[In preparing the following text for reading on the web, I have tried to place images of Mackmurdo's work as close as possible to theeir location in the orginal article in The Studio, where they are much larger (from 4 to 6 inches). I have also indicated page breaks of the printed text in the following manner: [183/184]. Clicking on thumbnail images will produce larger pictures. — George P. Landow]
WHEN an artist has any conspicuous individuality an examination of his mature work naturally sets one wondering how, of all possible alternatives, it came to be fashioned just such as it is and no otherwise. Nor does it often happen but that the particular qualities in question may be accounted for by the influences that were brought to bear upon the man at the outset, the malleable period of his career.
In the case of Mr. Arthur Mackmurdo, however, this cannot be premised. For so entirely has he emancipated himself from the toils of prim Neo-Gothic artificiality, that no one would suspect him to have received his early training in the office of a correct Anglican ecclesiastical architect. Yet such was the fact. And Mr. Mackmurdo gratefully acknowledges the value of the example of methodical thoroughness set him by Mr. James Brooks, who made it his practice not to leave the preparation of drawings to clerks and underlings, [183/184] but conscientiously drew up and finished his plans with his own hands. Mr. Mackmurdo, reversing the usual order of events, next went up to Oxford, and it is from that time, when he had the privilege of knowing John Ruskin, that he dates the most powerful impulse of his life as an artist. Ruskin's advice to the young student was to undertake a systematic study of Gothic cathedrals, whereby, be it observed, both professor and disciple understood not the fifteenth century perfection of building in which all previous traditional development culminated, but rather the crude and tentative forms of the thirteenth century. Accordingly Mr. Mackmurdo set about making elaborate measured drawings of Wells Cathedral, and, these studies completed, followed them up by a similar treatment of some half-dozen cathedrals in France. As yet everything he bad done was done in strict accord with the precepts of Ruskin; but in the pursuit of his researches Mr. Mackmurdo's steps were tending further and further southwards, until at last he found himself in Italy. The Rubicon (to speak metaphorically at least) was now crossed. To his eyes, who had hitherto been reared in the straitest school of primitive Gothic, Florence was nothing less than a revelation; and Mr. Mackmurdo promptly succumbed to the spell of the Renaissance. With all a neophyte's enthusiasm he determined to assimilate as much as he might of the spirit of his new surroundings. He obtained the fullest facilities for sketching, taking measurements and even casts of practically anything he wanted in the Duomo and other public places in Florence. To such effectual purpose did Mr. Mackmurdo avail himself of the opportunities afforded him that he brought away a considerable collection of models and drawings, not of purely architectural work only, but also of furniture, textile patterns, and other ornamental details. Moreover, he acquired a number of original specimens of ancient workmanship, particularly of embroideries and woven fabrics. Such objects — laws designed for the safeguarding of national monuments notwithstanding — were then and are still to be obtained much more easily than they ought to be, owing to the indifference of ecclesiastics, who, alas! set so little store by antiquity as to be notoriously open to barter the inestimable heirlooms of their churches for novel abominations in the way of tinsel finery. Such wholesale and reckless looting of church property indeed is carried on, and that by the very men who should be most jealous guardians of the same, that the available reserve of sacred treasures perceptibly diminishes year by year, and, unless more drastic measures than heretofore are enforced, not in Italy alone but nearer home too, the time will very quickly arrive when there will be nothing left worth the trouble of either keeping or carrying away.
Left: Emboidered Screen. Right: Bronze Mantelpiece.
Another instance of official carelessness to which Mr. Mackmurdo took exception was that whereas, on occasions when the Arno rises to the extent of endangering the bazaar stalls with which (like the Rialto at Venice and the quays of the Seine in Paris) Ponte Vecchio is lined, the cheap paltry wares displayed for sale there are. all removed to a place of safety, on the other hand the priceless Uffizzi drawings by old masters were allowed to remain in their places where they hung on the walls, and to take their chance of being destroyed by inundation. Happily, however, this abuse has since been remedied. [184/185]
Lest a too exclusive study of the art of the past should exert a crystallising effect on his genius, needs must that whoso is alive should not neglect that which is living at the same time. Mr. Mackmurdo, then, in addition to his other work, entered himself as an art student, and attended a life class, so as to gain a greater mastery of the human figure in design. Thus he occupied himself for a period which extended over two winters with the intervening months. The date was about the year 1876. How much longer he might have remained in Florence it is impossible to say. His stay, as it happened, came somewhat abruptly to an end. It befell in this wise. The authorities in charge of the Duomo, infected by the "restoration "mania, formed the fatal project of renovating the building, beginning with the marble walls of the exterior. Now the action of time and weather has had the result not only of imparting a most beautiful and delicate tone, turning the white parts to pearl or cream colour, the black to lustrous green or bronze, but, further, has encrusted the whole surface with a kind of natural oxidation, than which there is no , surer protection against future decay. However, the wiseacres of modern mood, impatient of history, purposed to obliterate all traces of age, and to give back to the venerable walls that sharp contrast of black and white which they con- ceived them to have had when fresh from the hand of the original decorator. The scheme was a comprehensive one; it was not intended to stop short of Giotto's superb companile: but the cathedral was to be dealt with first. The disastrous process was actually begun of washing off the surface of the marble, both sculptured and plain alike, with acids; when Mr. Mackmurdo, failing in his appeal to the Florentines themselves, ventured to draw the attention of Signer Cavalcaselle, Minister of Fine Arts under the Italian Government, to what was being done. An official examination on the spot was made: good counsels prevailed; the evil business, which had already progressed quite far enough, was arrested. But the local authorities bore a bitter grudge against the interfering stranger within their gates; and proceeded to make matters as unpleasant as they could for Mr. Mackmurdo. All privileges and permits that had been accorded him before were peremptorily cancelled. He was not suffered even to sketch in the open streets; and therefore, find- ing his studies frustrated at every turn, he had no choice but to leave Florence; which he did with the utmost reluctance, as may be imagined, and, after visiting Siena and Orvieto on the way, returned home to England. Four years later, that is about 1880, Mr. Mackmurdo made a second journey to Italy, his stay oh that occasion being of [185/186] comparatively short duration. He visited then, among other of the northern cities, Lucca and Verona, Padua and Venice.
Chair with cut-out flower back.
Meanwhile, the impressions gathered during his residence in Florence were gradually shaping themselves towards a definite outcome. It only shows with what fearless and inexorable logic Mr. Mackmurdo had pursued the Renaissance track, upon which he first set his foot in Florence, to its "extremist issues, that, once back again in this country, he should have devoted his attention to Wren's city churches. In his volume on the subject, which, though commenced earlier, did not appear until 1881, the author singled out for special notice, as a highly characteristic feature, the strangely bizarre contrivances which Wren devised to supply the place of the steeple in Gothic churches. If a provoking cause, apart from Mr. Mackmurdo's own personal predilection, is to sought for his writing this book, it may no doubt be found in the intermittent agitation for the demolition of certain of the less frequented churches in the city of London. Now, although the late William Morris is rightly credited as the founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, since beyond question it was mainly the influence of his great name that served' to propagate the principles of the association, it is nevertheless true that the inception of some such organisation occurred previously to Mr. Mackmurdo ; and that, when the latter approached Morris on the subject at a time when some of Wren's churches were being threatened, Mr. Morris was not inclined to move until an event took place which touched him more nearly. It came to pass that there was imminent danger of the capitals of the arcading of the Ducal palace at Venice undergoing "restoration." William Morris was up in arms immediately. It was as though he had received a direct challenge. His friends and supporters rallied to his call, and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was inaugurated. It was in 1877. Thenceforward Morris had to lend his support, on principle, to defend many buildings which it is certain that he did not himself admire. But this is by the way.
Writing-table in oak.
Not the least important result of Mr. Mackmurdo's studies in Florence was that there had been forcibly brought home to him how vast a difference subsists between the artist of the present and the artist of the past. In former days there was, for all intents, no demarcation between the artist and the craftsman. Most of them were proficient in several arts; whereas, unlike them, the man who in modern times practises one branch of art rarely turns his hand to any other. Even in ordinary speech we make a distinction, as arbitrary as it is invidious, between "fine" arts, thereby indicating exclusively painting and sculpture on the one hand, and on the other hand those arts which we will call "minor," or more usually "handicrafts " and "industries." And if we deign to name him "artist" at all who [186/187] is neither a painter of pictures nor a modeller of statues, we apply the term to him with little more significance than we should do in the case of a cook or a hair-dresser. The practical result is that, being sundered and isolated, self-centred and with t out a common goal, or interests and sympathies in common, the arts one and all are grievously impaired. Mr. Mackmurdo's remedy then for their debilitated condition, his plan for infusing into them a renewed vital energy, was to emphasise the essential unity of the arts, their inter-dependence one upon another. The idea, of course, even in the present century, was no new one. The firm of Morris & Co., the very embodiment of the same principle, had been in existence already close on twenty years. But then there was something which Morris & Co. lacked. They had no authoritative mouthpiece whereby they could formulate their aims and objects, and give forth the message to the world at large. An integral part of Mr. Mackmurdo's undertaking was the appearance at regular intervals of an official organ; and so, when in 1882, together with Mr. Herbert Home, his former pupil, taken subsequently into partnership, and his friend Mr. Selwyn Image, he instituted the Century Guild, the issue of the Hobby Horse came as a due and fitting sequence.
A word about this magazine, the fair renown of which, as well as its past services in the cause of arr, are in danger of being eclipsed by later and more advanced publications. The earliest number, under the date April 1884, was, at the time of its appearance, a work quite unique of its kind. Never before had modern printing been treated as a serious art, whose province was to embrace the whole process, from the selection and spacing of the type and the position of the printed matter on the page, to the embellishment of the book with appropriate initials and other decorative ornaments. The sight of a number of the Century Guild Hobby Horse^ proving as it did what artistic possibilities the noble art of printing yet offered, even at the present day, greatly pleased William Morris and stimulated him to the enterprise of the Kelmscott Press, the brilliant achievement with which his name will always be associated. Thus much for the aesthetic qualities of the magazine. As regards the subject matter, Mr. Mackmurdo, founder of the Guild, naturally became their spokesman and. wrote the manifesto in which were set forth their aims and ideals. After the preliminary number the Hobby Horse changed hands, and it was not until the beginning of 1886 that it reappeared. From that time onward Mr. Mackmurdo contributed [187/188] now and again to its pages, but though generously financing it all the while, he elected to withdraw from the active conduct of the pub- lication, an office which his colleague, Mr. Home, having developed a remarkable literary gift, was amply qualified to fulfil. For seven years the magazine was published regularly, and, if its appearance now is fitful to the point of extinction, it is not because its promoters, having laid their hands to the plough, have given up through faint-heartedness; but rather because the land that long was fallow is now brought well under cultivation, because the work which they undertook at the beginning to do is already accomplished.
Left: Mirror. Right: Sketch for a book-plate.
From literature to the subject of music is no far-fetched transition. And it is an interesting fact, as illustrating well the extent of Mr. Mackmurdo's active sympathy with other arts beside those in which he was immediately engaged, that his house became the cradle of the movement for reviving genuine antique music accompanied by old-world instruments, and that it was in Fitzroy Street that the gifted enthusiast Mr. Dolmetsch assembled his first audience.
Though Mr. Mackmurdo was already established in his practice as an architect, it was not until after the second journey to Italy that he, in conjunction with the other members of the Century Guild, took steps to institute workshops for the execution of furniture and metal work, and also to arrange for the carrying out of their designs in other departments. Messrs. Jeffrey & Co., of Islington, undertook their paper-staining for wall-hangings, while their textile printing in cretonne and velveteens was entrusted to a firm in Manchester. In the last-named place carpets were; woven to designs of the Guild; Mr. Heaton was responsible for their cloisonné enamel work; and Mr. Rathbone (as may be seen by reference to THE STUDIO for September, 1893) superintended the production of a certain number of lamps after Mr. Mackmurdo's drawings.
Left: Iron gas bracket (i.e. lamp). Right: Embossed copper panel.
A special feature was made of decorative [188/189] painting applied to furniture, notably in the earlier specimens of the Guild work. It was done it headquarters by the several members of the century Guild contributing each his share: as also, though some objects, it is true, may be assigned to an individual owing to their particular Characteristics, others again represent the cooperation of all the members together, merging their private identity in one collective design. Such colour decoration as was adopted was subject, it should be understood, to scrupulous reserve, consisting, as it usually did, of little else han staining the wood green, with a touch of ^old here and there, or the sparing use of an occasional copper ornament by way of enrichment. An instance of painted decoration is to be seen in the chair with an elaborate fretted back (p. 186).
The latter ornament is a type of floral form which recurs not unfrequently in this artist's work. It appears again, for example, in the embroidered screen panel; and may, indeed, be recognised as the precursor of much later ornament in various materials by designers who have no avowed connection with the Century Guild whatever. There are other artists — Mr. Voysey is a case in point — who, not formally members of the Guild, have been in close communication with it for years, and have known the benefit of resorting to it for advice, encouragement, arid sympathy in their youthful days of struggle, while yet their success and fame had not been attained. The influence of the Guild has been widespread, notwithstanding they never made a bid for popularity, nor ever came at all prominently before the public, unless one excepts the occasion when, in early days, they fitted up a music room at the Inventions Exhibition.
Left: Brass Sconce. Left Middle: Brass Sconce with embossed nude figure.
Right Middle: Brass Table Lamp. Right Middle: Hanging Lamp.
To summarise Mr. Mackmurdo's design as a whole, if there is one leading quality which dominates all the rest it is that he consistently recognises proportion to be the fundamental [189/190] This theory would appear to have developed into a settled conviction with him while studying drawing from the living model at Florence. The perception thus acquired of the rhythmical grace and ordered measure of the human form, he went on to apply as the standard of perfection for all other forms, in their degree. However, the artist disclaims the credit of having apprehended so excellent a principle independently by any underived science of his own, attributing it rather to his early and constant study of such men as Wren and Stevens. Yet whether either of these reputed masters can claim to have displayed a sensitive appreciation of beauty to compare with that which inspires almost every line of Mr. Mackmurdo's is a point decidedly open to dispute. The latter has endeavoured to make this acute sense of proportion unmistakably insistent throughout ead of his designs. And next he values architectural severity of line in all structural features, whether be in metal work or in wood furniture; as is no less evident in the simple treatment of the lamp and sconces here produced, than in the standing mirror-frame, the writing-table, and the chimney piece. The table is of oak, and the artist has aimed accordingly at maintaining the sturdy character of the material in every part. The pro nounced projections, intended to give distinc contrast of light and shade and to emphasise the construction, are features in this design of year ago which have been followed by many a late designer exhibiting at the Arts and Crafts Society and elsewhere. The fireplace (p. 185), dating from as far back as 1880, is based on architectural line of extreme simplicity. It comprises, in the upper part, a hot-air chamber, the face of it, to relieve the heaviness of its solid box-like aspect, decorated with bronze panels illustrating the "Village Blacksmith." Similarly in the case of the brass sconce the copper repoussé sconce and the panel, the designer [190/191] has secured decorative effect in details without departing from the utmost simplicity of sternly architectural form. The sconce and rectangular panel in repoussé were executed by Mr. Kellock Brown, and show the kind of treatment in metal work Mr. Mackmurdo was pursuing in the early eighties.
Two textile designs by Mackmurdo.
The remarkable fact, indeed, about the artist's design is that, although the objects reproduced are, for the most part, anything but new in point of (hitr, they are yet as fresh and animate as though they had been fashioned but yesterday. And the beret is that, while paying every deference to Wren and the rest, Mr. Mackmurdo is, after all, no mere copyist or translator of the productions of past and gone generations. By diligent and conscientious research, at Florence and in other parts of Italy, he sought to go to the root of the matter, and resolve the first principles of art from the work of those who laboured at a period before that fell disease, misnamed the new birth, had had time to pollute the last drop of life-blood that survived after pulsing pure through the veins of ten centuries of organic tradition. Quickened by such sound motives, how could it prove otherwise but that Mr. Mackmurdo's design should bear the impress [191/192] of a living intelligence, and should moreover, be able to preserve that im press for many years without becoming out of date or a weariness to the eye His work, not because of any borrowed qualities nor resemblance to obsolete models, but because of its own inherent deserts, still lives and will live on, we may be sure, an abiding pleasure for generations to come, long after the brail and hand that originally conceived and shaped it shall have passed away.
Vallance, Aymer. "Mr. Arthur H. Mackmurdo and the Centrury Guild." The Studio. 16 (1899): 183-92. Illustrated p. .
Last modified 21 November 2006