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