Wednesday Book: Ghosts in the machine age

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The Independent Culture



IN 1916, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society held a big show at the Royal Academy. William Morris had been dead for 20 years, and the Arts and Crafts Movement was divided over how handwork should fit into an industrial economy. The First World War, though far from over, was already stimulating idealistic thoughts of the society to which heroes should return.

The exhibition was meant to reinvigorate the crafts, to restate their alignment with humane values, to look forward. In the event, it had some success with the humane values, but mainly by looking backwards. The show had strong critics. Since then, it has been seen more as the dying breath of the Arts and Crafts Movement than as its renaissance.

Tanya Harrod questions this theory of demise. Leaving the definition of the flexible term "craft" to the many opinions of her sources, she argues that it is the ability to reinvent and redefine that has kept individuals and small workshops making ceramics, textiles, glass, jewellery and so on through this century, despite the fact that machines can do it more quickly.

She takes the 1916 exhibition as the starting-point for her thoughtful and generous survey, which ends in about 1989. It is an indirect, looping journey through and beyond modernism, with successive generations getting into similar arguments about economic viability and the human spirit, aesthetics, spontaneity, skill, the bad city, the good countryside.

A small, apt photograph accompanies the end of the first chapter. Two young men, blinded in the war, are learning to make net bags. Seated like good schoolboys, they have a look of docile bewilderment. Whatever message this image of soldier-into-reticule-maker was first intended to convey, it now speaks of painful absurdity.

In the context of this book, it serves two purposes. Straightforwardly, it illustrates how craftwork is often thought to be a suitable occupation for unfortunates. But it can also be read as a comment on the Utopian expectations placed upon handicrafts. Throughout her text, Harrod is strong on elucidating the diverse political and moral positions from which people have sought to enlist the crafts in their crusades for rosier dawns.

However, even if the justifications for craftwork have remained inconclusive, since when has lack of a good rationale stopped people from doing what they want? This bulky book makes triumphantly clear that another century of mass production has seen off neither the desire to make things by hand nor the preference for owning such things. On the contrary, vigour and creativity leap off the page - from an abstract-painted bowl by William Staite Murray (c1917), from Phyllis Barron's handblock-printed linens of the Thirties, from a 1951 Hans Coper jug, from Alexander Beleschenko's painterly use of antique blue glass for an Eighties office window.

Bernard Leach - reflective, ubiquitous, contradictory - is naturally an important player in this account, and Harrod treats him with a mixture of respect and distance. However, she chooses to focus more on the potter Michael Cardew (1901-1983), following his difficult career as she follows the difficult century, coming to find him "the exemplary maker for our time". Her account of the ambiguities of his work and position in late- colonial West Africa is particularly acute.

Also close to Harrod's heart are the women of the Twenties and the Thirties, many of them unfettered by husbands, who printed or who wove bold, modernist textiles. For example, Elizabeth Peacock's woven banners for the banqueting hall at Dartington, in Devon, were commissioned to symbolise the departments of the estate - farms, orchards, education - and interpreted in an entirely abstract manner. Peacock, an escapee from an oppressive upbringing, was herself surprised by the grandeur of what she had created.

As Harrod approaches the present, the already hard task of selection becomes harder. There is a detailed chapter investigating the crafts in connection with St Ives, the Festival of Britain and Coventry Cathedral. But, towards the end, the twists and turns of post-war arts funding, with the setting up of the Crafts Council, tend to take precedence over the work.

While neither unimportant nor uninteresting, this emphasis gives the final stages of her book a sketchier feel as to what has been happening in workshops and studios lately. But the most recent part of a survey of this sort was bound to be the most provisional. It in no way detracts from a heroic work, well researched, well written, abundantly and intelligently illustrated; altogether admirable.