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Reference group
Founder members of the Art-Workers' Guild (act. 1884–1899) were a group of painters, sculptors, architects, and designers who wished to counteract what they saw as a growing, and dangerous, division between their arts. This was, of course, not a new insight. A generation before, the Great Exhibition of 1851 was widely seen as providing proof of England's artistic inferiority, while the writings of John Ruskin and Augustus Pugin similarly articulated a sense of failure and advocated what became known as the ‘unity of art’. Nor were groups intended to heal this rift unprecedented. William Morris was an early pioneer in this respect, and A. H. Mackmurdo's Century Guild was founded in 1882 on similar lines. None the less, the Art-Workers' Guild was to become the supreme expression of this tendency: outlasting Mackmurdo's enterprise; recruiting William Morris; and inspiring a number of other influential organizations.

The guild grew out of two other groups: the St George's Art Society and the Fifteen. The first of these was the Fifteen, founded in the winter of 1881 by the decorative artist Lewis F. Day, and named after a popular puzzle of the period. Day was joined by E. F. Brentnall, the glass painter Arthur Kennedy (d. 1906), the illustrator Walter Crane, and the sculptor George Blackall Simonds [see under Simonds family]. The other members were the architects J. D. Sedding, Hugh Stannas (1840–1908), and G. T. Robinson (1827/8–1897), and the painters Henry Holiday, James Dromgole Linton (1840–1916), T. M. Rooke (1842–1942), and Alfred Sacheverell Coke (fl. 1869–1893). To these founders were later added another clutch of painters: Thomas Erat Harrison (1853–1917), J. T. Nettleship (1841–1902), Henry Page, and H. M. Paget (1856–1936). The Fifteen—who never numbered as many as their name suggested—met monthly between October and May to read papers on the decorative arts.

The St George's Art Society was founded in 1883 by a group of young architects with experience of work in the office of Richard Norman Shaw: E. J. May (1853–1914), E. G. Hardy (fl. 1881–1887), Gerald Horsley (1862–1917), W. R. Lethaby, Mervyn Macartney (1853–1932), Ernest Newton, and E. S. Prior. It was the last five members—Horsley, Lethaby, Macartney, Newton, and Prior—who initiated the Art-Workers' Guild, meeting in Newton's rooms and drawing in the metal worker W. A. S. Benson and his housemate, the designer Heywood Sumner. Mervyn Macartney's brother, the painter C. H. H. Macartney (1842–1924), and Gerald Horsley's brother, the painter Walter Horsley (1855–1934), were also consulted—as were the sculptors Hamo Thornycroft and Onslow Ford, and the architect John Belcher. ‘Painters, Sculptors, and Architects’, wrote Prior on 13 November 1883,
are in danger of settling permanently into three distinct professions, oblivious of one another's aims. A Society is wanted to restore their former union with one another with a programme of cohesion such as the Royal Academy hardly now suggests, and which the Institute of British Architects has deliberately rejected. (Massé, 8)
It was a popular call, and by early 1884 numerous other arts and craftsmen were keen to join up, including Sedding, Simonds, and Day from the Fifteen. From the architectural profession, Somers Clarke (1841–1926) and his partner J. T. Micklethwaite were joined by W. C. Marshall (1849–1918) and by his old employer Basil Champneys, who had also taught W. A. S. Benson when he had trained as an architect. The painters Herbert Schmalz (1856–1935), Alfred Parsons, J. McLure Hamilton (1853–1936), and W. R. Symonds (1851–1934) were likewise persuaded to join, along with the etcher T. Blake Wirgman (1848–1925).

The first gathering of the prospective guildsmen was held in the Charing Cross Hotel on 18 January 1884, with John Belcher in the chair. After some debate it was agreed to invite others to join a society ‘for promoting greater intercourse among the Arts’ (Massé, 10). On 11 March the guild was constituted, named, and held its first full meeting. Within the next few months two dozen more members had been elected: Stannus, Crane, Linton, and Robinson from the Fifteen; and a large number of painters from further afield, among them Matthew Hale (1852–1924), G. H. Boughton, Ernest Waterlow, W. B. Richmond, H. Stacy Marks, Edward Poynter, and Adrian Scott Stokes. There were also architects including Beresford Pite and T. W. Cutler (1841/2–1909), a paper stainer, Metford Warner (d. 1930), and an engraver, W. H. Hooper (d. 1912). By the first annual meeting on 5 December 1884 there were 56 members: 26 painters, 15 architects, 4 sculptors, and 11 other craftsmen.

The guild quickly settled into a familiar pattern: holding fortnightly meetings at which papers on the arts and crafts were given and discussed; organizing revels and an annual meeting in the countryside; electing a committee, appointing a master, and nominating new members. There were trips to the continent which, in the early 1890s, inspired George Bernard Shaw's play Candida. Although women were not allowed to join the guild, there were also regular ladies' nights. Discussions varied from the highly technical to the generally accessible and dealt with a remarkable range of topics. In the first decade of the guild's existence they included papers on the history of English pottery, a debate on town-planning proposals, an exhibition of plaster ceilings, and a demonstration of copper-plate printing. They were accompanied by much smoking and interspersed with breaks that allowed guildsmen to recharge their glasses. From 1884 to 1888 meetings were held in rooms rented from the Century Club in Pall Mall; then, until 1894, the guild occupied Barnard's Inn, Holborn; and from 1894 until 1914 a comfortable space was found in Clifford's Inn, off the Strand. The cosiness, the clubbiness, and the earnest conversation provided by the guild evidently satisfied a need. By 1895 there were 192 members: 52 architects, 50 painters, 20 sculptors, and 70 craftsmen.

The members were a variegated lot. Some were socialists, more were tories, and most were somewhere in between. Increasingly they included a number of older men who had grown up reading Ruskin and Pugin and saw in the guild something of their spirit. William Morris joined in 1888 and became master in 1892. The architect T. G. Jackson joined in 1889 and became master in 1896. Speaking for his own generation Jackson observed that the guild seemed like ‘the realization of all that I had pleaded for’ (Jackson, 218). The ideals that united all the guildsmen were made manifest in a lavish, loss-making masque put on in June 1899. Written by Walter Crane, Selwyn Image, C. R. Ashbee, Harrison Townsend, C. W. Whall, and Henry Wilson, and with music by Arnold Dolmetsch, Beauty's Awakening was ‘an allegory of the revival of the arts and the new Ideal of Life in our time’ (Crane, 452). Its inspiration was all too obvious, and indeed a central scene showed Ruskin's ‘seven lamps of architecture’ being rekindled.

From the first the Art-Workers' Guild tended to eschew publicity. Yet despite this it had a remarkable impact on the art world of the age. Imitations were established in Liverpool (1886), Birmingham (1902), Edinburgh (1905), and even Philadelphia (1892). Offshoots of the guild were still more significant. They included the short-lived but prominent National Association for the Advancement of Art and its Application to Industry, founded in 1887.

The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in 1888 to promote the movement through public lecture series and regular exhibitions, was so closely associated with the guild that it shared the same address and mostly the same members. Unlike the guild, this was a self-consciously populist effort, intended to persuade the wider public of the virtues of the arts and crafts. It was notably successful and by 1916 held its exhibitions in the Royal Academy. Seeking to reach out to future craftsmen, the Art-Students' Guild (subsequently renamed the Junior Art-Workers' Guild) was founded in 1896, while those women excluded from membership of the guild were given a home when May Morris established the Women's Guild of Art in 1907. In 1900 the government appointed the guildsmen T. G. Jackson, W. B. Richmond, Onslow Ford, and Walter Crane to the Council for Advice on Art. Their first job was to reform the Royal College of Art in line with Art-Workers' Guild ideas. Above all, perhaps, the guild allowed a whole generation of arts and crafts men to share ideas and work together. Memorials to these collaborative endeavours include the church of Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, London (1888–90), where first Sedding and then Henry Wilson brought together a clutch of guildsmen: the sculptors Harry Bates and F. W. Pomeroy, the metal worker Nelson Dawson (1859–1941), and the painter William Richmond. Even William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones joined in.

Throughout its development the guild's founders remained closely involved. The first three masters—Simonds, Sedding, and Crane—had been members of the Fifteen. Micklethwaite was master in 1893, Sumner in 1894, and Ford in 1895. Lewis Day occupied the same role in 1897 and Mervyn Macartney was master two years later in 1899. Other founders worked as secretary or sat on the committee. Thus, although the guild grew and became ever more diverse, there was continuity in its leadership and its role. For its founders and for new members alike it continued to be ‘a haven of refuge in the hurly-burly of Nineteenth-Century art’ (Massé, 2).

As the arts and crafts movement lost its coherence, however, the guild inevitably lost much of its influence. Other organizations were founded and other philosophies of art were established. None the less, the Art-Workers' Guild survives to the present day, electing members, holding meetings, and pursuing many of its original ideals. 6 Queen Square, London, its home since 1914, continues to play host to meetings and to demonstrations. The guild still seeks to promote ‘greater intercourse among the Arts’ and the master still wears a chain emblazoned with the motto Art is unity. In that sense, as in others, the legacy of its founders still lives on.

William Whyte


H. J. L. J. Massé, The Art-Workers' Guild, 1884–1934 (1935) · W. Crane, An artist's reminiscences (1907) · H. Holiday, Reminiscences of my life (1914) · T. G. Jackson, Recollections: the life and travels of a Victorian architect, ed. N. Jackson (2003) · R. Blomfield, Memoirs of an architect (1932) · [Art-Workers' Guild], Beauty's awakening: a masque of winter and of spring (1899) · Dir. Brit. archs. · J. Johnson and A. Greutzner, The dictionary of British artists, 1880–1940 (1976), vol. 5 of Dictionary of British art · J. Brandon-Jones, ‘Architects and the Art-Workers' Guild’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 121 (1972–3), 192–206 · J. Brandon-Jones, ‘William Lethaby and the Art-Workers' Guild’, W. R. Lethaby, 1857–1931: architecture, design and education, ed. S. Backemayer and T. Gronberg (1984), 24–31 · W. Whyte, Oxford Jackson: architecture, education, status, and style, 1835–1924 (2006) · W. G. Newton, The work of Ernest Newton, RA (1925) · J. Ward, Mervyn Edmund Macartney, architect, 1853–1932 (1998) · A. Saint, Richard Norman Shaw (1976) · P. Davey, Arts and crafts architecture (1995) · G. Naylor, The arts and crafts movement: a study of its sources, ideals and influence on design theory (1971) · T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, The arts and crafts movement (1905) · M. Swenarton, Artisans and architects: the Ruskinian tradition in architectural thought (1989) · C. Frayling, The Royal College of Art: one hundred and fifty years of art and design (1987) · T. Harrod, The crafts in Britain in the 20th century (1999)