The achievement of the Arts and Crafts movement in Melbourne, between 1888 and 1916 are not easy to enumerate. However, with a wealth of books and literature surrounding the art movement in Australia, one can easily deduce that the art movement matured in Melbourne at around this time.
According to Edquist (1999), the art and crafts movement was not as fast in establishing itself in Melbourne as it did in England. In fact, the genesis of the movement in Melbourne can be traced to England where John Ruskin had motivated it in the 19th century (Davey 1997). In 1884, the movement was formalized and renamed the Art Workers guild, and four years later, the movement changed its name to the Arts and Crafts Exhibition society. The former was done as a dedication to the practice and ideals of one of Ruskin’s students, William Morris.
Before 1888 however, the ground work for art in Melbourne had been prepared by the likes of G.M. Addison and Henry Kemp. The two were architects who believed that architecture in the region would be improved through aesthetic reforms. The two architects had preached the reforms despite the fact that there was almost a non-existence training system where the architects could derive their skills and expertise (Edquist 1999).
In 1888, one of the main contributors of the arts and craft movement in Melbourne arrived in the region. His name was Walter Butler and he had strong credentials in art and craft having trained with J.D. Sedding. He was also well familiar with the people working with William Morris among them W. Lethaby. One of Butler’s biggest contributions in art and craft in Melbourne was his ‘Black-wood’ homestead design which he came up with in 1891(4).
Other developments in art and craft in Melbourne included the publication of the arts and crafts magazine which was printed and circulated for the first time in 1895. Just the teachings of Ruskin which were advocated by William Morris through his work and teaching, the magazine advocated for a national kind of art, which comprised of “beauty, utility, fitness for purpose and craft manufacture” (Edquist 1999, p. 62).
The contributor’s of the magazine editorial content sought to use for domestic purposes especially in the development of good architecture in home construction. They also sought to assist the professional craftsmen in Melbourne by establishing exhibitions where everyone could show their work. They also intended to establish guilds where professionals could register and develop art and craft as a respectable profession in the region. Most importantly however, the magazine and its contributors sought to encourage architects to use locally sourced materials which could be executed on their own local and original design in a bid to demonstrate that health and beauty could be attained by everyone in Melbourne.
After the great depression, Melbourne emerged ready to initiate some of the great arts and crafts architectural principles that it had learn about but could not execute during the depression. John Springthorpe was the first architect to come up with an architectural design for a cemetery in memory of his wife who had died during child birth (Edquist 1999). His architectural designs were established in the Boroondara cemetery and included a neo-Greek temple that housed an elaborate but stylish group of sculptures that were set in a small garden. According to art analysts, this piece of art was not only a major monument and a major achievement for Melbourne’s art and craft movement, but also could not be matched to another piece of architecture in the entire country.
But how was Springthorpe’s work influenced by William Morris? Well, according to Edquist (1999), Springthorpe had studied art and craft from an early age. In his adulthood, his sympathies were in step with the Victorian-Arthurian revival. Though many themes in this revival was to be found in architectural ornaments, music, illustrations, paintings and photography; it was William Morris who captured the revival best through his written work and illustrations. William’s main theme was arts and craft. As noted by Creek (2007), William Morris did not have much effect on artists as a person, but his literature and artistic illustrations seems to inspire many.
According to Creek (2007), “William was an English designer, craftsman, poet and socialist” (p. 30). William’s main inspiration seemed to be the teachings of Ruskin and as a result, he had a romantic approach to design, art and architecture just like Ruskin. Among his most notable influences on art in Melbourne was his ability to translate romantic philosophies into ideals that could be applied in arts and craft. Among his pet subjects that he kept lecturing on as identified by Creek (2007) was the possibility of an artists discovering his or her spiritual essence and unleashing the same through creativity in the creation of utilitarian objects. He would argue that any form of art or craft inspired by one’s spiritual essence would be nothing but beautiful. William, just like Ruskin believed that an artist or a craftsman was only able to use his skills in producing himself. Ruskin was a firm believer that “the artist’s function is to reveal the aspects of the universal truth, which is also beauty. Any corruption of the moral nature of the artist is an inevitable corruption of this revelation, but it is impossible for an artist to be good if the society is corrupt” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2006, p.1).
Looking back at Springthorpe’s design, it is easy to recognize that it is a form of art that Ruskin would easily approve. But why do I think so? Well, according to Creek (2007), Ruskin was a firm believer that “forcing tradesmen to be servile to pre-established rules and forms of neo-classical conventions quashed any possibilities of expressing themselves through their work” (p.29). This means that Ruskin advocated for the freedom for men to express themselves in whatever undertaking they pursue. A critic of English art, Ruskin supported Gothic art although he admitted it had a lot of imperfections and irregularities. He however observed that this form of art allowed artists the freedom needed to express the natural world as they saw it.
Creek (2007) observes that guided by his Romantic ideas, Ruskin held the opinion that the freedom for free expression would give artists and craftsmen the leeway to experiment with their imagination. He believed that such freedom would result in craftsmen attaining their full potential in creativity. As such, the society would expect such craftsmen to create beautiful objects that would enhance both their creativity and spirituality. Further, he believed that the freedom of expression would make craftsmen self-determining and expressive.
Edquist (1999) observes that implicit in Springthorpe’s design of his wife was a great desire to uphold the work and aspirations of pre-Raphaelite poets and painters key among them William Morris. As such, Springthorpe spent huge amounts of money to ensure every detail in the design was true and genuine to the memory of his wife. Edquist (1999) quotes him, “It is impossible for me-a follower and a disciple of Ruskin in Art – to place anything there, but what is real and lasting- nothing like deception or subterfuge is permissible, even if it could be done- even facing iron girder with solid masonry, fasted securely and openly seems insufficiently permanent” (p. 73-74).
Contribution to modernity
According to the Art Gallery of South Australia, William Morris not only revitalized art and craft in England, but did the same to other parts of the world, most specifically Melbourne where artists and craftsmen became his students through reading his works. Most Notably, Morris is known for his belief that good designs could not be taken over by time and nor could they be rendered irrelevant by industrialization. Though his techniques of production were mainly traditional in nature, his believe that artists and craftsmen should have a free reign when expressing their creativity meant that his students were willing to embrace new technologies and use them in enhancing their designs and object quality.
Citing Menz (2002), the Art Gallery of South Australia (2005) observes that the revival experienced in art and craft in the late 20th century is indebted to Morris and especially his assertion about the use of hand production processes, sound designs based on creativity, the use of natural materials and a commitment to improve life through using objects that reflect beauty.
In 1891, yet another piece of architecture which was influenced by the arts and craft movement was put up in Melbourne. The Blackwood House was designed by Walter Butler and his compatriot Ussher. The house’s interior design represented a change from the past by introducing social factors in art. According to Montana (2000), this change introduced by Butler and Ussher had transformed the art and craft movement in Melbourne from traditional believes to modernity. Seemingly, the two designers had understood Morris’s teachings to mean that one could combined the aesthetic beauty of art with craft especially used in indoor decoration in order to produce beautiful architecture.
As Montana (2000) points out in her book, Melbourne art and craft movement and extension of the movement in the entire country contributed significantly to urban development. In addition to upholding proper planning in order to uphold the aesthetic beauty of cities, the art and craft movement also sought to express its believes in the painted interiors and architecture in new buildings that kept springing up in cities. Of notable interest are the interior schemes which were imported to Melbourne from international art and craft movement in places like England. According to Montana (2000), architectural designs such as the Midland Grand Hotel, which was exhibited in London and Paris between 1876 and 1878, had a lasting impact of the course of Melbourne’s art and craft movement and the boom in housing construction that was to be witnessed in Melbourne (Davey 1997). Some of the outstanding housing designs that came up as a result include the Clivedon, the Villa Alba and Kamesburgh.
The art and craft movement also saw to the rising of interior decorating firms in Melbourne, which were competing in pricing their work as well as the production of quality work. This in turn brought a fair pricing regime to the region and also ensured that none of the decorating firms remained complacent. More to the prices, the art and craft movement brought the art of color reproduction which was commonly used in interior decorations.
In Melbourne, art received a lot of attention as interior fittings such as ceramics; furniture, glass, textile and metal work were being designed. According to Montana (2000), the refined interior fittings which had received a lot of attention from artists would then be advertised in the public media for purposes of enhancing confidence about the beauty and power of art to the public.
In addition to the advertising which focused on a relatively limited audience, the art and craft movement in Melbourne also organized exhibitions where it would showcase a lot of the developments in the sector to the rest of the country and the world. According to Montana, the exhibition’s tradition was maintained in the Melbourne society because it was believed that the society which used art on its everyday objects was not only mature, but had a sense of direction and was preparing itself for more progress in future.
The art and craft movement also played a major role in the inclusion of women in the work place. According to Montana (2000), women in Melbourne were confined to the domestic chores where they could attend to the children’s needs, cook, do laundry and clean. However, this left them with a lot of time in their hands. The introduction of art in the crafting of jewelry not only made them more willing to acquire and display the same on social occasions, but also made most of them became willing participants in the designing and production of the same. In addition to needlecraft which was necessary in crafting jewelry, they also learnt art pottery and tile painting. Some women also took to fabric decoration which they later incorporated in fashion.
Indirectly, the art and craft movement contributed to growth and modernity in Melbourne as more people joined the art and craft sector hoping to cash in on the growth therein. This brought about competition in the industry and consequently, players in the industry embraced new ways of marketing and advertising their products. The influence of the movement on the metropolitan life in Melbourne also deserves a mention in history.
The art and craft movement in Melbourne set the pace for similar movements in Sydney and later in the rest of Australia. Having borrowed from a similar movement in England, the effects of British art critics such as Ruskin and his student Morris were recognized and translated into beautiful pieces of architectural designs among other objects by the likes of Springthorpe. As discussed herein, Springthorpe took the teachings of Morris and by extension Ruskin to heart and therefore designed a graveyard masterpiece in memory of his wife who had died when giving birth to the couple’s third child.
As illustrated in Springthorpe’s architectural piece, the infusion of beauty, reality and the truth in art and craft was not an easy thing. However, the fact that artists were free to experiment with as many ideas as they saw fit in order to produce a lasting impression gave most of them the leeway to be true to their creativity.
Art Gallery of South Australia (2005) Who was William Morris? Web.
Creek, J. (2007) Contemporary issues in occupational therapy: reasoning and reflection. London, John Wiley and Sons.
Davey, P. (1997) Arts and Crafts Architecture. London, Phaidon House.
Edquist, H. (1999) Harold Desbrowe-Annear, the Springthorpe memorial and the arts and crafts movement in Melbourne. Web.
Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006) Ruskin, John (1819–1900). Web.
Montana, A. (2000) The art movement in Australia: design, taste and society 1875-1900. Melbourne, Melbourne University.