Architecture & Design: A craftsman returns to his manor

The man who took art (and football) into Whitechapel is back, in a new exhibition. By Rosemary Hill

WHITECHAPEL IN the 1880s was a place of horror. The Jack the Ripper murders were only the most terrible manifestations of depravity in a part of London whose violence and poverty haunted the middle classes like a recurring nightmare. Fear of unrest, and the promptings of conscience, sent young men from the universities into the East End to try to improve matters. One of them was a 25-year-old architect, Charles Robert Ashbee. In the summer of 1888, in the midst of the streets where the Ripper murders took place later that year, he set up his Guild of Handicraft.

Ashbee was a socialist and an idealist, but not a naive one. He had been living in Whitechapel for two years, at Toynbee Hall, the first of the university settlements. He had also been impressed by William Morris's remark that if the Revolution actually came, then all the socialists would be hung the next day - for they were promising people more than they could give them.

Ashbee's idea was to give the members of his guild something tangible - work, education and entertainment. There was an art school attached to the guild - where the young Roger Fry taught - and there was even a football team.

At first there were just four craftsmen. At its peak, the Guild had 40 - most of them local men - who learned to make furniture, metalwork, jewellery, wrought-iron and printed books. Ashbee's designs were poised between the refined tail-end of the Gothic Revival and the first stirrings of art nouveau.

Today it is the metalwork that is best-known and most collected - delicate mustard pots on arching legs, like insects by Aubrey Beardsley; bowls with swooping handles and surfaces lit with points of colour in enamel and semi-precious stones. The furniture, too, though scarcer, was of international importance. At the eighth Viennese Secessionist exhibition in 1900, the centrepiece was a cabinet made by the guild.

Vienna was a long way from Whitechapel. So, for that matter was the West End of London, where the guild established a shop. Yet it is from there, from the point of view of the patrons and collectors and of Ashbee himself, that the story of the Guild of Handicraft has usually been told.

Of the craftsmen, the effect of Ashbee's intervention in their lives and on the life of Whitechapel and nearby Mile End, where the guild moved in 1891, much less has been said. Now the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch is bringing Ashbee back to the East End, in the first London exhibition devoted to the work of the Guild.

The show has been organised by Alan Crawford, Ashbee's biographer, who welcomes the chance to look at his subject from a new angle. The Guild, he concludes, gained as much from the East End as it gave. Indeed when it moved, in 1903, to Gloucestershire it lost direction and closed six years later. The city was the ideal place to nurture the Arts and Crafts Movement's mix of Radicalism, reaction and practical socialism.

Ashbee, like Morris, was the son of a successful entrepreneur and a child of the London suburbs. He was a ruralist for whom the country represented an ideal, but the world he understood was the city. The crafts he wanted to revive were urban. In fact, they were the luxury trades in which London had always excelled and which had, in varying degrees, survived the Industrial Revolution. When Ashbee set up shop, there were still dozens of small furniture manufacturers trading in Whitechapel.

It was on to those existing roots that Ashbee grafted his own ideas of craft practice and socialism. Opposed to the division of labour, he made sure the men and boys who came to the school were trained in all aspects of their craft. He brought the trades together, encouraging metalsmiths to work with cabinet-makers in a way that was traditionally unknown. The Arts and Crafts philosophy of the workshop was of a place in which work should be satisfying, and where bridges could be built between social classes through practical co-operation. The football and amateur theatricals, in which Ashbee took enthusiastic part, were another way of integrating work into a whole, fulfilling way of life.

For 14 years the Guild succeeded, though its finances balanced on a knife- edge. Public concern about East London, and the presence of the university missions, created a climate in which such a hybrid could flourish. Art exhibitions were being organised nearby in what would become the Whitechapel Gallery. Potential customers who recoiled from the fashion for "slumming" were nevertheless curious about the East End, and would come to see the workshops and buy from them. It was, as Crawford says, between those two currents of thought, the Arts and Crafts Movement and social philanthropy, that the Guild found its "momentum and reality". In the Cotswolds, where the education of working men was regarded with hostility, it foundered.

The craftsmen, too, were out of place. Ashbee talked of taking them "home", but they were Londoners. Their lives are scantly documented, but Crawford's researches show that, for most, the experience of the Guild was critical - for better and, occasionally, worse. At least two went on to teach their crafts in jobs to which, without the Guild, they could not have aspired. Others could not find their way alone when it failed.

The Guild's departure from London did not, however, mark the end of its influence there. Ashbee had set up a watch committee to save buildings under threat, a project that became the continuing Survey of London. When, in 1912, a new use was needed for the 18th-century Geffrye Almshouses, it was Arts and Crafts petitioners who won the argument for turning it into a museum of English furniture and interiors.

Now, newly extended and with admission still free, the Geffrye is the ideal place to celebrate the ideals of Ashbee's years in the East End.

`C R Ashbee in East London' is at the Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, London E2 (0171-739 9893) until 21 March 1999, Tues-Sat, 10-5; Sunday, 2-5. Admission free

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence