Felicity Ashbee: Memoirist of the Arts and Crafts era
Saturday 09 August 2008
Felicity Ashbee, daughter of the designer and artist C.R. Ashbee, was probably the last close link with the inner circle of extraordinary creative talents fostered or inspired by William Morris. Though long studied by academics and biographers, the Arts and Crafts movement is now as remote intellectually as it is distant in time. Felicity Ashbee's death, in her 96th year, marks its formal, and final, passing.
Arts and Crafts, at its most influential in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, aimed to establish a more just and meaningful society – in part through the rediscovery of traditional craftsmanship and design. Its declared enemy was mass production and the worldwide onslaught of industry that it spawned, and its proponents sought to free the human spirit from mechanised drudgery by championing the cause of personally rewarding, creative work.
Naturally, the Arts and Crafts landscape – laid out on the principles of freedom of expression and the sanctity of the artistic mind – was peopled by some extraordinary characters. Romantics, socialists, romantic socialists, free spirits and bohemian gadflies of every shade abounded, but at its heart the Arts and Crafts sentiment was deadly earnest: there was a better world to be made. And it would be hand-made.
Felicity Ashbee, born in 1913, at Broad Campden, in the Cotswolds, was one of the four children produced by the curious yet enduring marriage of Charles Robert Ashbee and Janet Forbes. Forbes was the formidable and unconventional daughter of a London stockbroker. C.R. Ashbee was a designer, craftsman, entrepreneur, architect, associate of Morris, and all-round Arts and Crafts guru. To many, he was, and is, the most accomplished exponent of the movement's creative ideals.
He was homosexual, a fact whose implications probably became only fully evident to Janet once they were wed in 1898. He had revealed his homosexuality to her soon after she accepted his proposal. Undaunted, she went on to marry him, but children came only after 13 years together and one serious affair on Janet's part. "CRA", as he was known to family, had wanted only a son, and that with some reluctance. Janet obligingly produced four daughters – Mary, Helen, Prue and Felicity – all of them inclined to art and music.
In 1902, C.R. Ashbee had relocated his entire Guild of Handicraft workshops, including dozens of jewellers, metalworkers and other fine-craftsmen, from the East End of London to Chipping Campden, in Gloucestershire. His attempt to create an Arts and Crafts Eden was extremely brave, and commercially doomed. The Guild soon ran out of cash as tastes moved away from the Arts and Crafts style, and it was wound up in 1907. However, the idyllic life in the pre-First World War Cotswolds was hard to renounce, and the Ashbees, and many of their craftsmen, continued to live in and around Chipping Campden.
In 1918 C.R. Ashbee was appointed civic adviser to the British Mandate government of Palestine, overseeing building works and the protection of historic sites and monuments. He summoned his family to live with him in Jerusalem, and for four and a half years Felicity and her sisters took full advantage of what amounted to one of the most ancient and vast playgrounds a child could wish for. She wrote of this period in depth, and from the distance of nine decades, in Child in Jerusalem, which was published earlier this year.
Felicity Ashbee recalled her time in Jerusalem, and her relationship with her father, in an interview last year for Cornerstone architecture magazine, published by the William Morris creation the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, of which her father was a keen supporter. "My father didn't talk about William Morris and those people much," she said.
Really he was into Palestinian things, and Jersusalem, during my childhood. That whole world he found, the Jerusalem world, was a total change from his previous life. I think he fell in a big way for the beautiful Arab young men – but I don't mean physically.
" 'Affectionate' is not a word I would use about my parents' way with each other," she reflected. "Sex wasn't one of my father's bigger concerns or feelings. Intellectually though, yes, they were a good partnership."
By 1923 the Ashbees were back in England, with Felicity installed, unhappily, at school in Kent. She studied at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London in the late 1920s and set out on a career as an art teacher and graphic designer. A highly accomplished all-round artist, Felicity Ashbee excelled in wood engraving and textile design. In the 1930s, she joined the Communist Party and, determined to help the anti-Franco struggle in Spain, created a striking series of posters to raise funds for famine relief.
Ashbee wanted to go to Spain and join the Republican forces but, by early 1939, it was clear that the war was lost. Instead, she joined the WAAF to fight another of Europe's Fascist dictators. Posted to Bletchley Park, the famous wartime hothouse for codebreakers, Ashbee found that her Communist background was hampering her promotion within the Intelligence Corps.
Decades later, she recalled one episode when she was summoned to a grilling from senior officers about her political beliefs. "I managed to 'escape' from Bletchley," she recalled. "It wasn't a place you wanted to be. . . They said that I could leave RAF Intelligence, but I told them I didn't want to, as I'd joined up because I believed in anything I could do against Hitler!"
Ashbee did manage to score one historic success while at Bletchley. Working late one night in the operations room, tracking enemy aircraft, she noticed and reported a lone enemy aircraft heading for Scotland. It was the first "sighting" of the bizarre flight of Rudolf Hess, the Führer's deputy, to Britain.
After the war Ashbee resumed her artistic career, taught at girls' schools in Hertfordshire and London, and nurtured a long-standing fascination with Russia that stretched back to childhood tales of a branch of the family, the Carricks, who had settled there in the 19th century. Felicity Ashbee amassed a huge collection of photographs of Russia, some of the earliest taken by William Carrick in the mid 19th century.
By the 1950s, living in a small flat on the Edgware Road, west London, Ashbee was working as a book illustrator, portraitist and textile designer. Trips to Aunt 'Licity's flat became a treat for her nephews and nieces. "The ever-so-slightly bohemian atmosphere of the flat with its comfy furniture, walls covered with Greek paintings, and the ever-burning joss-stick, was intoxicating," recalled one nephew, Richard Ames-Lewis:
Through the curtains came the glow of the huge neon adverisement hoarding across the road advertising Wills Gold Flake, the tobacco. The letters frequently failed to light. Sometimes it would say Old Lake; sometimes Od Lak. Sometimes, to [Felicity's] special delight, it would say God Fake.
After retirement, Ashbee continued to take an active interest in the issues that had coloured her youth – peace, freedom of expression, creativity – and in 2002 her acclaimed memoir, Janet Ashbee: love, marriage and the Arts and Crafts movement, was published.
Jane Felicity Ashbee, artist, designer, writer and teacher: born Broad Campden, Gloucestershire 22 February 1913; died London 26 July 2008.
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