Design: What did you do in the war, auntie?

Tanya Harrod's definitive book on British crafts highlights a generation of unsung female talent

IT WOULD be difficult to think of a subject with a more fragile and compromised identity than the crafts. When I embarked on my book on crafts in Britain this century, I described it to friends as "a sort of wide-ranging social history, a re-mapping of visual culture".

But the word "craft" would already have had its electrifyingly negative effect: "The crafts - you mean macrame and that kind of thing." Further explanations - that the book showed how the crafts were bearers of dreams and ideals, standing for, variously, English modernism, an arcadian, de- industrialised England, democracy in all the arts and post-war contacts with advanced art in Continental Europe - would fade on the air.

In the book, I chose to watch the crafts over the century, as they endlessly redefined themselves, and redefined their various practices in relation to fine art, design, modernism, education, patterns of consumption, class, politics and all sorts of currents in social and cultural history.

Craft could encompass blind ex-servicemen making nets just after the First World War at the workshops set up by the charity St Dunstan's, miners' wives in the Rhondda Valley making quilts under the aegis of the Rural Industries Bureau in the Depression, and handblock-printed textiles designed and made by Phyllis Barron for the Duke of Westminster's yacht, Flying Cloud, in the early 1920s. Any definition of craft could also take in handwork in industry and vernacular craft such as hurdle-making or basketry. After the Second World War the situation becomes more complex.

One of the most captivating themes which emerged is the relationship of the crafts to English modernism and feminism between the wars. In England, creative men and women alike subscribed to an adaptation of Continental modernism and, in terms of this English modernism, hand-block-printed textiles, highly textured weaving and austere stoneware pots belonged at the most adventurous end of the design world in the 1920s. In the area of textiles in particular, women were the pioneers and they belong to a forgotten history of modernism dominated by women.

The crafts provided an important creative space and income for women in general. The major gain in the early part of the century - the admission to the franchise - led to few other advances for women. The proportion in the professions moved very little; no higher in the 1950s than it had been in 1914. The crafts operated for women as a "third space" between the better defined activities of fine art and design.

Not surprisingly, a marked number of inter-war women makers never married. Many made their lives with other women, devotedly. They formed strong networks, with each other and with women patrons and retailers. Wealthy women like Margaret Pilkington and Dorothy Elmhirst created opportunities - in Elmhirst's case by commissioning work, and in Pilkington's case through involvement in exhibiting societies and, above all, through her creation of the Red Rose Guild of Artworkers in 1921. The main retail outlets for the inter-war craft were run by women.

But an unmarried status has consequences. It is striking how few letters and archives associated with inter-war women makers survive. The papers of figures like Michael Cardew, Eric Gill, Bernard Leach, like those of male artists, designers and architects, were carefully preserved by their wives and children. But the nieces and nephews of many women makers saw no reason to honour the memory of an eccentric deceased aunt who wove, or made pots or stained-glass windows.

All we have are fragments - like Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie and Nora Braden's more intimate letters to Bernard Leach with their records of tiffs between lovers, visits to exhibitions and battles with materials. What we can discover of the untrammelled, buoyant lives of these women - financially independent, creative, cultivated - suggests that the special freedom conferred by staying outside the convent- ionalities of marriage was central to their creativity.

Inscribed in the activities of these inter-war women modernists are stories of liberation. Take Elizabeth Peacock. She had remained a semi-invalid at home until the age of 36, when she suddenly defied her family and joined Ethel Mairet's first textile weaving workshop at Shottery in Stratford- upon-Avon in 1916.

Peacock moved with Mairet to Ditchling, and found a life-long companion in Molly Stobart, the daughter of a local landowner. By 1922 Molly's family had built them a home, "Weavers", and provided a smallholding at Clayton under the South Downs, with Peacock's brother contributing a workshop. She became quietly famous. King Faisal of Egypt bought her lengths of hand-woven cotton. Her shawls and dress lengths were bought by Elsa Schiaparelli. She was also ambitious artistically; the sequence of eight monumental banners commissioned by Dorothy Elmhirst for the utopian community at Dartington Hall, woven from 1930 until 1938, suggest her genius for abstract design on a large scale.

`The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century' (Yale, pounds 45) is printed on specially made Aberdeen silk paper, launched in Europe with this publication. An exhibition on British Crafts, 1940-1960, `The Pleasures of Peace', curated by Tanya Harrod, is at the Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, Norwich until 18 April

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