It was an international movement in the decorative and fine arts… and for the first time women were the leaders.
Originating in Britain, the Arts and Crafts movement flourished throughout Europe and beyond between 1880 and 1920 as a response to industrialisation.
Artists sought to celebrate craftsmanship rather than machinery and the movement played a major part in social reform.
Arts and Crafts work is identifiable by handmade, simple forms with little ornamentation. It celebrates the beauty of natural materials: examples include stylised flowers, imagery from the Bible and literature, upside down hearts, and Celtic motifs.
The RBSA was at the epicentre of the movement, with key players born or educated in Birmingham. ART BLOG volunteer Charlotte Thompson interviewed art lover Aileen Naylor on the role played by women…
How did you become interested in the Arts and Crafts movement?
My interest developed from my fascination with British Pre-Raphaelite art. From the moment I saw a slide of a painting by Edward Burne-Jones I wanted to learn more.
What was it like being a woman artist at the time?
I imagine it would have been an exciting time to be a woman artist! In the late 19th and early 20th century, the traditional roles of middle-class men and women were being questioned and very gradually changed.
Kate Elizabeth Bunce, ‘Melody (Musica)’ Photo ©Birmingham Museums Trust
Slowly, it became acceptable for women to take part in activities outside the home. Access to education increased and female artists could take advantage of the ethos of some of the new art schools, such as Birmingham School of Art, where they could attend the life class and learn unladylike skills such as metalworking.
Of course, there were still frustrations concerning artistic careers for women. For example, they retained domestic responsibilities and many institutions were slow to accept them.
What is the lasting influence of their work?
Many objects created by Arts and Crafts women artists have survived especially those made of durable materials such as stained glass and jewellery.
You can view examples not only in museums and historic houses, but by stepping into certain churches or opening books with illustrations and bindings by these women.
Georgie Gaskin, jeweller Photo ©Birmingham Museums Trust
Their work is a source of inspiration for people involved in a wide variety of artistic projects. However, the influence of their work would be greater if it was more generally known.
Researching them has its own particular difficulties. For example, some female artists made pieces for family and friends which might never have appeared in an exhibition or catalogue.
How did you come to be involved in the RBSA?
The Director of the Gallery, Dr Marie Considine, and I met when we began postgraduate Art History studies at Birmingham University. I learned a great deal about the RBSA from our conversations and was excited to discover its connections with the Pre-Raphaelites.
Burne-Jones, a Past President of the RBSA, and William Morris were in the second wave of Pre-Raphaelites, and Morris was one of the instigators of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
After I had completed my course, I was invited to be a volunteer in the archive team and help with an exhibition. I enjoyed it tremendously and stayed on for a number of years.
What role did the RBSA play in the Arts and Crafts movement?
Past presidents of the RBSA include John Everett Millais, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and Edward Burne-Jones who was born in Birmingham.
The Head of the Birmingham School of Art, Edward Richard Taylor, who based the teaching there on Arts and Crafts principles, joined the RBSA in 1879.
Joseph Edward Southall PRBSA (1861-1944) The Old Portico, 1912
The School of Art produced many talented artists who were involved in creating murals, stained glass, metalwork, illumination and book illustration, to name just a few of their artistic projects.
A good number of these artists were also RBSA Members and Associates including Arthur and Georgie Gaskin, Kate Bunce, Henry and Edith Payne, Sidney and Kate Meteyard.
By Charlotte Thompson
You can read more about the Arts and Crafts artists associated with the RBSA in the catalogue of the bicentenary exhibition: RBSA A Place for Art: The Story of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.
Keep reading ART BLOG for news of a major discovery soon…