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Guild of Handicraft (1888-1907)

Guild of Handicraft

London and the Cotswolds; furniture makers (fl.1888-1907)

The Guild of Handicrafts was founded by C. R. Ashbee (1863-1942). He was the son of a rich businessman, studied history at King’s College, Cambridge and was then articled to the architect G. F. Bodley, during which time he lived at the Universities Settlement at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel.  Fuelled by socialist beliefs in fellowship he established the Guild and School of Handicrafts at Toynbee Hall in 1888. The new Guild received the accolade of a lecture from William Morris and initial success led to a move to the top floor of a warehouse nearby, and then in 1891 to Essex House, a Georgian house in the Mile End Road.

The crafts undertaken by the Guild in connection with furniture making, were carpentry, carving, cabinet making and decorative painting. Although Ashbee’s most original designs were in silver and jewellery, he experimented in furniture, combining the techniques of woodcarving, metal engraving and tooled leather. He was a great promoter of the craft movement and was a speaker at the 2nd Annual Art Congress sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Art and its Application to Industry, in Edinburgh, 28 October-1 November 1889. As Ashbee later described in A Description of the Work of the Guild of Handicraft (1902): ‘To this end the Guild endeavours to steer a mean between the independence of the artist which is individualistic and often parasitical and the trade shop where the workman is bound to purely commercial and antiquated traditions, and has as a rule neither stake in the business nor any interest beyond his weekly wage. To this end the Guild is conducted on co-operative lines’. There were four founding members of the Guild in addition to Ashbee himself: Charles V. Adams (cabinet maker), Fred Hubbard (decorative artist and general administrator), John Pearson and John Williams (both metal workers). In the furniture workshop Adams was quickly joined, c.1888, by R. G. Phillips, Walter Curtis and an apprentice, Charley Atkinson. Walter Curtis, a ‘very staid and upright’ man, stayed with the Guild for nearly 20 years. 

Adams was an active trade unionist and together with Ashbee had established the principles upon which the Guild was formed. He was one of the two craftsmen who wrote practical essays in The Manual of the Guild and School of Handicraft, a book produced for the guidance of county council teachers on the development of craft education. One of Adam’s early works for the Guild was a frame for a reproduction of Holman Hunt’s Triumph of the Innocents, for T. C. Horsfall, who ran an art museum near Manchester.

In the Guild’s early years furniture design was strongly influenced by historic furniture and included features such as ball and claw feet and frame and panel construction. Only a few new designs were executed from early 1891 to the mid-1890s and work was sporadic, causing the number of cabinet makers to be reduced to three in 1891. Four were employed in 1892 and the number gradually increased thereafter. Work for the Guild from 1891-6 was primarily centred on building projects. The interior decoration at Bryngwyn, Herefordshire, in 1892 was a commission worth £350 and the Guild also worked on Ashbee’s own home at the Magpie and Stump, 37 Cheyne Walk (1893-4). The furniture for the house was supplied by the Guild as was leather panelling, which was modelled by Bill Hardiman, who had joined the Guild in 1890 and became the chief modeller for metalwork but also worked on leather panels for upholstery and wall coverings. The leather is now at the V&A (W.2-26-2008).  Ashbee was later involved with projects at least two other houses in Cheyne Walk, nos. 39 & 74. In Spring 1899 the Guild opened a shop at 18a Brook Street, just off Bond Street.

An example of the simple form of the Guild’s earlier furniture work is the cabinet of oak, painted in red and gold with a quotation from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, designed by Ashbee in 1889 (illus. Aslin(1962), pl. 105). In fact Ashbee designed most of the Guild’s furniture, although it also executed designs by Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott and F. C. Eden (a fellow pupil of Ashbee’s at Bodley’s offices). In 1889, a cabinet designed by Ashbee was displayed by the Guild of Handicraft exhibition of 1899 (exhibit no. 167). The design and structural arrangement of this cabinet has been compared to a cabinet featured in an article ‘Some Suggestions on Quaint Lines’ in the Cabinet Maker (1902), both illus. Regional Furniture (2003) p. 155. Finances were not sound and by 1892 Ashbee, Adams and John Williams had to make financial loans to the Guild. On 8 September that year Adams was elected Manager of the Guild, as the representative of the Guildsman, as he was ‘the man whom we all trust and respect’. In 1895 the School failed but the Guild, although frequently hard-pressed for cash, became widely known through exhibitions in London, the provinces and internationally.

In the mid- 1890s the Guild took on more cabinet makers, including W. J. Osborn, Reinhart Read (called ‘Old Dick Read’), Tom Jeliffe, A. G. Rose and Sid Cotton. The latter had joined the Guild in 1896 at the age of thirteen and was particularly liked by Ashbee. Ashbee thought Rose to be pretentious as ‘He knows that Thursday is my day for bringing cultured and intellectual visitors round the shops; and Carlyle’s French Revolution lying negligently at the corner of his cabinetmaker’s bench... creates an impression’. In contrast, Cotton was described by Janet Ashbee as ‘a summer’s day kind of boy’ and as a ‘hysterical cabinetmaker’. At the 1896 Arts and Crafts Exhibition the Guild showed five pieces of furniture, including a plain music cabinet now at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum. Possibly prompted by an article in The Studio April 1897, Ernest Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse, commissioned Baillie Scott and Ashbee to redecorate and furnish the dining and sitting rooms at Darmstadt Palace. On this commission a degree of collaboration seems to have achieved, with Baillie Scott’s designs for furniture, metalwork and light fittings all being executed by the Guild of Handicrafts. A barrel chair and the brightly coloured music-cabinet of this commission is illus. Aslin(1962), pls. 113 & 122.

Baillie Scott’s influence nudged Ashbee’s furniture designs and the Guild’s furniture making into a more modern style and away from Ashbee’s Arts & Crafts background. For example, the green-stained oak, ebony, painted and gilded escritoire made c.1898 for the Countess of Lovelace which is illus. Livingstone, Donnelly & Parry (2016), pl. 21. The Guild also produced much plainer furniture and their prices were comparable with those of Heal’s and Liberty. An etagere, dated c. 1895, stamped The Guild of Handicraft Ltd/Essex House/BOW. E., and numbered on the reverse, was sold by Christie's, 13 May 1998 (lot 31). 

The professional relationship between Ashbee and Heal’s had probably started in 1897, with a visit by Ambrose Heal to the Guild at Essex House to discuss the manufacture of the first bedroom suites which Heal had designed. These were ‘216’ Newlyn in fumed oak, ‘217’ Bushey in mahogany and ‘222’ St Ives in fumed oak, all sold from Heal’s in Tottenham Court Road. The Guild’s furniture workshop now had ten men who by the end 1897 had produced 21 sets of the St Ives and 4 each of the more expensive two ranges of Heal’s bedroom suites. Examples and catalogue illustrations of these suites are illus. Heal (2014), pp. 151-2. The success of these suites and the lack of capacity for expansion at the Guild led to Heal’s creating its own cabinet factory and Charles V. Adams, up to then Ashbee’s foreman cabinet maker, was recruited to manage these new premises from October 1897. Other Guildsmen are also believed to have moved over to Heal’s. In 1898 the Guild made eleven ‘235’ Mansfield fumed oak gents’ wardrobes (illus. Heal (2014), p. 157) but from 1899 the Guild no longer supplied Heal’s. Other work may have been executed for the Scottish firm of Wylie and Lochhead. In the Royal Reception Rooms of their pavilion at the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901, Wylie and Lochhead displayed a clock designed by Ashbee and it is thought the firm possibly bought other furniture and objects from the Guild. 

In 1898 Ashbee married Janet Elizabeth Forbes, an accomplished musician who was also devoted to the work of the Guild. In the same year Ashbee decided to turn the Guild into a limited company with each Guildsman being granted shares according to his length of service. Throughout the 1890s Ashbee had maintained his architectural practice and played an active part in the formation of the National Trust, but his real dream was to create a rural community of craftsmen. Weekend and country cottages had been set up to enable the city Guildsmen, apprentices and their families to meet and work in Essex, Middlesex, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. The love of the countryside was shared by many guildsmen too; in the early 1890s H. Phillips, a carpenter, conducted a short-lived ‘Country Centre’ of the Guild at the progressive school for boys at Abbotsholme in Staffordshire. From 1891-99 there had been an annual river trip organised for the apprentices, and entertainments and plays for all were mounted to extol the ‘community spirit’ of the Guild. By 1900, when the lease on Essex House had only two years to run, the search intensified for new workshops. Mile End, Bow, South Byfleet, Fulham & Chelsea, Putney and Brompton, Ruislip and Harrow were all considered. After a poll of Guild members the final choice was an old silk mill and some empty cottages in Sheep Street, Chipping Campden, and in Spring 1902 Ashbee led the exodus of 150 tradesmen and their families from the East End. The new group included many of the established guildsmen and the carver Alec Miller (1879-1961), who became the head of wood carving and modelling.

Not all the Guildsmen enjoyed the change. Herbert Osborn, an ivory turner, was disappointed with the living conditions on offer in the town by the Guild and, although the family stayed on, Mrs Osborn reputedly never went out. However this negativity was not shared by the majority and contemporary photographs show the activities of the Guildsmen and their families outside of work; acting, brass bands, swimming, cooking, gardening and gymnastics. Newcomers to the Guild included Will Hart, a carver and gilder known as the ‘Skipper’ because of his previous career in the navy, a man of great common sense and practicality who during the First World War rose to the rank of major. Guild furniture was exhibited at one of the Vienna Secession exhibitions and described by an Austrian critic as ‘like pieces of brown bread… English Biedermeir, plain, strong and heavy’.

Around this time the Guild started producing illustrated catalogues. A significant Guild commission was the library at Madresfield Court for William, 7th Earl of Beauchamp and his wife, Lettice (1902-3 & 1905) including doors and bookcases carvings by Alec Miller. In 1903 the Guild opened a gallery in Dering Yard, 67a New Bond Street, London, where there was space for furniture to be displayed, and thereafter furniture was made for stock as well as for exhibitions or for commissions. Frequent visitors to Chipping Campden included the designer Walter Crane and the poet John Masefield. A photograph of the Guild probably taken in the winter of 1906-07 showed the following craftsmen connected with the furniture making side; the cabinet makers Walter Curtis, Tom Jeliffe, Wally Curtis, William Wall, Jim Pyment, Bill Ride, Arthur Bunten; Will Hart (carver), Herbert Osborn (ivory turner), Charley Plunkett (French polisher) and Alec Miller (carver and modeller). The rural idyll only lasted 6 years due to continuing financial difficulties. The balance sheet of 1905 showed a substantial loss of £958 and in 1907/8 the company went into voluntary liquidation. A sale of stock began on 11 June 1906 with price reductions of 30%-60%. Some furniture ended up with the Guild’s shareholders as payment in lieu of dividends

After the Guild folded Ashbee remained in Chipping Campden and in 1911 he leased the Norman Chapel at Broad Campden, from Ananda and Ethel Coormaraswamy, before leaving the area in 1919. Of the remaining Guildsmen, the younger ones went off to active war service and others into war production. By 1908 the tenants of the Guild’s estate at Broad Campden were mainly locals rather than Guildsmen and in 1912 Ashbee began to work on a housing scheme which would enable the smallholders to live and work on the estate. He persuaded a friend, Joseph Fels, to finance a scheme for those craftsmen who had decided to stay at Chipping Campden by buying 70 acres of land, enabling the Guildsmen to supplement their craft earnings with agricultural work. Will Hart’s brother, George, farmed a large section of the new farm enterprise, and overall the land was divided up between locals and Guildsmen, the former outnumbering the latter. Other men returned to London. The Guild of Handicrafts provided premises for Alec Miller to continue wood carving and for two blacksmiths, Bill Thornsmith and Charley Downer. The Guild formally disbanded in 1921. 

Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum holds copies of the following: A description of the work of the Guild of Handicraft (1902); the catalogue of The Guild of Handicraft Ltd (c.1906) and the catalogue of the 1924 exhibition Chipping Campden Exhibition of Arts and Crafts in which the Guild’s work featured. The museum also holds a number of pieces of furniture produced by the Guild, including a cabinet first exhibited at the Woodbury Gallery, London, in 1902 which was later owned by Mrs Ashbee at the Magpie and Stump. Another writing cabinet on a stand which also became part of Mrs Ashbee’s furnishings is now at the V&A (Circ.234-1960). It was made by W. W. Ride and J. W. Pyment with leather work by Anne Statia Powers.

Sources: Aslin, 19th Century English Furniture (1962); Symonds & Whineray, Victorian Furniture (1962); Agius, British Furniture 1880-1915 (1978); Lambourne, Utopian Craftsmen, (1980); Crawford, C R Ashbee. Architect, Designer & Romantic Socialist (1985);Kinchin, ‘The Wylie & Lochhead Style’, The Decorative Arts Society 1850-1932 (1985); Gere & Whiteway, Nineteenth-Century Design.  From Pugin to Mackintosh (1993); Carruthers and Greensted, Good Citizen’s Furniture, The Arts & Crafts Collections at Cheltenham (1994); Greensted, ‘The Arts and Crafts Movement collections at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum’, The Decorative Arts Society 1850-1932 (2000); Bowe, ‘A Cotswold-inspired venture towards Modernism in Ireland: Edward Richards Orpen (1884-1967) and the Grange Furniture Industry 1927 – 1932', The Decorative Arts Society 1850-1932 (2003); Denney, ‘Quaint Furniture, Furniture History (2003); Greensted and Wilson, Originality and Initiative.  The Arts and Crafts archives at Cheltenham (2003); Carruthers, ‘William Morris and Scotland’,  The Decorative Arts Society 1850-1932 (2004); Carruthers, The Arts and Crafts Movement in Scotland (2013); Heal, Sir Ambrose Heal and the Heal Cabinet Factory 1897-1939 (2014); Livingstone, Donnelly & Parry, C F A Voysey Arts & Crafts Designer (2016); Carruthers, Greensted, Roscoe, Ernest Gimson.  Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect (2019).