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PETER FROST recommends a summer-long celebration of an influential design movement. Arts and Crafts Summer is at Compton Verney Art Gallery, Warwickshire. 

FOUNDED by socialist writers, artists, architects and designers, the arts and crafts movement found one expression in the design of some very impressive houses and gardens such as William Morris’s Kelscott Manor in the Cotswolds.

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Now, bringing together drawings and artefacts from some of the greatest of these houses, a major exhibition at Compton Verney Art Gallery in Warwickshire is celebrating those who designed, built, decorated and furnished them.

There’s also a handicraft exhibition by the Cotswold-based Hart silversmiths, established in the late 19th century and still going strong, and a wildflower meadow based on a William Morris fabric design.

Socialists like Morris, John Ruskin, Charles Robert Ashbee and many others were horrified by working and living conditions in Victorian Britain.

The industrial revolution had brought wealth to the capitalist class but slum housing and “dark satanic mills” to workers who had flocked to the towns and cities, leaving the clean air and simple manual labour of country life.

Taking an essentially anti-industrial stance, both Morris and Ruskin believed passionately in craftsmanship and the dignity of labour.

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They proposed an alternative to mass production, shoddy goods and sweated labour. Ironically, the grand and expensive arts and craft houses would never be homes to working-class people but their influence on architecture and town planning would trickle down to less expensive housing.

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An appreciation of rural life, vernacular architecture and craft traditions was also celebrated by designers, many of whom, like Ashbee, would decamp to the countryside to set up craft communities.

Ashbee moved his Guild of Handicraft from London’s East End to the Cotswolds. Generations of silversmiths in the Hart family have kept up Ashbee’s dream and his workshop (below) in a Chipping Campden silk mill lives on today.

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New objects, some truly impressive and some specially commissioned, are included at Compton Verney, though I’d have preferred more on the rich history of the movement.

One field in which the socialist wing of the arts and crafts movement proved to be important was social housing.

The Quaker Cadbury family  — of chocolate fame — built Bournville, south of Birmingham, a garden estate of healthy light and airy cottages.

And, at Port Sunlight, soap baron William Lever built an arts and crafts estate set into a natural landscape of streams, bridges and meadows.

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Arts and crafts houses certainly inspired Ebenezer Howard and his socialist garden city movement.

Started at Letchworth in Hertfordshire it spread not just in Britain but worldwide, inspiring similar developments in Australia’s Canberra, Hellerau in Germany, Tapanila in Finland and Mezaparks in Latvia.

There is also some good evidence that Lenin, in London for the 1907 congress of the Bolshevik Party, took time out to visit the socialist-inspired Letchworth.

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He was so impressed that much later he encouraged the Soviet architect Vladimir Semionov to adopt the Letchworth principles in the young Soviet Union.

Semionov — already well-known in Russia — sought exile to London in 1901 where  he worked as an architect and, like Lenin, was inspired by the garden city movement.

He returned to Russia in 1912, by which time Letchworth was already inspiring socialists everywhere.

After the 1917 revolution, with Lenin’s support, Semionov and other Bolshevik fans of the garden city movement became key players in Soviet architecture and planning.

They designed the cities of Stalingrad, now Volgograd (below), and Kharkov on principles they had learned from socialist Letchworth.

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That’s an indication of how global the reach of the movement became.

The exhibition runs until September 13, details: comptonverney.org.uk

This review first appeared in the Morning Star 25 July 2015

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