The Arts & Crafts movement in England emerged as a strong reaction against the worsening effects of mechanization felt early in the 19th century. With the growing lament over industrialization in academic circles, a collective and persistent search began for ideals and models in medievalism and Renaissance art and lifestyle. The writings of John Ruskin formed the basis of the movement and were read by William Morris and widely circulated in Working Men’s College in existence since 1851. The demoralizing display of machine-made, showy, and tasteless goods at the Great Exhibition of 1851 strengthened the cause and from the undercurrent of academic revolt, evolved a set of principles for a renewal of crafts. Morris and his associates determined to bring more personal fulfillment and freedom of expression to the individual artist- craftsmen, attributed the decline in artistic design to a ‘social sickness’ and saw their way to an idealistic social and moral reform primarily through a therapeutic revival of the arts and crafts. Metalwork and jewelry were the most appropriate to the whole Arts & Crafts movement and certainly had the best chance of achieving its ideals.
The application of their principles to jewelry demanded that all jewels be handmade, that craftsmen were to play the multiple role of designing, making and decorating the jewels and this in reality was not practical, nor was it possible to revive a Renaissance man in a different age. The amateur could rarely acquire the complex expertise so expected from him and the handmade pieces were more expensive than the machine made items and appealed only to a limited elite group educated to understand the new aesthetic approach. Ironically, designs, which succeeded in reaching people, were those adapted for the machine, produced cheaply and in large quantities, but professionally finished. This was most successfully accomplished by Liberty & Co who held the total rejection of machine responsible for limiting the spread of art and ideals the Movement had hoped for. The formation of English guilds and art schools during the 1880′s was an important part of the artistic movement. Guilds were set up to create handmade goods.
John Ruskin established the first cooperative Guild of St. George in 1871, a trial that paved the way for others to follow. The most important guild for jewel design was the Guild of Handicrafts, founded by C.R, Ashbee in 1888, with three members and a capital of 50 Pounds! Birmingham was also an important center of Arts & Crafts jewelry. The Birmingham Guild of Handicraft was founded in 1890, involving many of the leading metalworkers. From this, it is clear that jewelry played an important part in the general output of the movement. Jewelers in the Art and Crafts movement rarely signed their work, but gradually styles of particular makers came to be recognized, primarily those of Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942) who was a self-taught silversmith and jeweler. Having established his Guild and School of Handicraft in the East End of London, he later moved the Guild workshops to Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire, as working in a country village was more in line with Arts & Crafts ideals. Ashbee made good use of turquoise enamels, a kind of peacock blue and had great interest in peacock motifs. Edgar Simpson and Fred Partridge often followed closely Ashbee’s interests and Partridge’s work particularly in horn shows an unusual influence by French Art Nouveau. Ashbee is considered particularly important in the history of Arts & Crafts movement and for his contributions to the development of Art Nouveau jewelry design and to later modern movements in Europe. He used the peacock motif to good effect, setting the feathers with mother-of-pearl, opals or moonstones and his use of sensual, organic interpretation and of insects heralded the onset of Art Nouveau themes.
Arts & Crafts Forms of Jewelry
Ruskin’s basic theories stipulated that materials should not be tampered with and should be used as nearly as possible in their natural state. Materials were never chosen for their intrinsic value, but for colors, finish and texture, and there was a conscious effort to create beauty from the least glamorous materials. The designer and jeweler J.C. Cooper used 15ct gold simply because he liked its color. Stones were rarely faceted but were used as cabochons, and diamonds were completely shunned. Turquoises were particularly favored, especially when they were veined with brown matrix; the satin finish of mother-of-pearl was popular and little Baroque or river pearls often used as drops on pendants. Claw-settings were rarely used and the plain collet setting was the preferred. Silver was far more widely used than gold and was often hand beaten or hammered or chased into tiny leaves, flowers or coils of wire.
Arts & Crafts jewels were always handmade, with joints secured by wound wire, or flaps of metal. Pendants and necklaces were the most popular items, often seen with loops and festoons of chain. Waist buckles and cloak clasps were made as they suited the concept of introducing art to a more functional object. The revival of enameling, a Renaissance phenomenon, was a major feature of Arts and Crafts jewelry. The handmade product was in this case often better and more artistic than commercially produced enamels and Charles Fleetwood Varley painted beautiful landscape enamels, usually mounted by Liberty & Co. as box lids and occasionally as jewels. He was one of a family of Victorian painters and created land and seascapes of murky and misty atmospheric scenes of deep colors and hazy light.