Designed for living

Andrew Lambirth finds plenty to enjoy at the V&A’s Arts and Crafts show, despite the gloom

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Andrew Lambirth finds plenty to enjoy at the V&A’s Arts and Crafts show, despite the gloom

International Arts and Crafts is the third of the V&A’s major 19th/20th century ‘lifestyle’ themed exhibitions, following on from the successes of Art Nouveau (2000) and Art Deco (2003). Both those shows were ingenious and loving tributes to their subjects, and spectacles of the highest order. Before that, in 1996, there was the justly famed celebration of William Morris. What the current show (until 24 July and sponsored by Heal’s) proves beyond doubt is the danger of establishing a pattern and expecting every cultural development to rise to the occasion and create a similar star turn in exhibition terms. Sometimes the raw material simply isn’t suitable. In the case of International Arts and Crafts, despite a luminously beautiful book that accompanies the show (V&A Publications, £40 in hardback), the actual experience of walking through the galleries is somewhat dispiriting.

It must be said that this impression is not helped by the forlorn aspect of the supposedly ‘permanent’ collection galleries through which the visitor has to pass — they’re denuded and scruffy. Where are the exhibits? What’s happened to the Pisanos and the other denizens of the sculpture court? (Surely one of the reasons why museums exist is so that a permanent collection may be readily consulted.) Why is the garden being dug up yet again? Is the V&A the only museum where they search you on the way out (not on the way in) to ensure you haven’t pocketed something from its shamefully unguarded galleries? Inevitably, these thoughts are carried into the Arts and Crafts exhibition, which is unfair. Thankfully, the first few rooms — packed as they are with period treasures — do much to dispel the prevailing gloom.

A gorgeous stained-glass window by Baillie Scott welcomes you, as if in the entrance hall. To reinforce the comparison with entering a house, there is a splendid hall chair by Mackintosh and a fine table (like the frame for a terrestrial globe) by Voysey. Nearby are a reassuring mixture of things: a rather beastly series of Cotswold scenes by Alfred Powell on a cupboard by Ernest Gimson, a lovely spun copper and cast brass Christopher Dresser teapot, and Selwyn Image’s distinctive cover for that quintessential Arts and Crafts journal, The Hobby Horse. Morris’s tapestry ‘The Forest’ hangs on an adjacent wall, and round a corner are an uncomfortable- looking Pugin armchair and Godwin’s more elegant ‘Greek’ chair. All this in the first gallery. The heart lifts.

Again, in the second room, it is individual items which catch and hold the attention: the ‘Peacock’ sconce in steel, bronze, brass and silver, with enamelled decoration for the plumage, by Alexander Fisher, and the ‘Cawdor’ candlesticks by George Walton. Voysey comes out well again, particularly from the elegant writing desk with cut metalwork pastoral scene. The ‘Apple’ textile design by Lindsay P. Butterfield is satisfying and memorable, not just because it appears on the endpapers of the V&A’s book, as is the flower-shaped copper firescreen by Benson and the ‘Cymric’ cup and cover by Archibald Knox. I revered Philip Webb’s silver-plated wooden cross (also his Whitefriars glass in a cabinet near at hand), and the rich dalmatic (worn by a church deacon) designed for the Festival of the Holy Innocents. The Beggarstaff Brothers’ magisterial collaged poster design for Don Quixote at the Lyceum Theatre looms over the exquisitely detailed bookbinding of Cobden Sanderson.

Over 300 works have been assembled, about a third of them coming from the V&A’s own extensive collections, and many of these objects are entrancing in their oddness and piquancy. The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which gave its name to the movement, was founded in 1888, and led by William Morris, with the backing of Pugin and Ruskin. (In a sense, this is a follow-up show to the 1996 Morris exhibition, intended to demonstrate how his ideas were disseminated throughout Europe, America and Japan.) A British-inspired design and decorative art movement, its values derived from the Middle Ages and from simple rural traditions as an antidote to the clutter and heavy repressiveness of Victorian taste. The hand-crafted was lauded over the industrially produced, though the movement’s thinkers realised that they couldn’t simply ignore machinery. The fact that they were able to come to terms with the machine opened up the future for them (and us), and, as the house became the focus, the total environment which enshrined the meaning of Arts and Crafts, they even anticipated the Bauhaus and Corbusier’s ‘machine for living in’.

It is this emphasis on the total environment which makes a successful show of Arts and Crafts difficult to stage, even when a team of architects as skilful as Allies and Morrison is commissioned to design the exhibition. For how do you go about it? Create a succession of rooms (or, rather, recreate a succession of actual Arts and Crafts rooms)? Not so easy, and of deceptively limited effect. It is done to a certain extent — the Voysey room near the beginning of the show is delightful because of the quality of the individual objects in it — but it remains a double-edged strategy. When the visitor arrives at the American section, the recreated ‘Craftsman’ room from 1904–7 is suddenly there to be studied in all its supposed magnificence. Yet it does not favourably impress: it’s surprisingly dark and dreary.

The twee side of Arts and Crafts, exemplified here by the Haslemere Peasant Industries founded by Godfrey Blount, should not blind one to the movement’s real innovations and achievements. The three-minute slide presentation of the great Baillie Scott house, Blackwell, makes that argument profoundly. (Not an entirely satisfactory way to show architecture, but how else?) So does the resonant pairing of Ashbee’s ‘Lovelace Escritoire’ with Baillie Scott’s ‘Manxman Piano’. Similarly, the three-minute slide show of the Finnish house Hvittrask in Kirkkonummi outside Helsinki. But the second half of the exhibition, when the movement goes international, is by and large disappointing. I liked Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Triplicate’ vase, and there are really lovely things in the Viennese section by Hoffmann and Moser, but the show is stretched too thin.

Thankfully, it ends on another uplift: the Japanese section is stunning. Just look at the wonderfully sagging ‘Full-Moon Jar’ in Korean white porcelain, and the ‘Dish’ and ‘Bottle’ by Hamada Shoji. A fascinating exhibition could be mounted dealing exclusively with the inspiration passing back and forth between Japan and Europe in this period, with figures like Christopher Dresser and Bernard Leach playing crucial intermediary roles. But this show, in seeking to be another blockbuster, manages to bypass the real point of Arts and Crafts: the ‘totally co-ordinated living environment’. Perhaps it’s just not possible to achieve through an ordinary museum exhibition. A pity.