Arts & Crafts: An Influence in Anglican Aesthetics

Blackwell in the English Lake District, completed in 1900 by Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott (1865 - 1945)

I would like to share with you something that has been close to my heart for much of my life, a brief and inspired artistic and aesthetic movement that lasted from about 1880 until World War I. Whether or not this movement was a direct product of Anglicanism, or simply contributed to its culture during La Belle Epoque is difficult to discern. The design of many English churches is owed to this movement as is much of the aesthetic philosophy underpinning the early liturgical movement in Anglicanism.

The main aspect of Arts & Crafts philosophy was Christian Socialism, not the present-day political ideologies that use that word, but a reaction against materialism, the excess of mechanisation and industrialisation as began in the nineteenth century. It was essentially a spiritual vision through the spirit of Christian humanism and the promotion of human dignity through humanising work and creation. Unfortunately, this movement, by and large, did not survive the Great War of 1914-18. Optimistic belief in human progress was destroyed in the trenches by the bombs, shells and bullets!

Holy Trinity, Chelsea: A Famous Arts & Crafts Church

This movement of the early twentieth century shows itself in so many different forms, not only in buildings and interior design, but also in literature and philosophy. I situate men like Nicholas Berdyaev in this movement, with his theory of the aristocracy of the spirit and the creativeness of man. Anglican priests and liturgists like Percy Dearmer fit in perfectly. The Arts and Crafts Movement was a profound criticism of the theory of progress through technology and materialism. Man would only find his creativity through spirituality and being human.

William Morris (1834-1896) is the household name of this movement. He went up to Oxford in 1852 with the intention of taking Holy Orders. His true vocation was elsewhere. I will not go into all the details of Morris’ life, as it is easily found on the Internet. His writings, as those of Ruskin, reflect the aspirations of the Ritualist slum priests almost to a tee! Man is not a tool, but God’s transfigured creation.

The Arts & Crafts movement was not simply a medievalist or romantic movement. It was resolutely modern and post-industrial. I feel in my deepest being that a movement based on this philosophy would be what is needed today as man is moving inexorably towards ever more godless totalitarian dystopias and the loss of his spiritual soul and his very humanity.

What is characteristic in the artistic and aesthetic dimension of this movement is simplicity of design and work by hand. Like Hilaire Belloc and Chesterton, this movement gave a link to the medieval artisan guilds. One may find a considerable interest in Chinese and Japanese art and their influences in the Art Nouveau. Perhaps what brought the movement to a premature end was not only the war of 1914, but also its failure to produce arts and furnishings for the people. Hand-made things are a luxury and only well-to-do people can afford them. The very purpose of industrialisation has been to mass-produce consumer goods at affordable prices. There is the irony.

Interior of Holy Trinity, Chelsea

We can see here that the movement’s best work was not consumer goods for private clients but buildings of public utility like libraries and churches. When creation was of more universal appeal, the underlying idea found its coherence and beauty. In music, there was a folk song revival at the end of the nineteenth century as composers sought their English identity. Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams were uppermost in their work in collating traditional songs and incorporating their melodies in their compositions. In passing, I mentioned Percy Dearmer. He and Vaughan Williams worked together to create the English Hymnal in 1906, bringing folk-song tunes and plainsong to take their place alongside the old favourite Anglican hymns we all love.

Few know that this movement inspired the National Trust and many associations and societies that care for rural England and ancient buildings. New towns of the early twentieth century were designed to combine the convenience of living in town with closeness to nature.

Before closing this brief article, I would like to outline the influence of the Arts & Crafts movement in the Church. What Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869–1944) and Sir John Ninian Comper (1864-1960) were for architecture, Fr. Percy Dearmer (1867–1936) was for English church furnishings and the liturgy.

Some specialists in Victorian and Edwardian neo-medieval architecture denigrate Dearmer and the Wareham Guild, but the key to understanding this man and his work is the cultural movement in which he was situated. He was not a “medieval purist”, but a man of his time. He emphasised art and beauty in worship. In the Parson's Handbook, his goal was to help in "remedying the lamentable confusion, lawlessness, and vulgarity which are conspicuous in the Church at this time". Perhaps he was aiming his invective against baroque altars that symbolised Anglo-Papalism. Here is an introductory note on the English altar written by Dearmer followed by illustrations of altars produced by the Wareham Guild or others working to similar standards. I would see this as a part of the Anglican patrimony some of us would like to import into the future Ordinariates, though our own hard work and a Christian humanist vision of the future.

There is something very appealing in the "noble simplicity" of this movement, reflected in the teaching on the liturgy and recommendations for reform in Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II. There is a certain collusion between the liturgical ideals I have tried to convey for discussion and consideration and the influence of this movement a hundred years ago. History tends to go around in circles, and human evolution, progress, civilisation – or whatever you want to call it – is not linear. It develops ideas and cultures, and when something else comes along, it is inspired by an older idea. I think particularly of the transition between the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. We also live in a series of reactions, counter reactions and transitions. Modernity has become anti-human in all its pretentions to being “secular humanist”. The culture of death cannot continue forever. There must be a new Christian humanist reaction. Perhaps it will take its inspiration in that colourful and joyful period between roughly 1890 and 1914. I would certainly hope so.

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A few links for further reading:

Author: Fr. Anthony Chadwick

Father Anthony Chadwick was born in the north of England into an Anglican family. He was educated in one of the Church of England’s most well-known schools, St. Peter’s in York, at which he was nurtured in the Anglican musical tradition. After several years studying and working in London he studied theology at university level in Switzerland, Italy and France. Still living in France, he has been a priest of the Traditional Anglican Communion (under Archbishop Hepworth) since 2005. Fr. Chadwick is charged with chaplaincy work among dispersed Anglicans in the north of France, is married and lives in Normandy. His interests outside the Church and directly religious matters include classical music, DIY and sailing. As a non-stipendiary priest, he earns his living as a technical translator.

4 thoughts on “Arts & Crafts: An Influence in Anglican Aesthetics”

  1. Bravo, father! My first parish after being ordained, St. John's in Ft. Worth, Texas, was very much an Arts and Crafts style building, despite eing built in the 50s. It was a delight in which to pray. This movement did much to humanize architecture, and Church furnishings, not to mention ordinary houses and the like.

  2. Wow! I didn't realize how Arts and Crafts my own life is. I've taken it for granted that what you highlight as a "movement" was simply my personal taste. We even live in a 1920's era (Arts and Crafts/Prairie style) American Foursquare. Thank you for the intro.

  3. Dear and Reverend Father:

    GREAT piece, indeed! The A&C and allied movements are very much a part of that Anglican patrimony that the Pope is anxious to reclaime. There were/are many cognate movements in Continental and Latin American Catholicism, but what there was of it in English-speaking Catholic circles came mainly from converts and their friends. Welcome home!

  4. This is a fantastic article! As both a Christian and graduate architect (not yet licensed) I'm disappointed that I didn't find it earlier. In the middle of my undergraduate architecture education, I realized that I was in no way drawn to the prevailing architectural tastes, which basically are rooted in modernism with some influence from deconstructivism, post-modernism, computer programming language, etc. Though I applaud many of the current efforts in architecture to make buildings and cities more sustainable, the aesthetic through which this is filtered is absolutely tied to a love of technology and the "spirit of the age." I found that I was a misfit. Luckily, I went to a small Christian college where some of the design studios taught the languages of traditional architecture (I say luckily, because there are only about 4 architecture schools in the US (most of them Christian in one form or another) that teach students to design anything other than what the zeitgeist demands. I love both the ideology and the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts movement, and do, as you suggest, attempt to carry it forward in my work in architecture. I find that the appreciation of creation, the encouragement of meaningful labor, the striving towards things that last, physically, aesthetically, and spiritually, and a desire to serve others (especially the needy) are all in line with my goals and aspirations as a Christian. I am glad to have found a kindred spirit!

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