31 July 2017


In every generation craftspeople discover that they can't make a living making things by hand. William Morris was unusual in running a successful business, but C.R.Ashbee, after heroic efforts to set up a craft community in the Cotswolds, eventually gave up in the early years of the 20th century, undermined by competition from machine made goods on one side and on the other by the amateurs who undercut him, and William de Morgan had to close his pottery after years of experimentation that had brought him technical and artistic success but financial failure. De Morgan made a decent living afterwards as a novelist. He may not have been very businesslike in his pottery, self-deprecatingly describing himself as not organised but "demorganised". Bernard Leach survived for many years with the assistance of patrons and then with the help of book royalties, and more than once expressed the view that the craftsman should receive some sort of public subsidy. Teaching, of course, has always been a mainstay.

In the early days, the days of Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, the artistic crafts expressed an upper-class prejudice against trade but also a popular reaction against machinery and the factory system, the ugliness of mass produced goods and dreadful working conditions. It was honestly believed that Britain could get back to an imagined existence of hand-crafted manufacture. Only since the 1970s have craft makers and public agencies  frankly recognised the crafts as an artistic activity producing luxuries rather than everyday goods. The transition was marked by the transfer of government responsibility for crafts from the Board of Trade to the Department of Education (now Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport).

Graham Wallas, the Fabian Society co-founder of the London School of Economics, poured cold water on Morris's utopia. In his book The Great Society, he said:
"Once, while I listened to him lecturing, I made a rough calculation that the citizens of his commonwealth, in order to produce by the methods he advocated the quantity of beautiful and delicious things which they were to enjoy, would have to work about two hundred hours a week. It was only the same fact looked at from another point of view which made it impossible for any of Morris's workmen, or indeed for anyone at all whose income was near the present English average, to buy the products either of Morris's workshop at Merton or of his Kelmscott Press."

Thorstein Veblen, although an admirer of Morris, described the Kelmscott Press from an economic point of view as "ridiculous". Noting that printers were returning to “'old-style', and other more or less obsolete styles of type which are less legible and give a cruder appearance to the page than the 'modern',” he wrote of Morris's books that -
"Here we have a somewhat cruder type, printed on hand-laid, deckeledged paper, with excessive margins and uncut leaves, with bindings of a painstaking crudeness and elaborate ineptitude. The Kelmscott Press reduced the matter to an absurdity — as seen from the point of view of brute serviceability alone — by issuing books for modern use, edited with the obsolete spelling, printed in black-letter, and bound in limp vellum fitted with thongs. As a further characteristic feature which fixes the economic place of artistic book-making, there is the fact that these more elegant books are, at their best, printed in limited editions. A limited edition is in effect a guarantee — somewhat crude, it is true — that this book is scarce and that it therefore is costly and lends pecuniary distinction to its consumer."