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Saturday, 5 September 2009

Arts and Crafts

I have been today in Kelmscott Manor, near Faringdon, Oxfordshire, where William Morris and his family lived. A few days ago, we were in Rodmarton Manor, near Cirencester which is full of arts and craft furniture. Two weeks ago we went to the Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallary, where there is an arts and crafts gallery stuffed full of arts and crafts furniture, printing and craft items. Last year was the opening of Court Barn arts and craft museum in Chipping Campden. What has all this got to do with 1930-1960?

Superficially, Rodmarton was the home of 85 evacuees who were taken out of London by train on 2nd September 1939. We have been reminded of the significance of 3rd September as the outbreak of the war. Why ship so many children out the day before? It was carefully planned, one of the many things with a plan waiting to be activated. The authorities clearly believed that the outbreak of war would be similarly planned in Berlin and a blitzkreig similar to the invasion of Poland would take place. Calculations were made of the casualty figures on day one of the war, and it was clear that the hospitals could not cope. So getting the children out would help reduce the casualty rate and coincidentally keep the population strong. Men capable of being in the armed forces were already mobilising and moving out of the danger areas. Rodmarton, and Lacock Abbey, were amongst Wiltshire large houses to receive classes of children. In both the children from Central London were said to have behaved impeccably and benefited greatly from the experience.
William Morris's philosophy was that everything should be useful and beautiful. Arts and Crafts meant hand-made. The war demanded conveyor belt simplicity. The Spitfire was functional yet beautiful - beauty was in form and not in decorations, an arts and craft standard. The 1920s and 30s had seen the rise of brutalism - functionality without beauty. War buildings had to be plain, easily produced, functional. The debate about whether there is any sense of beauty in these has been long and hard. The air ministry buildings at St John's, Worcester that I have discussed before, have a dignity beyond their facial beauty - a deep beauty, in fact. In the arts & crafts movement, beauty was added to function by decoration. This is a superficiality. Deep beauty exists in form and execution, a marriage perhaps of arts & crafts and brutalism. But form, execution and decoration can also be crass and tacky. Examples are up and down the high street.

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