We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Charles Robert Ashbee (1863–1942), by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1900 Charles Robert Ashbee (1863–1942), by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1900
Ashbee, Charles Robert (1863–1942), architect, designer, and social reformer, was born on 17 May 1863 at Spring Grove, Heston, Isleworth, Middlesex, the first of the four children of , merchant and book collector, and his wife, Elizabeth Josephine Jenny (1841–1919), daughter of Edward Otto Charles Lavy of Hamburg and his wife, Marian Benjamin.

Childhood and education

In 1865 Ashbee's parents moved to 46 Upper Bedford Place, Bloomsbury, and it was here, in the comfortable household of an increasingly wealthy London merchant, that he and his three sisters grew up. H. S. Ashbee is now famous for his outstanding collection of erotic books, assembled in the 1870s and 1880s, and for published catalogues of erotic literature. But these interests do not seem to have disturbed the even tenor of family life at Upper Bedford Place, which was presided over by H. S. Ashbee's small, strict, German-Jewish wife. Elizabeth Ashbee loved her only son almost too much; and his love for her was, perhaps, the most enduring attachment of his life.

Ashbee was educated at Wellington College, and then at King's College, Cambridge (1883–6). What he learned at Cambridge came not from the academic history which he studied, but from the shared intellectual life of his circle of high-minded friends at King's College. Socialists in a loose, non-political sense, they were anxious to temper the late Victorian inequalities of wealth and class. Friendships within the circle were intense, and at Cambridge Ashbee came to accept his own homosexuality, helped by the guidance of Edward Carpenter, the socialist and simple life enthusiast, who urged that love between men might work to break down the barriers of class. He had already developed an interest in art, perhaps at first just because he was good at drawing. Now he found in the writings of John Ruskin a critique of industrial society in the name of art which strengthened his aesthetic responses, linking them to his social concerns. He learned, too, to think of himself as part of an intellectual élite, abreast of the latest ideas, interpreting the world. The values, interests, and identity which Ashbee acquired in these years remained with him for the rest of his life. He left the university—having decided to train as an architect—full of a powerful but rather unfocused urge to do good in the world.

The establishment of the Guild of Handicraft

In the autumn of 1886 Ashbee began work as an articled pupil of Bodley and Garner, the leading church architects of the day. He took up residence at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, east London, which had been set up in 1884 in response to the public outcry the previous year when reports of poverty, disease, overcrowding, and crime in east London, and particularly in Whitechapel, had shocked middle-class London. It was a university settlement where graduates from Oxford and Cambridge could live among the poor while carrying on their own professional work. Residents were expected to do some educational or social work in the area: Ashbee ran a Ruskin reading class. Out of this experience grew the idea of a workshop which would double as a craft school in the evening, and on 23 June 1888 the Guild and School of Handicraft was opened on the top floor of a warehouse at 34 Commercial Street, next to Toynbee Hall. There were four workmen at first, under the direction of the twenty-five-year-old Ashbee, making furniture, metalwork, and painted decorations. With its idealized sense of craft, derived from Ruskin, William Morris, and the burgeoning arts and crafts movement, and its social mission derived from the settlement movement, the guild was quite unlike the surrounding poverty-driven workshops of Whitechapel.

In 1891 Ashbee moved the workshops of the guild from 34 Commercial Street to Essex House, at 401 Mile End Road, an early eighteenth-century mansion on the borders of Mile End and Bow; he believed that the guild would be more at home among a less deprived, more solidly artisan population. The guild prospered at Essex House and by 1900 was employing about forty men, although the School of Handicraft had to close in 1895. At this stage, and for many years to come, the guild was the centre of Ashbee's life, and very much his creation. But it was also an attempt to give power to the men who worked there. It was a co-operative workshop, with important decisions made by the guild in committee and profits (when there were any) shared among the members. Although Ashbee designed most of the guild products, he worked hard to nurture the craftsmen's own creativity. In a sense it was not this table or that decanter that was the object of his creativity, but the human story of the guild. And just as his workshops stood far to the east of other arts and crafts workshops in London, so Ashbee stood apart in the arts and crafts movement because he was mainly interested not in design or technique or the reform of public taste, but in the workshop experience of the men—and at this stage they were all men—whom he employed.

Character, and life in the 1890s

Ashbee was, in general, a solitary figure who did not work easily with other men as equals. In the guild he had created for himself a little kingdom, and a role that cut across professional boundaries. He put ‘Architect’ on his letterhead, but he was also a designer, businessman, journalist, and teacher. Some people thought him a fop, which seems a strange term for a man who worked so hard and so imaginatively in the East End of London. But he could be stagey in public as a way of protecting himself, and was known to carefully time his entrances at parties. Lanky and intense, with big, searching eyes, a full moustache, and a wispy beard, he resembled J. A. M. Whistler, especially in the years when he used an eye-glass. With friends and family he could be more easy, though he was not easily detained by creature comforts. In the guild, where he was known as C. R. A., it was part of the openness he had created that to some he was just the boss, while to others, usually the younger men, he could be as much friend or mentor as employer. In photographs of the guild he usually appears in crumpled clothes, sprawled on the grass on a guild picnic or camping holiday. These were, perhaps, his happiest times.

In the early 1890s Ashbee lived at Essex House, but in 1893 he designed a house at 37 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea (dem.), for his mother, himself and his two unmarried sisters. In the same year his mother obtained a legal separation from her husband, in circumstances which remain unclear. Between 1896 and 1913 Ashbee designed six more houses on Cheyne Walk which used the language of jumbled, riverside streetscape to evoke a romantic sense of Chelsea's past. They were his best architectural works, but only two (nos. 38 and 39) survive. The guild in Mile End remained his chief concern, but he now moved more in Chelsea's artistic circles and became a Londoner of two worlds, bicycling between the two.

Ashbee was single, energetic, and idealistic, and his time in the 1890s was full. He lectured for the Oxford University extension, harnessing the history of English architecture or decorative art to his own social philosophy of craft. In 1894, shocked by the demolition of a fine early seventeenth-century manor house in Bromley by Bow, he set up the committee for the survey of the memorials of Greater London, to guard against the loss of historic buildings in London. From the late 1890s the committee collaborated with the London county council, and its work continued throughout the twentieth century in the scholarly volumes of the Survey of London. Also in 1894 he published A Few Chapters in Workshop Re-Construction and Citizenship, the first of a handful of books which form a kind of commentary on the fortunes of the guild; they stand out among the rather cloistered writings of the arts and crafts movement for their practical engagement with current ideas and social policy. In 1896 he spent six weeks in the United States, lecturing for the American Society for the Extension of University Teaching. This was the prelude to seven more lecture tours, and a generally untroubled love affair with the United States.

Meanwhile, in Mile End, the guild was prospering. The workshops now included jewellers, silversmiths, enamellers, and blacksmiths, and in March 1898 they took over the staff and presses of William Morris's Kelmscott Press to form the Essex House Press. The guild as a whole was profitable. In July 1898 it was registered as a limited company, bringing security and some investment, and in the spring of 1899 a shop was opened in the West End, at 16A Brook Street. (Ashbee relished success, but worried that it took the guild out of his control and made it impersonal.) His designs for decorative art were now original and assured. For jewellery and domestic silverware he made simple designs which left room for the craftsman's intervention, using pieces of silver wire and hammered metal, coloured stones, and enamel. These were arguably the first distinctly arts and crafts work in these media, and their style was taken up by other arts and crafts designers. In the years around the turn of the twentieth century guild work was exhibited and published, not just in Britain but also in the United States and in the parts of Europe where the self-conscious simplicity of British arts and crafts work was admired. Ashbee, as a distinct figure in the movement, had his share of exhibition invitations and enthusiastic articles.

Marriage and the move to Chipping Campden

On 8 September 1898 Ashbee married Janet Elizabeth (1877–1961), daughter of Francis Augustine Forbes, a stockbroker from Kent who had been an early supporter of the guild. She was a solitary, robustly intelligent, and rather beautiful young woman fourteen years his junior. Neither partner was moved by very powerful feelings of attachment, and the marriage is not easy to understand, except that both were anxious to get away from their respective families. On their engagement he wrote her a long letter about comradeship and his men and boy friends, saying that there might be many comrade-friends but there could be only one comrade-wife. She knew so little about sex that she probably did not understand his high-flown words. It was an unpromising start, and the marriage was childless for many years. But it was not a bad marriage for all that. At first she was something of an acolyte to him, wondering at the sophistication of their life in Chelsea; but she soon learned the value of her freedom. Her tomboyish character appealed to him, and, almost without knowing it, Ashbee needed her natural intelligence to offset his own too intellectual life.

In the spring and early summer of 1902 Ashbee moved the guild workshops again, this time to the little town of Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds, three hours from London by train. He was influenced, as so often, by large ideas, the arts and crafts movement's romanticized version of the countryside, and current concern over health in working-class areas of big cities, aroused by the statistics of South African War recruiting campaigns. The beauty and quiet of the town moved him too. About 150 men, women, and children were involved in the move, adding 10 per cent to the population of the town. After some early tensions, the guild's new home began to seem at least a bit like the workshop paradise that visiting journalists described. In addition, Ashbee found welcome architectural work, repairing and adding to the buildings of the town, including a ruined Norman chapel which he recast, very movingly, as a dwelling for the Anglo-Sinhalese scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy.

Then, from 1905 onwards, the guild's balance sheets began to show losses. A business manager was appointed; the Essex House Press was closed down, and the guild craftsmen attempted to make more of what the public wanted, but the losses continued, and in the autumn of 1907 it was decided that the Guild of Handicraft Limited should go into liquidation. Characteristically, Ashbee's response was to write a brave, detailed, and wide-ranging commentary on the guild's recent experiences, entitled Craftsmanship in Competitive Industry (1908). It seems obvious, in broad terms, that the move to Chipping Campden lay behind the failure of the limited company, and Ashbee acknowledged this among other causes. But he did not want to go back to London and start again—though most of the guildsmen were obliged to do so—since that would be to throw away what they had learned in the country.

Later years

The next few years were a time of adjustment for Ashbee. Nine of the guildsmen went on working in Chipping Campden under their own names, and the skeletal organization of the guild survived until it met for the last time in 1919, since it was only the limited company that had ceased to exist. But the truth was that the failure of the limited company made a large gap in his life, and he was thrown back, in his late forties, on other skills. He wrote and lectured more, pushed his architectural practice, although he was out of touch with the architectural world, and played an active part in the new town planning movement.

In March 1911 Janet Ashbee gave birth to a child, Mary. Three more children, all girls, were born in the next six years, all of them in the romantic but draughty Norman Chapel in Broad Campden which the Ashbees rented from Coomaraswamy. Ashbee's wife found the centre of her life just when Ashbee himself had lost the focus of his, a situation which cannot have been easy for him. Moreover, any hopes that Ashbee might have had of shaping a new and profitable career for himself were destroyed by the First World War. Unable to find work connected with the war, he spent a good deal of time lecturing in the United States, and then, early in 1917, took a post as lecturer in English at the Sultania training college in Cairo, freeing younger staff there to go and fight.

In the early summer of 1918 Ashbee was called from Cairo to Jerusalem by the military governor, Ronald Storrs, who asked him to write a report on the planning and repair of the city, which had just been captured by British forces from the Turks, and on the possibility of reviving traditional crafts and industries. It was an extraordinary opportunity, exactly suited to Ashbee's skills. He wrote a long and impressive report, and at the beginning of 1919 took up the non-governmental post of civic adviser in Jerusalem. His family moved to Palestine, and he set to work. It was as if he had been invited to repeat his life's work over again, but in the shadow of a longer and more troubled history, and under a stronger sun. Religious interests narrowed what could be done, but he cleared out and repaired the finest of the old market halls, the al-Qattanin souk, and started a weaving school there, brought in glass-blowers from Hebron and tile makers from Turkey and Armenia, drew up a development plan for the city as a whole, laid out gardens round the citadel, and began to repair the sixteenth-century walls of the old city, so that tourists could walk along the ramparts where Turkish guards had gone before. Much more might have been done, but Ashbee, uneasy working in any organization not his own and, though half Jewish, suspicious of the Zionists, resigned in March 1922.

Retirement and reputation

After a lecture tour in the United States—by now a habitual way of marking a turning point in his life—Ashbee settled with his family at Godden Green, near Sevenoaks, Kent, in the house in which his wife had grown up. His life, which had always been various and energetic, now slowed down, and he spent almost the next twenty years in retirement, writing, working in the garden, and sorting the thousands of letters and entries which make up the more than fifty volumes of the Ashbee journals (now in the library at King's College, Cambridge). He had not moved in London circles for many years and was now a rather forgotten figure, but history was catching up with him. In 1935 Nikolaus Pevsner sent him a draft of an article, ‘William Morris, C. R. Ashbee und das zwanzigste Jahrhundert’, and Ashbee was pleased and surprised to find ‘how famous I appear to be’ (C. R. Ashbee to J. Ashbee, 13 Feb 1935, Ashbee journals, King's Cam.). In his influential Pioneers of the Modern Movement, published in the same year, Pevsner presented Ashbee as a transitional figure, partly attached to old ways, but also readier than most arts and crafts figures to look favourably on ‘the machine’, that shibboleth of modernism. This did not pretend to be anything other than a selective account, part of a modernist genealogy, but it set the pattern for later accounts of Ashbee, and for fifty years he was seen as one of Pevsner's pioneers. More recent studies have, by way of compensation, stressed the full and various narrative of his career, the importance of his social ideals, the range of historical and symbolic allusion in his designs, and the anti-modern elements in his thinking.

Ashbee died of cancer on 23 May 1942, at Godden Green, Kent, and was buried nearby in the churchyard at Seal. All his life he had chosen to work across conventional professional boundaries, sacrificing thereby the possibility of eminence in any one field. But it is precisely the variety of his career, together with the generous project of the Guild of Handicraft and the elegant simplicity of some of his designs, that now makes him seem interesting and admirable.

Alan Crawford

Sources  

A. Crawford, C. R. Ashbee: architect, designer and romantic socialist (1985) · F. MacCarthy, The simple life: C. R. Ashbee in the Cotswolds (1981) · Ashbee journals, King's Cam. · C. R. Ashbee, ‘Grannie’: a Victorian cameo (1939) · N. Pevsner, Pioneers of the modern movement: from William Morris to Walter Gropius, 4th edn (1974) · C. R. Ashbee and the Guild of Handicraft: an exhibition organised by Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum (1981) [exhibition catalogue, Cheltenham, Sheffield, and London, 1981] · A. Carruthers and F. Johnston, The Guild of Handicraft, 1888–1998 (1988) [exhibition catalogue, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum] · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

Guild of Handicraft Trust, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, architectural drawings, designs for decorative art, photographs · King's Cam., journals, corresp., and papers · London Library, typescript memoirs and corresp. [transcripts] · LPL, architectural report for Pro-Jerusalem Society · priv. coll., papers relating to his work in Jerusalem, papers and photographs · RIBA BAL, papers · U. Oxf., department for continuing education, reports for department · V&A NAL, corresp. and papers incl. corresp. relating to the Guild of Handicraft; designs for decorative art; ‘The Ashbee memoirs’ [typescript] |  BL, corresp. with F. K. Kingsford, Add. MS 52703, passim · King's AC Cam., corresp. with Oscar Browning · LMA, papers of the committee for the survey of the memorials of Greater London and architectural notes on east London and Essex · LUL, corresp. with Thomas Sturge Moore · NL Scot., corresp. with Sir Patrick Geddes · V&A NAL, letters to G. S. Tomkinson, incl. material relating to Essex House Press


Likenesses  

F. Lloyd Wright, photograph, 1900, priv. coll. [see illus.] · W. Strang, drawing, c.1903, Art Workers Guild, London · W. Strang, drawing, 1903, King's Cam. · A. G. Wyon, bust, 1929, Art Workers Guild, London · photographs, King's Cam., Ashbee journals · photographs, Archives of the Guild of Handicraft Trust, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire

Wealth at death  

£7314 8s. 10d.: probate, 28 Sept 1942, CGPLA Eng. & Wales