butterflies, a wallpaper conceived around 1886, depicts serpentine stalks of flowers that separate at the top of the page and coalesce into one large stalk at the bottom (Anscombe and Gere, p. 125). By contorting the stalks into unnatural, whiplashed forms, Mackmurdo fuses the white, negative space between the dark forms into active components of the picture plane. In contrast, William Morris's typical early design places a strongly defined, visually stable pattern on top of a colored background, thus emphasizing the foreground and neglecting the background. Furthermore, whereas Morris's wallpaper designs generally divide into symmetrical segments that align themselves along a vertical or horizontal axis, Mackmurdo's relate closely to the asymmetry of Japanese compositions.
Like Mackmurdo's title page for Wren's City Churches, Hunt's wood-engraved Lady of Shalott substantiates the claim for an English development of Art Nouveau. When faced with the problem of expressing visually the forces of energy and evolution, both artists relied on upsurging, sweeping forms to convey these forces. Hunt subsumed the Lady and the objects in her chamber within an overall rhythm that parallels Mackmurdo's rhythmical abstraction in the title page for Wren's City Churches.
Anscombe, Isabelle, and Charlotte Gere. Arts and Crafts in Britain and America. New York: Rizzoli, 1975.
Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and Its Contexts. Ed. George P. Landow. Providence: Brown University, 1985. 4-16. P. 129.
Created 1985; last modified 19 July 2015