Sunday, 30 January 2011

Barefooted Aristocracy: The Blounts and the Healthy & Artistic Dress Union

Those of you who have read my previous post 'The Corset' may know that I had found a reported connection between Ethel Blount and the Healthy & Artistic Dress Union, a radical movement of it's time.   I have now confirmed these connections from looking at some original Healthy & Artistic Dress Union documents which are held at the Women's Library.  I was disappointed that I found no articles written by Ethel Blount for the movement, but instead I found that both 'Godfrey Blount, Esq' and 'Mrs Godfrey Blount' were on the Healthy & Artistic Dress Union committee.  They joined the committee and the union around July 1904, and were both still on the committee in October 1906 which is the last copy of The Dress Review I could find.

from The Dress Review, January 1904

The objects of the Union were stated in their literature as "to promote such improvement in dress as shall make it consistent with health, comfort, activity, and graceful appearance, yet shall not involve any obvious departure from recognized conventional modes."  From reading their journal, The Dress Review, it is possible to identify a few key issues that the Healthy & Artistic Dress Union were addressing at the time: promoting the wearing of shorter skirts, sandals and not wearing hats or corsets.

In April 1903, The Dress Review reported "we hail with joy the return of the short skirt for walking.   In Paris, Brighton and even London (always behind in these things), most of the smartest women are to be seen in frocks quite clear of the ground; they (the frocks) are well out and the same length all around.  If the "smart set" wear them, there is hope that such incongruous sights as, for instance, a nurse with a trailing skirt wheeling a baby car across a muddy road, will soon be a thing of the past and a clutched up gown will be quite dowdy."
The Dress Review, cover illustrated by Walter Crane who was a Vice-President of the Healthy & Artistic Dress Union

In September 1903, they reported "the short skirt has evidently come to stay for out-door wear, and what a relief that will be for muddy autumn days.  The emancipation of the foot goes on.  There has been a great increase in the number of sandals worn on bare feet among our young people.  We saw an article in one of the daily papers on "Barefooted Aristocracy in the Park", and we rejoice to notice the spread of this custom, not only among the so-called aristocracy this year or last, but also among those poor little ones who were formerly laced up in boots all made of hard, bad leather, which not infrequently weakened their ankles for life; and among these patient little ones, who suffer so terribly from being in every sense of the word badly dressed...they also are happy in newly found freedom for their toes and ankles.  Perhaps next year we may even  see their elders following this good example.  We hear too that it is the fashion upon suitable occasions for ladies to go hatless (we believe they carry very gorgeous sunshades) and this surely is a step in advance, though a mere man was heard to say that women could not be happy lacking the joy of jabbing long skewers into their hats!  Bareheaded and barefooted sounds delightful."
from The Dress Review, September 1903

In the January 1904 issue, there is a specific parallel with the 'peasant dress' advocated by the Peasant Arts movement as M.A.Biggs urges that "the blouse, this should never be worn tucked inside the skirt, uless that skirt be very light indeed or well supported from the shoulders, so as to avoid an uncomfortable mass of material about the wrist, and an injurious weight resting on the soft viscera of the body.  Can we not again encourage the idea of wearing the blouse in tunic fashion, the lower part descending outside the skirt, so as not to interfere with the supporting lining or bands insider over the shoulders...this style might also be adapted as a kind of support to the bust if needed, resembling the outside stays of various peasant costumes."

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Ruskin and Peasant Writing

From their written works the influence of John Ruskin (1819-1900) can be observed on the Peasant Arts members.  Ruskin was a close friend of George MacDonald, Greville MacDonald’s father, although they did not seem to agree on anything, as Greville MacDonald relays in his memoirs (MacDonald, Reminiscences of a Specialist, 1932).
'Handicrafts of English peasants at Haslemere', The Craftsmen, August 1907; the sides of the runner read "Love makes a feast, with most or least"

Greville introduces Maude Egerton King in his Reminiscences hand in hand with Ruskin “she was born on Ruskin’s birthday, February 8, 1867, and died on St George’s Day, 1927 – one so definitely associated with his teaching and work, which she had adopted for guidance”.  He goes on to relay that Maude was “determined that she and her husband must no longer be content in passive sympathy with Ruskin and William Morris.  Her own vision must find concrete venture…from these directly came the Peasant Arts Movement.  Regnant in her heart was a conviction that Machine Power was devitalizing the people, and increasingly so; that unless the Hand’s time-honoured creative power and domestic supremacy could be restored, the consequences might well be appalling” (MacDonald, Reminiscences of a Specialist, 1932). 
'Handicrafts of English peasants at Haslemere', The Craftsmen, August 1907

Greville MacDonald was clearly a follower of Ruskin’s ‘Law of Loveliness’, that to withdraw from focusing on differences, and instead to realize the goodliness of humanity and thereby find harmony.  Greville says of Maude Egerton King, who he clearly admired deeply “almost everything she wrote or said evidenced her oneness with Ruskin’s Law of Loveliness as against the coarsening of money and machinery”. 
'Handicrafts of English peasants at Haslemere', The Craftsmen, August 1907

The Craftsmen described Godfrey Blount as “a social reformer as well as an artist and craftsmen, Mr Blount is a sincere disciple of Ruskin, and an eloquent preacher of the gospel of simplicity alike in life and in handicraft” (vol. 12, 1907).  Blount quoted Ruskin’s art teachings in Arbor Vitae (Blount, Fifield, 1910).  Blount refers to Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera in The Craftsmen saying “I only refer to it to prevent our associating the Revival of Handicrafts merely with a fashionable reaction against the machine’s invasion of the domains of art, while all the time we are consciously or unconsciously furthering that invasion of the whole domain of life.  Our instinct is beginning to rise in revolt against the great modern doctirine that use and beauty have nothing to do with one another.  Each of these is a test as well as a definition of the other.  What is really useful must also be beautiful.  What is really beautiful must be useful too.  God created it and called it good.” 'Town or country, from the rustic renaissance', The Craftsmen, March 1906.

John Ruskin & the Peasants

John Ruskin (1819-1900) appears to have been the chief influence on the Peasant Arts movement.  As both an art critic and social thinker, being an inspiration to the wider Arts and Crafts movement and to Christian socialism, his ideas informed those of the movement.  Ruskin is quoted on the back of a ‘Handicrafts of Haslemere’ exhibition paper.   In his biography, Greville MacDonald reveals that “my own emancipation owed more to him (Ruskin) than it is possible to surmise” (MacDonald, Reminiscences of a Specialist, 1932).  It is possible to link the individual members of the movement to their appreciation of Ruskin.

Ruskin in the 1850s, Life Archive

In Unto This Last (Cornhill Magazine, 1860) Ruskin declared views heavily critical of capitalist economies.  Ruskin states that “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE.  Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.”  In the same publication Ruskin at one point states that his  “differ from the common writing of political economists in admitting some value in the aspect of nature, and expressing regret at the probability of the destruction of natural scenery”
from 1904, Haslemere Educational Museum

The ‘Handicrafts of Haslemere’ exhibition leaflet has Ruskin quoted on the back as the first of three quotes, above William Morris and Plato. The beginning of the quote is a famous Ruskin quote The Stones of Venice second volume ‘The Nature of Gothic’: “The great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, - that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.  And all the evil to which that cry is urging our myriads can be met only in one way: not by teaching nor preaching, for to teach them is but to show them their misery, and to preach to them, is to mock at it.  It can be met only by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy; by a determined sacrifice of such convenience, or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.”

Carpet factory, Glasgow c. 1890s

Saturday, 15 January 2011

An Ideal Setting for a Village Industry

The location of the Peasant Arts movement in Haslemere, is best understood through the judgements of their peers.  An article by Mary Schenck Woolson in The Craftsman (‘Revival of English handicrafts: the Haslemere industries’, January 1902) provides an excellent overview.  Woolson was President of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, and Director of the Manhattan Trade School for Girls.

The Weaving House, Kings Road c.1902 - note the girl is holding a hoop and the tree in the middle of the road! - from The Craftsmen, January 1902

She describes the location of the Peasant Arts in Haslemere as “A more ideal setting for a village industry, whose avowed purpose is to make good hand-made materials under ideal conditions, could scarcely be found.  In the southwest corner of Surrey, in a deep valley between wooded cliffs, is the little town which straggles picturesquely in winding lanes like wandering vines up the steep slopes.  In summer, in the near distance, the eye traverses stretches yellow with gorse and broom, and purple with heather up to the hig, dark ridge of Hindhead.

The Devil's Punchbowl, Hindhead c.1900 from Trotter, The Hilltop Writers, The Book Guild, 2003

On the top stands high against the sky the cross which marks Gibbet Hill, where the execution of a sailor’s murderers once took place.  Below the cross is a romantic lonely hollow called the Devil’s Punch Bowl, around whose rim Smike and Nicholas Nickleby, as they were going from London to Portsmouth to seek their fortune, walked and read the description of the sailor’s murder.

Tennysons Lane c. 1897 from Wright, Hindhead or the English Switzerland, 1898

The atmosphere of Haslemere is artistic and literary.  Here George Eliot lived on the Shotter Mill way, Tyndall built high on Hindhead and Tennyson’s home looked out on the Blackdown.  Artists and writers still gather here. 
Hindhead Crossroads c.1900 from Winter, Tim, Around Haslemere, The History Press Limited,  2004

The village keeps its mediaeval appearance.  The cottages of the people are low, with slanting tiled roofs.  These ancient hand-made tiles of many varieties are well known to architects and antiquarians.  The lanes are often so steep that the sidewalk is only on one side, while a high, abrupt cliff rises on the other.

Haslemere High Street c.1894 from Trotter, The Hilltop Writers, The Book Guild, 2003

The sidewalk gradually ascends above the road way and the cottages open on the sidewalk with a steep staircase descending to the road.  This gives a curious and picturesque effect to the old stone cottages and the half timber houses with their overhanging stories.  The workers in the Haslemere Industries live in such homes as these, surrounded from birth with charming nature and the simple artistic handwork of man. 

Entrance to Kings Road from the station from Winter and Collyer, Around Haslemere and Hindhead in Old Photographs, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1991

….From the railroad station deep in the valley to the quaint little Weaving House modern factory conditions seem to struggle for a footing.  Foundry Road is a paved street with workshops, stores and working men’s houses crowding one another together.  When the road begins to rise out of the narrow valley, the Weaving House and its close companion, the Tapestry House, stand as if to utter a protest and block the way against the farther march of ugliness.  Beyond them the open valley stretches, the wooded hills show winding paths and the birds sing in meadow and copse. 

In front of the Industries the road slopes upward, so that the buildings are partly below the level.  Bridges swing across from the road to the second stories, and steps lead down to the ground floors of the buildings.

Inside The Weaving House, Kings Road from The Craftsmen, January 1902

From the open windows of the Weaving House the steady click and thud of the looms and the whirr of the wheels are heard by passers-by.  A sign hangs over the gate on the bridge bearing the name: “Haslemere Weaving Industry,” and below, a placard bids visitors welcome.”

“The cheerful, healthful workrooms, the mediaeval furniture of chests, presses, wheels, reels and looms, the bold fine colouring of the stuffs, the white aproned village workers, and the wide stretching meadows and steep hills of fair Surrey, as seen through the windows are a pleasant picture of labour under ideal conditions.”
'Miss Flora Synge at her spinning wheel at Kings Road, Haslemere in 1917' from  Janaway, John,  Surrey: A Photographic Record 1850-1920, Countryside Books, 1984

Whilst the picture in Janaway is annotated as Flora Synge, there is no such name recorded in the 1911 census. 

The View from the Country

The placement of the Peasant Arts Society in Haslemere reflects the country life beliefs of the movement.  They believed that industrialized society in the towns and cities was to the detriment of individual happiness. 
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, 1899

Members of the movement wrote on this subject.  Godfrey Blount was interested in the relationship between handicraft and the simplicity of country life.  In ‘Town or country, from the rustic renaissance’, The Craftsmen, March 1906 he stated that “A return to the country must imply the decay of the town.  If it does not imply this it can be no true return.  A return to the country with the corresponding decline of the town, must also mean a return to simplicity and handicraft, because, when the town ceases to be a burden on the countryman’s back, he will have to make what he wants by hand in the country instead of having them made by machinery in town.  But, above all, a return to the country means the determination to be thorough-bred peasants and not mongrel ones.” 
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, 1899

Maude Egerton King valued the positive effect of country life upon the human soul.  In ‘An Appreciation’, 1912 (The Forest Farm, Peter Rosegger) she stated that “The land-folk who emigrate to cities, and their children there born, are fast losing and will soon quite lose what no money or experience can compensate them for.  Age after age, great shaping influences from the forest, the mountain and the waters of the mountain, the solitudes, the mastery and love of beasts, the disciplinary tragedies and triumphs of agriculture, came and wrought upon the humanity in their midst, gradually creating the customs, traditions, lore and art – everything except religion in its Church sense – which is part of the collective soul of Peasantry.  Whatever these uprooted land-folk gain in the city, though they gain the whole world, they certainly lose their own soul – the soul special to Peasantry and until now the fullest spring of the world’s imaginative life.”
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, 1899

Greville MacDonald recounts Maude Egerton King saying “By the time the demon has discovered the millennium he wants, I am sure machinery will dispense with Man altogether …If any men are left they will be too fat to work; or starving; but with still enough brains to serve the machines as the Luddites did.” (MacDonald, 1932, Reminiscences of a Specialist, London, George Allen and Unwin).

from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, 1899

Ethel Blount writes in The Story of the Homespun Web (1910) “I will show, bit by bit, how we, disinherited of tradition, can again learn to make a bit of cloth from the wool straight from the sheep’s back to the web of good stuff ready for wear.  And while helping my readers to the material part of the mater I hope to aid them to recover the greater, immaterial part, of the joy, namely, that has belonged to it ever since the day that Eve first spun her spindle- while her Adam delved near by….If but few can be found to try such a mode of life, let women take heart, and begin it by twos and threes, for more will assuredly follow in their footsteps.  What might not England be in even ten years’ time if women would turn their splendid energies and devotion to this re-conquest?  England, after centuries of mechanical degradation and lost imagination, would arise like the prodigal, and weeping out its repentance at is Father’s feet, would be restored to its ancient dignities, with the fairest garment, the garment of the forgiven wanderer, on its shoulders…I want every English home to have a loom or a spinning-wheel.”
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, 1899

Friday, 7 January 2011

Peasant Beliefs - An Introduction

One of the most interesting aspects of the Peasant Arts movement is their beliefs.  They saw their industry as part of a wider social movement which was in conflict with industrialization. 
Haslemere Weaving Industry, Blue Table Runner.  Reproduced courtesy of Haslemere Educational Museum

The literature produced by the industry itself proclaimed a number of beliefs which provide a good starting point.  A Haslemere Weaving Industry brochure explained that the movement was “maintained, as it was started, in the belief that the production of materials by hand for use in the home and for the clothing of its inmates is a great source of happiness for the worker and has besides an educational value hardly to be measured.

In order to train workers and to demonstrate that beautiful and useful things of individual character can be made under happy conditions with very simple appliances, a building was specially designed and erected and subsequently enlarged to its present size.  In it, women and girls from the village, under the superintendence of a Lady Manager, are daily employed at hand-looms, weaving cotton, linen and silk materials which are used for dresses, children’s frocks, curtains, tablecloths, bed-spreads and many other purposes.  Lessons in spinning and weaving can be given, and visitors are welcome every day.”
Haslemere Weaving Industry Bag.  Reproduced courtesy of Haslemere Educational Museum

The leaflet for the First Annual Exhibition  of the Haslemere Handicraft Industries, 24th August, 1904 states “The Haslemere Industries represent one of the many branches of the movement for the revival of Handicrafts, with which the names of Ruskin and Morris have been so closely associated.  Their example and teaching has resulted in a School of Artist-craftsmen, who refuse to limit the term “Art,” to what has become known as the “Fine Arts” (a limitation which is directly opposed to the spirit of all former times of great artistic energy) and they assert instead that now, as then, we must struggle to maintain the fine tradition of good workmanship and design.

It is sometimes asked why Handicrafts should be revived, when almost every thing we want can be made by machinery.  The answer is that machinery can never supersede the craftman’s hand in producing work which is to have a distinctive character and value of its own; and that the methods of the factory system are fatal not only to the artistic quality of the things made, but also the mental and physical well-being of the workers employed.  Moreover, the revival of Handicraft in our villages and country districts is one of the best possible means of coping with the evils resulting from the depopulation of the country, the decline of all interests in rural life, and the growth of great towns.
Godfrey Blount Drapery.  Reproduced courtesy of Haslemere Educational Museum

It is towards such a goal that the Handicraft movement is tending, and the fact that in Haslemere alone there are sufficient craftsmen and women to hold an Exhibition of their work, proves how widely the feeling is spreading, the result of which will be the re-awakening of the artistic power of the English people amidst healthier and better social conditions.”
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