Book review: The Arts and Crafts in Scotland

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The Arts and Crafts Movement began in late 19th century in England, but quickly found a sympathetic echo here in Scotland.

The work produced under its aegis is the subject of a new and beautifully produced book. In its first three chapters, Annette Carruthers explains of how these ideas came to Scotland, although she does not present in any concise form what they actually were.

Briefly, however, deriving from Carlyle, Ruskin and Owen Jones, they were the dignity of labour, truth to materials, the social value of art, both in the making and the appreciation and, above all, the expression of that value though the union of art and architecture. These ideas quickly found Scottish champions. The teaching and writing of Patrick Geddes was very influential, for instance. (Geddes, however, was never a “visionary teacher at Edinburgh University” as Caruthers describes him. He was only ever a lowly assistant in botany. It was a sore point.)

The architecture of Sir Robert Rowand Anderson was also an important antecedent. So too was Patrick Allan Fraser’s Hospitalfield House, but it gets no mention. In Scotland, William Morris, leader of the movement, was preaching to the converted, at least as far as art was concerned (less so with his socialist politics).

The author then proceeds to give an account of Arts and Craft activity in the four Scottish cities in the 1890s. I am glad to say she does include Charles Rennie Mackintosh here, even if she treads rather gingerly. The story of Scottish art is too often bedeviled by Glasgow exceptionalism as though what happened there had nothing to do with what happened anywhere else.

She then deals separately with the smaller centres and the countryside. One of the most striking Arts and Crafts buildings in Scotland, Melsetter House in Orkney, is also the most remote. It was designed by WR Lethaby, one of the English leaders of the movement, and a whole chapter is devoted to it. What isn’t mentioned, however, is that Morely Fletcher, first director of Edinburgh College of Art, was a disciple of both Lethaby and Walter Crane, spokesman of the Arts and Crafts Movement. William Johnstone recorded that the first thing Fletcher told him to do when he enrolled in the College was read Lethaby. Johnstone did so with far-reaching consequences for his art and his teaching, but of course, through Fletcher, Lethaby’s ideas also helped shape the whole college. It was an Arts and Crafts institution.

Two further monographic chapters follow Melsetter, one on Phoebe Traquair, the other on Sir Robert Lorimer. Traquair was master in an astonishing variety of crafts; Lorimer was not far short of an architectural genius. For both of them, too, respect for the art of the past was key. One of Lorimer’s first successes was, for instance, the restoration in the 1890s of Earlshall, a 16th-century castellated house in Fife. Crucially, however, Lorimer and Traquair and others like them did not treat the past as a pattern book. Rather it was a source of ideas, to be learnt from, but not simply imitated. This was by no means incompatible with being modern, although the strength of the hold that these ideas had in Scotland may have contributed to Scots resistance to imported notions of modernity.

The last part of the book deals with the period between 1900 and 1914 and concludes with Lorimer’s Scottish National War Memorial. Lorimer was a pupil of Rowand Anderson and as a national shrine the latter’s Scottish National Portrait Gallery is the war memorial’s obvious precedent. A vehicle of expression for a whole society, co-operatively produced, the war memorial is nevertheless the single most ambitious expression of Arts and Crafts ideals in Scotland. Notably, too, in contrast to the very different and still prevailing ethos of Modernism, the artists involved subordinated their individuality to the discipline of the co-operative effort. That really was the Arts and Crafts ideal. Indeed Crane argued that the greatest art as we see it in the cathedrals of the Middle Ages is anonymous. It is not surprising that the leaders of the movement were Socialists, even if that sits uncomfortably with building beautiful country houses for the rich. What Carruthers doesn’t notice, however, is a different political dimension: how Hugh MacDiarmid and JD Fergusson both tried to adapt Arts and Crafts ideals to modern Scotland by seeing the great ships built on the Clyde as masterpieces of anonymous co-operation, modern cathedrals in fact. Arts and Crafts ideas penetrated the Scottish artistic consciousness very deeply.

The illustration of Carruthers’s book is witness to the richness of the art this movement produced – even later than she allows. Reginald Fairlie, a pupil of Lorimer, designed the National Library in the 1930s. In the Arts and Crafts tradition, Hew Lorimer (Sir Robert’s son) was commissioned to decorate it with sculptures of the Liberal Arts. The building was not completed till the 1950s, however, and Hew told me later that he had originally planned to fill with flowers the empty apron of Poetry, the beautiful central figure, but by the time he came to do the work, taste had changed so much nothing so frivolous or decorative was acceptable any more. It is a measure of how much Scotland’s art and architecture were once dominated by the Arts and Crafts Movement, but how quickly and completely we turned our back on it. This book reminds us to look again at this rich heritage.