1 Introduction

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Simona Kopecká

Ruskin, Morris, Arts and Crafts and Middle Class in Nineteenth-Century England

Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: PhDr. Lidia Kyzlinková, CSc., M.Litt.

I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


Simona Kopecká

I wish to express my gratitude to PhDr. Lidia Kyzlinková, CSc., M.Litt. for her invaluable advice and time. I would also like to thank my family and Tomáš Strmiska for their support and encouragement.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction 5

2 Art in Nineteenth-Century England and the Middle Class 7

2.1 The Royal Academy 13

2.2 The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 15

2.3 The Aesthetic Movement 17

3 John Ruskin and Beauty 19

4 William Morris and His Ideal “Commonwealth” 24

5 The Arts and Crafts 30

6 Conclusion 37

Bibliography 40

1 Introduction

The intellectual temper of nineteenth-century England valued reason, quantification, and the free play of economic forces. Thus, Britain could hold the position of the world’s leading country. While the system exploited the working class and deteriorated living conditions of the poor, it brought fortune to the growing middle class who exhibited their newly acquired property in a lavish way. In England in particular, the class aspect was quite important. Middle-class people became main supporters and consumers of art. If artists and designers wished to prosper, they had to adapt to the middle-class taste.

The thesis explores famous phenomena of English nineteenth-century art. An official highly regarded institution, the Royal Academy of Arts, with its manipulative practice and restrictive rules, did not gain confidence of aspiring artists. The younger generation always reacts to some extent against the older. Young artists gathered and established alternative groups, such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Aesthetic movement. While the Pre-Raphaelites looked back to the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance for inspiration, the Aesthetes provoked the public with their pompous behaviour. John Ruskin and William Morris, both great commentators on art and practising artists, were friends of the Pre-Raphaelites, and thus influenced the group. Ruskin and Morris defended applied arts and design which were, in comparison with fine arts, underestimated in Victorian England, largely due to the influence of the Royal Academy. Later on, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had a deep impact on the Aesthetes and the Arts and Crafts – they all were intertwined.

Ruskin turned from the criticism of works of art to the criticism of society, while Morris turned from the making of works of art to the effort to remake society. They were worried about repercussions of the Industrial Revolution and thought of alternative production methods. They found their model in idealized medieval guilds where artists and artisans themselves decided on their work and enjoyed the feeling of creative freedom. This was not the case in industrial England where the labour was divided and thus monotonous and boring, and employees were increasingly replaced by machines. Ruskin’s and Morris’s ideas caught the attention of unsatisfied and unfulfilled artists, designers, and craftspeople who attempted to bring their dreams to reality. They believed that the ordinary experience of work could become a source of pleasure through the play of imagination. They got inspired by nature and the past, but their works of art were not distinguished by style (i.e. the visual appearance), but rather by qualities that corresponded to the Art and Crafts attitudes such as honesty and the nature of materials.

The method used in this thesis is to outline major influences leading to the development of the Arts and Crafts movement and to identify major characteristics of its instigators. In order to do this, the Royal Academy, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Aesthetes and the middle class are explored in one chapter which provides a basic background of the area discussed. Ruskin, Morris, and the Arts and Crafts are examined in separate chapters, although similar aspects of their thinking appear in the whole thesis.

2 Art in Nineteenth-Century England and the Middle Class

In nineteenth-century England, culture, in its refined form, was the possession of the nobility and higher professional and intellectual classes, and it was there more exclusively confined to this limited group of population than in any other countries of Western Europe (Waldstein 8). However, as Waldstein points out, the desire for artistic decoration (not always rightly guided), for the adornment of houses and for the preservation of artistic heritage penetrated through all classes in a great part due to the efforts of John Ruskin and William Morris (15). Machines made it possible to produce cheap imitations of costly decorations, so for those who were not wealthy, art was used to give the illusion that they were rich. Harris notes:

“Despite the appalling numbers of the wretchedly poor, the soot-blackened ugliness of industrial cities, and what seem to us the vulgar fashions of the growing middle class, the pursuit of the beautiful, or at least the pleasant and attractive, and correspondingly the ambition to raise the taste of the English public ran strongly through the entire century” (82).

Morris inferred that middle-class people lacked ideas and hence they needed culture and dignity. For characters without culture were “raw and blind” (qtd. in Eshleman 162).

The problems which bothered England at the end of the century were larger than those of 1800: the population increased, the country was more urbanized, mortality rates were high, towns were dirtier and unhealthier, slums were spreading. Lindholdt notes that extremely harsh legal penalties attended these conditions in Britain, including a death sentence for the theft of a five-shilling pair of boots (867). The middle-class and religious movements felt that they were under a greater obligation to do something about the urban poor. There was a growing recognition of the bitter poverty at the bottom of the pyramid in this richest and most powerful nation in the world. The extremely poor were more numerous and becoming tired of waiting for a share in the increased national income (Lewis 68).

Politically speaking, dissatisfaction was most intense among workers and their supporters. There was an increased awareness of their unfortunate situation not only among the workers themselves but among concerned members of the middle and upper classes as well, who came to recognize their dependence on the workers who helped create their prosperity (Stansky 17). With the worsening economic situation, skilled workers wanted to protect their position as “the aristocracy of labour”. As they were forced to transform into mere attendants on machines, their resistance arose. But in the general discontent, unskilled workers (the great mass of working-class people) were coming to a firmer sense of the need to take action themselves – there was growing labour unrest (Stansky 18).

In 1811, the indignation took the form of the Luddite uprising. The revolt was caused by the advent of steam looms that substituted skilled labourers in the textile industry, particularly in the lace and stocking trades. Lindholdt states that the Luddites were a social movement of textile artisans who protested against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution that replaced them with less skilled, low wage labour. By 1833, children and women represented roughly four fifths of the textile labour force; they were hired because they were cheaper and easier to exploit than adult men (866). The rebellion was confined to the English Midlands where bands broke into factories and destroyed mechanized looms overnight, they set fires and stole food and guns, and threatened those who guarded the machines (Lindholdt 867). Once the revolt turned to a murder, the government began to act and troops were sent from London to the Midlands to suppress the Luddite uprisings. Within months, between fifteen and thirty-six rebels were killed in action, twenty-four were hanged on the public gallows, twenty-four were sent to prison, and thirty-seven were transported to Australia. There were many Luddite sympathizers among the public; for instance, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was so upset over the fate of those men that he immediately began a fund for their children, to which he forced all his friends to contribute (Lindholdt 868).

The intelligentsia became aware of the world that the Industrial Revolution made. England was no more an agricultural country and became distinctly industrial and commercial. From that time on, the trend of legislation was to be in favour of the towns whenever their interests conflicted with those of the countryside (Lewis 170).

Public schools played an important role in uniting the old landed gentry with the rising manufacturing middle class; they charged fees and were financed by bodies other than the state (Lewis 22). Manufacturers were increasingly recruited from middle-class families because it was virtually essential to possess either capital or connections through which capital could be secured to launch a new business. They had to be firm and courageous because the resistance to machinery was great. When a factory was built, it was always in danger of being burnt or looted by workmen because they were afraid of being replaced by machines and thus losing their jobs (Lewis 48).

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a monument to the middle-class success with its emphasis on production (Lewis 52). Rising standards of consumption and comfort became considerably marked in the last years of the century. As Lewis points out, bicycles, sewing machines, labour-saving household appliance and patent medicines were vigorously advertised (70).

Changes in style became necessary, so that the wealthy would want to purchase new items before the old wore out or broke, and the lower classes would feel the desire to copy upper-class purchasing habits (Stankiewicz 166). The middle class was gradually becoming the main consumer of the arts and it was obvious that a new and simpler taste had to be created for them. On the other hand, good designs were made available to those who would not have been able to afford them before. “Ruskin and Morris had long believed in breaking down barriers in the arts. The Arts and Crafts challenged the snobbery and sought to establish a more rewarding relation of the artist to his work and ultimately to society” (Stansky 119). The nineteenth century was marked by investigations by parliamentary committees into the teaching of practical arts for the stated purpose of improving trade and design in a competition with other countries. The government was disturbed by the growing popularity of foreign designs, especially the French one (Lewis 62).

The growing English middle class sought to imitate the consumption patterns of the upper classes. According to Masterman, middle-class men usually had sedentary occupations, they worked in small, crowded offices, under artificial light. Middle-class women, with their domestic servants, often felt bored, but could look forward to excursions to shopping centres and occasional theatre visits (qtd. in Lewis 23). The principal occupation of the upper- and middle-class woman was to go shopping, as a pleasurable exercise in money-spending. It was thought that every man who paid for things was a gentleman (Lewis 71). Books of etiquette and manuals of domestic economy, such as Dont: Mistakes and Improprieties More or Less Prevalent in Conduct and Speech, The Habits of Good Society, and The Book of Household Management, were widely read (Hibbert 613). Every activity of a lady’s day was covered by these manuals – she was instructed how to behave in any circumstance, and told what clothes to wear and how to wear them (Hibbert 614).

However, it was a life of security and respectability because the position of the middle class on the social scale was assured; they were gaining a greater influence virtually in all spheres. For instance, the first Reform Act of 1832 replaced an electorate of 250,000 by one of 800,000, admitting the middle class a large and direct share in the representation (Lewis 55). Their already well-developed consciousness of their own importance deepened.

The concern for a social standing was an almost universal preoccupation in middle-class society. English boys began bragging about their social position as soon as they left the nursery (Hibbert 605). To be considered the middle class, a certain minimum income, a certain style of family life, and a certain form of employment, preferably professional, were required (ibid.).

Middle-class standards rose fast, and in nothing was the improvement more apparent than in the condition of dwellings of the middle class. As one instance, prosperous shopkeepers lived in their ordinary sitting rooms with no carpets in 1800. Fifty years later, a carpet became a necessary article of furnishings. In the same houses the walls were covered with manifold paintings and engravings (Porter qtd. in Lewis 52). Middle-class villas became the symbols of prosperity. In towns the well-to-do middle class generally lived in detached villas away from the commercial centre. The larger villas had extensive gardens surrounded by walls and, often, a lodge with a gatekeeper to keep beggars and peddlers away (Hibbert 612). Bareness was looked upon with a profound disapproval, and thus rooms were crowded with a mix of exotically decorated furniture in a bad taste, though it was made of the finest materials and it had the solidest construction (Lewis 58). But bathrooms and pipes for gas and hot water were still rare; water often had to be carried from the kitchen (Hibbert 611).

The sense of beauty was degraded into a sense of propriety, so that people called those things beautiful which seemed to them proper to their social status (Clutton-Brock 61). Clutton-Brock notes that to the middle class, art was a pleasant ornament of life, but they were well content to do without it, much more content than they would be to do without sport (18).

Of course, it was not just houses that indicated an affiliation to some social group. A carriage was another important symbol of prosperity; a four-wheeled carriage was preferred, but the possession of a light two-wheeled, one-horse carriage entitled a family to be known as “carriage people” as well (Hibbert 610).

Moreover, middle-class people could be distinguished by their manners and clothes. Bennett describes the middle class and his origin as follows:

“I go to the store, to Harrods, to the Royal Academy and I see again the same crowd, well fed, well dressed, free from the cares which beset at least five-sixths of the English race (...) I do not belong to this class by birth. Artists very seldom do. But by the help of God and strict attention to business I have gained the right of entrance into it (qtd. in Lewis 23).”

The middle class accepted new members; it was believed that it was possible to work one’s way up with diligence and resolution.

The development of English art in the second half of the nineteenth century paralleled what happened in English society itself – both became increasingly self-conscious. There was more argument and discussion about art; according to Hilton, it was no longer the intellectual province only of its practitioners, but a matter for a public controversy. Art critics were more alert, and better informed, and there were more of them. It was easier to see new paintings; there were more galleries and more exhibitions. Reproductions of one sort or another were far more common than had previously been the case. There were more newspapers and journals to report on art, and more illustrated magazines to reproduce works of art (54).

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