Women Art Workers and the Arts and Crafts Movement, by Zoë Thomas, Manchester University Press, 272 pp, £80, ISBN: 978-1526140432
The most recognisable designs of the Arts and Crafts movement are back in fashion. They can be found on coffee cups, tote bags and the covers of iPhones and notebooks. In 2018, H&M launched a collaboration with Morris & Co, announcing its incorporation of the Love is Enough, Lily Leaf, Marigold and Pimpernel designs into its latest women’s clothing range. At the launch, the design director of H&M said: “We’re thrilled to be collaborating on a collection with this iconic British brand and to be able to share these designs with our customers.” For enthusiasts of the Arts and Crafts movement, the collaboration was disorientating. Reimagined and disseminated on the surfaces of mass-produced fast fashion, the designs seemed incongruous, as if all that remained were the ghostly traces of their originators’ radical philosophies. Simultaneously alluring and objectionable, the aesthetic was emptied of its political substance; gone too was the movement’s rejection of industrialised mass production. The Arts and Crafts movement is often domesticated and enervated in this way in its contemporary manifestations, and the historical narrative can be similarly simplified and one-dimensional.
In popular imagination, the movement is indelibly linked to intellectuals and artists such as William Morris, Emery Walker, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, John Ruskin and Edward Burne-Jones. Except for May Morris, the figures in mainstream histories of that design period have been predominantly male and one could be forgiven for thinking women featured only as muses and models to celebrity artists and intellectuals. In Women Art Workers and the Arts and Crafts Movement, Zoë Thomas brings a new perspective to the movement in England between the 1870s and the 1930s. Through a detailed study of its women embroiderers, jewellery makers, bookbinders, interior decorators, painters and stained glass artists, she illuminates the contribution of women to the movement and examines the particular challenges they faced in gaining recognition from society and their male peers. Identifying individual and group agency through fragmentary records, this book invites us to rethink the movement’s complexity and diversity. Thomas explores and discusses the gendering of the historical record and highlights the specific difficulties facing the historian who seeks to reveal the lived experience of women. While such challenges are now widely appreciated, this thoughtful study demonstrates that the recovery work is far from complete. In her opening lines, the author maps the landscape of Arts and Crafts buildings in London that continue to function as “cultural anchor points through which to construct a history framed around the centrality of exceptional male figures to the modern art scene”. Yet, as she notes, this landscape also functioned as a site of connection and organisation for a vast network of artistic women whose ephemeral traces can be more difficult to illuminate.
Scholarship on the role of women in the Arts and Crafts movement has been limited. Published in 1979, Anthea Callen’s Women Artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement, 1870-1914, was the first monograph to recover the involvement of women workers in America and Britain. A decade later Lynne Walker argued that involvement in the movement provided participating women artists with the experience and institutional supports to further their own professional and political goals. There were other important interventions, and such early feminist works of recovery and recognition were complemented by individual, national and transnational studies. For example, the late Nicola Gordon Bowe’s extraordinary volume on the stained-glass artist Wilhelmina Geddes, and her collaboration with Elizabeth Cumming on The Arts and Crafts Movements in Dublin and Edinburgh 1885-1925 contextualised the involvement of Irish women within an international framework.
Zoë Thomas’s volume acknowledges and extends on this earlier corpus of pioneering research. What makes her study significantly different is her focus on the class and gender dynamics that shaped the guilds, clubs and societies in England, her careful elaboration of the radical potential of the women’s movement in terms of subsequent suffrage activism and her exploration of the social networks that underpinned its organisation. This is a volume that foregrounds the spatial and social aspects of the movement rather than the artworks themselves. It is about the processes through which women forged professional roles and identities; and, critically, it maps their spaces and places of artistic self-actualisation. A welcome departure is Thomas’s critiquing of the conventional historical periodisation which posits the Arts and Crafts movement as already in decline from the first years of the twentieth century. Through her use of different theoretical and methodological lenses, she demonstrates that there was in fact growing momentum and expansion in the movement, particularly as it related to women’s networks and the democratising of art cultures beyond the urban, elitist and masculine anchor points of earlier accounts.
Urban culture was highly masculinised in late nineteenth century London, as male-only clubs and organisations were keys sites for homosocial bonding and networking. The Art Workers’ Guild was established in 1884 with the purpose of cultivating a sense of common fellowship between artistic men. Like the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of London and many other learned societies of the age, it refused to admit women. Indeed, according to Thomas, this bohemian “brotherhood” was shaped by many prevalent middle class, masculine, and professional currents, and class hierarchies were never seriously questioned or challenged. During these years, women’s clubs such as the Pioneer Club (1892) emerged in London; by 1899 it had more than six hundred members and a programme of weekly debates on topics such as suffrage, working women, homelessness and so forth. Founded in 1904, the Lyceum Club similarly created a supportive space for women, and it had an Arts and Crafts advisory board; taking over an impressive space in Piccadilly, the Lyceum demonstrated its intention to have equal status in metropolitan clubland.
From 1907, the newly established Women’s Guild of Arts sought to create a professional network for members, encouraging them to value their labour and their expertise. The key protagonists in Thomas’s study are the founding or early members of this guild; as for their male peers, the membership was drawn for the most part from the middle and upper middle classes. Demonstrating the seriousness of their purpose, the guild commissioned Ethel Sandell and Katharine Adams to create a guild roll, which took the form of an engraved, illuminated booklet. Unlike the Lyceum, with its own private rooms, the Women’s Guild negotiated access to the private and historic buildings controlled by the men’s Art Workers’ Guild, thereby unsettling their formal exclusion from the spaces of male authority and prestige, thus recognising the social and professional importance of both their network and the spaces which it (albeit temporarily and ephemerally) occupied. Furthermore, members were keenly aware of the need for customers and patrons, and over time they broadened their market base by offering a greater range of arts and crafts for different income brackets. To raise their profile and underline their expert status, they gave demonstrations in workshops, and some members produced manuals and informative articles in magazines for hobbyists and amateur practitioners. Individuals such as the stained-glass artist and suffrage activist Mary Lowndes sought to open the exhibition world to women artists and designers so that they could display and sell their work.
Cultivating an artistic reputation was a critical objective for women art workers and necessary because many male commentators dismissed them as amateurs or philanthropists without a serious artistic contribution to make. For women, artistic reputations were often linked to the establishment of a workshop or formal business, and so the “workshop became critical in signifying ‘serious’ and ‘artistic’ commitment, alleviating anxieties and engendering a sense of authenticity, for artists, journalists, and customers alike”. Thomas’s focus on both these entrepreneurial strategies and the distinctive structures of women-owned businesses in the early twentieth century is an interesting complement to the histories which foreground artistic innovation or political purpose. Women-led businesses existed throughout England in urban and rural areas, popularising and disseminating an Arts and Crafts ethos and aesthetic. Gaining access to training and apprenticeships was difficult for women so that aspiring trainees often depended on leading women artists for opportunities, education, and mentoring. Over time, this resulted in coherent networks of women-led workshops, businesses, and print cultures.
Thomas’s book does not engage with the Arts and Crafts movement in Ireland, but her research provides a fascinating context to the distinctive contours of a radical project like the Dun Emer Industries in Dublin and it further underlines the extraordinary achievement of its founders: Evelyn Gleeson, Elizabeth Yeats and Susan Yeats. Considered side by side, it becomes possible to see the influences on, but also the innovations of, the Dun Emer and its relationship to both international currents and its Irish nationalist context. All three women founders were based in London in the 1880s and 1890s and were immersed in intersecting intellectual and artistic networks there. Elizabeth Yeats trained to be an art teacher and published several books on techniques for watercolour painting; in 1902, in preparation for her printing enterprise at Dun Emer, she studied composition, typesetting, design and the mechanics of printing at the Women’s Printing Society in Westminster. Emery Walker was an important adviser and became a faithful supporter of the Dun Emer Press; he had played a critical role in the development of the private press movement through his involvement in the Kelmscott Press and later the Doves Press. Lily Yeats (1866-1949) was an assistant in embroidery to May Morris at Kelmscott House. Evelyn Gleeson studied art in London for some years, principally at the Ludovici Atelier (1890-92) and for six months with the textile designer Alexander Millar, artistic director of carpet manufacturers Templetons of Glasgow.
The daughter of a Tipperary father and a Lancashire mother, Gleeson became the first secretary of the Irish Literary Society in London. She also attended meetings of the newly established Gaelic League there, an organisation notable for accepting men and women as members from its foundation. Using her inheritance and a loan from the botanist Augustine Henry, Gleeson moved to Ireland in 1902, bought a house in Dundrum, which she renamed Dun Emer, and financed the establishment of the Arts and Crafts business she based there. Named after Emer, the wife of Cú Chulainn, Dun Emer Industries articulated its purpose in its first prospectus in 1903: “A wish to find work for Irish hands in the making of beautiful things was the beginning of Dun Emer.” It had three distinct industries: weaving and tapestry, led by Evelyn, embroidery by Susan and printing by Elizabeth. By 1905, the guild employed thirty women and had exhibited in venues in Leeds, Belfast, London, Cork, Berlin, Bristol and so on. It quickly became recognised as influential in a European Arts and Crafts context and in 1906 it was awarded a silver medal at the International Exhibition in Milan.
In 1908, Gleeson and the Yeats sisters parted ways ‑ Gleeson retained ownership of the Dun Emer Guild while Elizabeth and Susan established the Cuala Industries. The Cuala Press went on to publish some of the greatest works of the literary revival and Gleeson continued with Dun Emer until her death in 1944, producing dresses, carpets, tapestries and vestments. In different ways, these Irish art workers were political women and they moved in advanced nationalist circles. Gleeson was the most radical and, in her 1907 essay for the Irish Literary Society, she argued that it was important to “nationalise through the eyes as well as the ears”. Under her leadership, the Dun Emer Guild provided costumes for pageants at St Ita’s and St. Enda’s schools; its art workers designed kilts for Thomas MacDonagh and others, and they made the Starry Plough flag for the Irish Citizen Army that flew over the Imperial Hotel in 1916. They embraced an Irish-language ethos and advertised in the nationalist newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis. An ardent campaigner for women’s rights, Gleeson and the guild later created the banner for the Irish Women Workers’ Union in 1919. Such intersections are noteworthy, and there are some similarities in the suffrage activism of members of the Women’s Art Guild in England. Thomas describes how different Arts and Crafts women “made the visual spectacle of the campaigns”, creating banners, posters, postcards and other ephemera as well as protesting, petitioning, writing and other forms of activism. Women such as Mary Lowndes, Emily Ford, Mary Sargant Florence, and MV Wheelhouse were members of both the Artists’ Suffrage League and the Women’s Guild of Arts.
Zoë Thomas’s study reconstructs a world of creativity, political engagement and radical sociability. Although it focuses on the English context, it is a work that scholars of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement will also find stimulating and richly suggestive. Encompassing intellectual, entrepreneurial, cultural and political history, it shifts the focus from the finished artworks to the network structures, the business strategies, and the spaces of women art workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, making a tremendous contribution to both women’s history and to scholarship on the Arts and Crafts period.
Caoilfhionn Ní Bheacháin is a lecturer in communications at the University of Limerick. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Victorian Culture, Eire-Ireland, Irish University Review, Estudios Irlandeses, IMSLA, Women’s History Review and on the platform of the Modernist Archives Publishing Project (MAPP). She is on the organising team of the Irish Women’s Writing Network 1880-1920.