Design: Dreamtime in Dieppe

The centenary of a Lutyens house in France is the subject of a new exhibition by members of the Art Workers Guild.
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The Independent Culture
In the opening sequence of the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, Margaret Dumont as the rich widow; Mrs Claypoole, asks Groucho (Otis B. Driftwood) why he is dining in a restaurant with another woman. "I'm dining with her because she reminds me of you", he replies. "And now I'll dine with you because you remind me of you." One of the fascinations of going abroad is to find something that reminds you of home, because out of context, the resemblance is much stronger. For a number of years, English visitors to Dieppe have taken a particular pleasure in the house and garden of Le Bois des Moutiers at Varengeville, designed in 1898 by Sir Edwin Lutyens for M. & Mme Guillaume Mallet, Anglophile members of a French Protestant banking family whose descendants still own the house and open the Gertrude Jekyll gardens to the public. Sloping down to the English Channel, it could almost be Eastbourne, but it is all the more typically English for being in France.

To celebrate the centenary of Le Bois des Moutiers, Peyton Skipwith, a director of the Fine Art Society in London's New Bond Street who is currently Master of the Art Workers Guild, has organised an exhibition of work by current members of the Guild, taking the house and its garden as the subject. There are paintings, prints, stained and engraved glass and sculpture, and "The Dreaming House", a new short story by Jeanette Winterson illustrated by Ian Beck, published in a limited edition by Ulysses Bookshop. Also on show at the Guild is new furniture by the Edward Barnsley Workshop, Hampshire. A Guild member for 53 years, Barnsley was the second generation of his family to make furniture by hand and opened his workshop 75 years ago.

The Art Workers Guild is a dozen or so years older than La Bois des Moutiers. It was founded, mostly by architects, to provide a meeting place for practitioners in the arts and crafts, to encourage collaborative projects and address the issues of the day. It still serves these functions for its members. When Lutyens first went to a Guild meeting as a guest around 1892, he recalled that "then, no one knew me and those few that did patronised or snubbed me," but he joined later and admired the freedom to argue passionately and "the way those fellows lay into each other". He was Master in 1935, in succession to William Morris, W. R. Lethaby and C. F. A. Voysey (two of whose designs have been newly made by the Barnsley Workshop). Gertrude Jekyll could not join as women were not admitted as members until 1966, since when many of the annually-appointed Masters have been women. In the hall of the Guild, a large Edwardian room at the back of a Queen Anne terrace house, busts and portraits of these worthies crowd the vermilion walls, looking down on rush-seated chairs.

The Guild has provided camaraderie, instruction and debate once a fortnight for its members, but deliberately avoided public exposure. At the beginning, it was radical in its challenge to academicism, but was overtaken by a more forceful current of change flowing from across the Channel. By standing its ground, based on truth to materials and the virtue of applied art, the Guild came to be seen as conservative. By the 1970s, a younger generation of members began to value the Guild as an island of surviving craft skills and traditional design in the sea of modernism, its colourful characters pursuing eccentric enthusiasms with little thought of self-advancement. The Arts Council Lutyens exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1981 was recognised as a polemical statement of the anti-modernist values associated with the Guild, with Lutyens and his witty, paradoxical architecture as the perfect foundation for all English post-modernism.

The independent freelance craftsman or designer, an oddity in late Victorian England, is nowadays the normal representative of his or her profession. The Guild provides a social focus and theatre of interaction for around 300 such people and includes a wide variety of tastes and attitudes, still united in their challenge to the high art/ applied art divide which has, if anything, become even more firmly institutionalised since the 1880s. If it all sounds worthy but dull, a glance towards the end of the frieze recording members' names since 1884 reveals Lucinda Lambton and Peter Blake. In 1934, Lutyens proposed Walt Disney as an Honorary member. Ian Beck, one of Britain's best-known children's illustrators, will be Master in 1999, and is also known to Guild members as a skilled cabaret performer with the painter-illustrator and Guild past-master Glynn Boyd Harte. Feeling the outside climate less hostile, the Guild is cautiously opening itself up to public view, with occasional exhibitions of members' work and its involvement, for the second year running, in London Open House weekend, on 20 September. It offers a fascinating view of the Valhalla of the Arts and Crafts movement in a Bloomsbury backwater.

Le Bois des Moutiers Centenary and Edward Barnsley Workshop 75th anniversary exhibitions at The Art Workers Guild, 6 Queen Square, London WCI, Friday- Saturday 11-12 September, 10-6; Sunday 13 September 2-6. The Hall and Committee Room of the Guild will open on Sunday 20 September 10-5