William Morris on early American colonial furniture believed that only by turning back to the past could civilised amenities be preserved. That industry' could ever be made orderly and clean and civilised never occurred to him; and perhaps in the days when Victorian individualism was unchained and raging, any idea of tidying up industry may well have seemed quite hopeless. Outraged by its external untidiness, by its vast carelessness, by its casual pollution of water, land and air, Morris put industry out of his mind as far as he could, and never thought of its potential activities, of what it might be made to do if designers took a share in controlling it instead of leaving it entirely in the hands of business men and uncaring technicians. If William Morris had lived in these disillusioned times instead of in a period when industrial prosperity seemed so safe, so certain, so amply assured of progressive expansion, his conviction that mechanical production was evil might have impelled him, to start a really vigorous movement for its abolition. Living when he did, he only founded an escapist cult, which has comforted a large number of nervous and ineffectual people ever since.
Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, in The Economic Laws of Art Production, discusses the repudiation of the productive powers of industry of early American colonial furniture makers by William Morris. `No one', he writes, `was more keenly sensible than William Morris of the inherent contradiction between certain features of the revival of English arts and crafts, which he initiated, and the social and economic conditions of the mass of the English population at the time. His own art production, magnificent as it was, was predominantly an art de luxe, and so far as its patrons were private individuals they were mostly persons far above the average in riches. This was certainly not because the prices charged were excessive, but because the works were essentially costly to produce. There is evidence in Dr. Mackail's Life of William Morris that the contradiction was to him a continual source of disquiet. His own proposed solution was not to reconcile his art work to the necessities imposed by current conditions (that would probably have seemed to him a debasement of art), but rather to bring art within reach of the mass of the people by a total change in their economic position." To effect this change Morris wanted a revolution. Today we are apt to forget his militant socialism, and can recall only the passive dreaming of News from Nowhere. While awaiting the social revolution, you went to the Cotswolds and did weaving or exotic embroidery upon slippers, committing the most fearful patterns in the name of handicraft, a practice deemed necessary before the decree nisi of divorce from one's own century could be pronounced. The result of all this self-conscious withdrawal from the industrial age was the hermit craftsman. Numbers of people retired from the world into remote parts of the country and started to make early American colonial furniture the wallpaper and furniture-fabric manufacturers; so casually flimsy for the thickly clothed bodies whose pompous curves has hitherto been supported by the dignities of mahogany, swollen with all the pride of obese turning. Yet fluid decoration had not been unknown in England before. There were impeccable precedents for naturalistic forms: those chasing, curving vine-leaf friezes of early Tudor times; the streaming foliage of Gothic stone-work. Even heart-shaped piercing is to be found in the back splats of countrymade Georgian chairs occasionally. But these things were forgotten; or perhaps they were never heard of by the late Victorians. People were only anxious to be relieved of the shouting, carnival vigour of this strange style. It went, and with it went all hope of encouragement or widespread patronage for original design.
Apart from the experiments of Ambrose Heal (now Sir Ambrose), hardly anything modern was being made in London in the opening of the twentieth century. Anybody who wanted furniture was on the look-out for `bargains' in old things. There were honest and earnest attempts to recapture the `charm' of Georgian and Stuart interiors, The word `charm' was bandied about together with the word `artistic' until both terms ceased to have any meaning in the English language. They have gone the way of `quality', `exclusive', and `original'; words that have been applied to so many shoddy and early American colonial furniture disreputable things by traders that they are now devoid of significance. Presently the antique dealer contributed new descriptive terms, such as `genuine' and `restored'.
`I want to see your reproductive furniture', said the innocent client to the salesman in a New York store. Well might it be called `reproductive', this stuff labelled 'antique'; and The New Yorker on early American colonial furniture when it published that joke was more apt than perhaps its editors realised. The word `restored' only came into current use when it was beginning to be obvious that the supply of antiques was not inexhaustible, and also it enabled furniture to breed as it were, as one can read very cheerfully in Quinneys, so that a couple of chairs could become a set of six by parting with a leg and a stretcher, an arm and a back splat, the missing pieces being made up with new parts, and the set of six could then be described as being genuine `pieces' of antique workmanship. There was a fortune in the word `restored', and showroom after showroom in London and the provinces was filled and emptied month by month and year by year, and into the homes of the credulous this crippled crowd of `restored' chairs and tables and chests thrust aside for a quarter of a century the possibility of good contemporary work being encouraged by adequate patronage.
The early American colonial furniture trade, seeing that antique furniture was popular began its own lamentable, career of imitation. Avid of labels, it seized upon the standard descriptions of various periods. `taco' stood impartially for any watered-down machine-made copy of, furniture constructed between 16oo and 168o. `Queen Anne' was attached to anything that had cabriole legs. `Chippendale' was the term generally applied to any furniture made of dark red wood, and in the low-grade branches of furniture production, `Chippendale' was regarded as a colour almost exclusively. `Sheraton' meant something thinner than `Chippendale' in form, and a few shades lighter in colour. Anything that had rather a lot of carving or stamped composition ornament glued or nailed on to its surface and was splashed about with gold paint was called `Louis'. The big furniture-making centres in England, High Wycombe, Shoreditch, Manchester and Barnstaple and in Scotland, Beith (in Ayrshire), were all busy turning out accurate and inaccurate copies of the period styles, and in that repellent branch of furniture production known in the trade as `medium class goods' only caricatures were made by the factories, caricatures of noble things that English designers had once taken pride in creating.
Quite unjustly, the machine in manufacturing of early American colonial furniture was blamed for all this. The, term 'machine-made' became one of abuse. But the machine was never given a chance to do its best. It was always under the control of uneducated men. It was never under the control or even under the occasional supervision of a designer. Since 1840 or thereabouts the industrial designer has been the missing technician in British industry. William Morris, with his honest disgust for shoddiness, had turned away from machinery, and, all unconsciously, began a movement which was to delay the civilising of industry for at least half a century. The best effect of William Morris's work was his inspiration of certain young artist-craftsmen and architects like Ernest Gimson. To the work of such men as Gimson, Barnsley, A. Romney Green and, since the first world war, to Gordon Russell, we owe a big proportion of the original furniture design of the twentieth century. In the 'nineties and the Edwardian period, Mr. C. R. Ashbee was designing furniture and metalwork, also George Walton, and many architects were giving thought to the creation of furniture forms, including such designers as Mr. Baillie Scott, Mr. F. W. Troup, Mr. C. R. Mackintosh and later Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Ernest Gimson and Sydney Barnsley together gave vitality early American colonial furniture to all that was best in the ideas of William Morris. Gimson met Morris in 1884.1 For twenty-five years Gimson lived and worked at Pinbury and Sapperton in Gloucestershire. He revived something that had been waning since the advent of machine production, namely, the ability of the craftsman to design for and with a material that he loved and understood. The chapter contributed by Mr. A. H. Powell to the Ernest Gimson Memorial Volume, condenses in one paragraph the results of that work.
`At the first glance all was of an extraordinary interest. Then one saw the beauty of the work: the substance, the development of the various woods, of the ivory, the silver, the brass, of inlays of coloured woods and shell. It was inevitable that you should find in the work now and then a humorous use of peculiar materials, an enjoyment of surprise; and for the work itself I have seen educated men and women, who might have been expected to behave differently, unable, short of actual laughter, to satisfy their delight in such a perfect union of good workmanship with happy thought.'
Gimson was a craftsman endowed with the ability of a designer. He was not just a designer who dabbled in
Handicraft in early American colonial furniture and knew how to employ other craftsmen. It is important to recognise his ability as a designer, for it is sometimes supposed that an accomplished craftsman is by virtue of his manual dexterity a designer. The craftsman, left to his own common sense, may devise something that is fit for its purpose, but he may overdecorate it like any savage; he may be unaware of innumerable opportunities for refining the proportions of various members; he may achieve a solid straightforwardness, a rustic simplicity, but in the absence of a continuous tradition of furniture-making to nourish his invention and provide him with guiding precedents, he must improvise, and, unless he has the selective and inventive skill of a designer, his improvisations may be discords. By mastering the craft of woodworking, Gimson, the sensitive and accomplished designer, brought to furniture-making the individual genius it had lacked since the death of Sheraton. After Sheraton there had been no great names associated with English furniture. The supply of men with ideas disciplined by a craftsman's training had dried up: there were plenty of drawing-board men, and the Victorian age is grim with the indiscretions of their taste. Sheraton was a craftsman before he started publishing books on design; Hepplewhite was a craftsman; so was Chippendale. Gimson's affinities with the traditional English craftsman are indisputable; and posterity will probably single out his name when it seeks for evidence of early twentieth-century ability in furniture design. But he did not follow the line of fashionable designers that ended with Sheraton. His work continued, unconsciously, the developments that had been suspended by the Restoration of Charles II.