Sunday, 24 July 2011

Walter Crane & the Chelsea Conspirators - Arts and Crafts movement

I am exploring the emergence of the Arts and Crafts movement here to better understand it, and also as I have found that whilst the works of the Arts and Crafts movement is well-known, what sparked the movement itself off is not very well known at all.  Having read further into Walter Crane’s An Artist’s Reminscences (The MacMillan Company, New York, 1907) I am less convinced of the significance of the Fifteen as a precursor to the Arts and Crafts Movement as a whole.  I believe that is an over-simplistic interpretation of events at the time.  There were numerous groups from 1881 onwards, of artists, in the wider sense of the word, joining together to discuss a more comprehensive view of art and design.  
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London
home of the Royal Academy since 1867 & catalyst for the
Arts and Crafts Movement
Crane writes that “In the summer and autumn of 1886 I was considerably engaged in agitation for a really representative National Exhibition of Art as distinct from the Royal Academy and its methods, and on much broader and more comprehensive lines, including a better representation of architecture and sculpture, as well as decorative design and handicraft.
The New English Art Club, established in 1885

"There had been rather more than the usual crop of surprising rejections at the Royal Academy that year, and the group of artists who then formed the leading spirits of the New English Art Club felt that something ought to be done – if only to bring their own forms of art more prominently before the public.

"There was a lively correspondence in the newspapers; the subject became a quite exciting topic – in fact, a burning question, as indeed it is apt to do when it happens to suit the convenience of editors as copy to fill their sheets with when the silly season comes on.

"In 1886, however, things looked really more serious.  Complaints were loud and deep from disappointed artists and their friends, and grew into something like a clamour.” (ibid).
Sir George Clausen, Study for a self-portrait,
probably early-mid 1880s, Royal Academy

It is here that George Clausen, then a prominent member of the New English Art Club played a important part.  He contacted Walter Crane to try and convince him to influence the creation of a new movement “which will help to place art matters – or rather the exhibition of pictures and sculpture on a better footing than they now have here…instead of making another little society, to start if possible a national movement on a broad and fair basis…an exhibition open to all artists…every artist who has exhibited in the United Kingdom in the last three years (to be) invited to send…Every artist will be eligible to serve on the hanging and selecting committees, and will have a vote for these committees, that is the principle – that artists have the right to elect their own committees (i.e. juries) – what could be more simple or more just?” (ibid).

These principles encapsulate those that were then adopted by the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.  It is interesting to read them asserted by an artist not primarily linked to the Arts and Crafts movement now, as clearly his contact with Walter Crane was a significant contribution.
William Holman Hunt, Self portrait, 1867,
Galleria degli Uffizi
Crane recalls that “these principles at once claimed my sympathy, and after a lengthy correspondence, Clausen drafted a letter for publication, embodying these principles…asking me, if it had my approval, to sign it…we then asked Mr. Holman Hunt (who was engaged in the newspaper warfare on the question at the time) to sign it also, which he agreed to do, and in the letter I received from him a the time he says: - “I gladly sign, finding it to express in a manly and distinct manner the absurdity of the position of English artists in the present day, and to appeal not less distinctly for a redress of injustice which the Royal Academy does to the whole profession by its opportunity to assume authority over without acknowledging responsibility towards outsiders.

"The letter with our joint signatures duly appeared in all the principal papers and attracted a considerable amount of attention and discussion." (ibid)

Clausen, Crane and Hunt then followed up the letter with an appeal to artists to support this proposal.  Their letter read:
Exterior of Wentworth Studios, Manresa Road, Chelsea
Meeting place of the Chelsea Conspirators,
from the London Metropolitan Archives, City of London

“Dear Sir, - The proposals for a National Exhibition of Art lately put forth in the public press have raised the whole question of the adequacy of the present representation of the Arts in Exhibition.

The principle put forth in these proposals, namely, that artists should have the right to choose the committees entrusts with the selection and placing of their works, the undersigned hold to be sound and just, and that it is the basis on which a representative Exhibition of the Arts should be conducted.  Believing that it will, on fair consideration, meet with the agreement and cordial support of artists generally, they beg to ask you if you will consent to join with them in forming a Provisional Committee to consider the best means of carrying out this principle?......

(Signed) George Clausen, Walter Crane, W. Holman Hunt
N.B. – Informal meetings are held each Saturday evening at he studio of J.H. Thomas (1 Wentworth Studios, Manresa Road, Chelsea) of the friends and supporters of the movement, and all artists interested are invited to attend and state their views freely.” (ibid)
Frederick Brown by Philip Wilson Steer, 1894
National Portrait Gallery

Crane goes on to describe that “We had a large number of adherents among the artists, and the meetings at Chelsea were very numerously attended, and there being so many of the Chelsea colony in the movement and the meetings being held there, we were eventually nicknamed “The Chelsea Conspirators”.

Crane lists some of these “conspirators”:
  • "Mr. Frederick Brown, now Slade professor at University College, was elected Chairman of these meetings
  • Mr. Whistler gave us his benison, but did not attend
  • Mr. Oscar Wilde was present on one occasion and spoke, I think
  • Mr. H. H. La Thangue (who acted as Hon. Secretary pro tem.) was keenly interested in the movement
  • Mr James Stanley Little (at one time the active Secretary to the Shelley Society) also worked hard in the movement, using his pen vigorously, and really he remains one of the few men in it who have stuck to their guns.
  • Mr. S. J. Solomon
  • Mr. T. B. Kennington
  • Mr. M. H. Spielmann" (ibid)
Henry La Thangue, self portrait, 1890
Dunedin Public Art Gallery, New Zealand

Crane notes that George Clausen, Mr. H. H. La Thangue and Mr. S. J. Solomon “have all since those days been admitted into the Academic citadel.  The walls of Jericho refused to fall at the sound of the Chelsea trumpets, so in the end certain of the trumpeters went in to reinforce (not reform) the garrison!

"Much steam was let off, and I think much time and energy wasted, and although, ostensibly, the object was to further the original scheme of a National Exhibition of Art, with a jury annually elected by the artists of the country, and make a wider appeal, so as to enrol a very large body of supporters, one became aware that behind a few earnest men there were others who were by no means anxious to see the scheme realised, and the result was the when at last the question was put to the test it was discovered that the majority were too timid or too politic to support the big national scheme, but fell back on the pretence and the forlorn hope of reforming the Royal Academy, the real secret being that certain prominent artists in the movement having had, I suppose, second thoughts, when it came to the point were not willing to forego their own chances of election to the privileged body they had made a show of opposing.  So, as far as the painters and sculptors were concerned, the agitation, which had attracted so many adherents and had become more important than any outsiders’ demonstration previously, fizzled out in a mild manifesto of pious opinion, which yet obtained, I believe, some three hundred signatures.” (ibid)

Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy,
present day

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