Artists & Designers
Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1924)
At the turn of the 20th century, Charles Robert Ashbee and his Guild of Handicraft were at the vanguard of English handmade metalware and jewelry. More so than any other British designer or manufacturer, they successfully combined the ideological and the aesthetic ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement.
In 1866, while employed by architect George Frederick Bodley, Ashbee began organizing evening classes for residents of the experimental artist’s colony Toynbee Hall, situated amongst the slums of Whitechapel in the East End of London. There, in 1888, he founded the Guild and School of Handicraft, which trained and employed unskilled men and boys in various handicrafts. With the foundation of the Guild, Ashbee, like his contemporaries in the Arts and Crafts movement, sought to revitalize pre-industrial traditions and methods of craftsmanship, imbuing processes of manufacture with a spirit of humanity he felt was sorely lacking in the factory system and the mass-produced goods it issued. Ashbee’s and the Guild’s early experiments with metalwork commenced with its founding, largely consisting of bowls and dishes made of copper and brass with repoussé decoration. According to Ashbee, the Guild first worked in silver, specifically the cast and wrought hollowware for which it is celebrated today. A distinct Guild of Handicraft style, characterized by bold, planished surfaces, elegant wirework, and semiprecious stone accents, was soon established.
The Guild expanded rapidly and, in 1891, moved to larger premises at Essex House in London’s Mile End, where it enjoyed continued success. In 1902, Ashbee moved the enterprise out of London to the small Cotswold town of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire. There, he hoped to establish a community of like-minded people devoted to living a simpler, more communal and egalitarian lifestyle where the virtues of craft would be venerated; ultimately Ashbee’s move precipitated the downfall of the once-successful business. The isolation of the Cotswolds in the early 20th century made it difficult for the Guild to transport its wares to its main retail base in London and from there, retailers in Germany and America. This difficulty, combined with competition from fashionable retailers such as Liberty & Co., which sold mass produced wares that often bore a remarkable resemblance to those produced by the Guild, forced the Guild to file for bankruptcy in 1907.
Nevertheless, Ashbee’s influence on Arts and Crafts metalwork was profound. He travelled widely in the United States, lecturing often on Arts and Crafts philosophy and design. The Guild's wares were sold through the department store Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago and have been cited as the direct inspiration for various American Arts and Crafts workshops such as Hull House and the Kalo Shop in Chicago and the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston. A number of leading American designers studied at the Guild in Chipping Campden, including Ernest A. Batchelder and Eleanor D’Arcy Gaw, who became a designer for the Dirk Van Erp Studio in San Francisco. The Guild of Handicraft was also the cited as a model for the founding of the Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna in 1903.
Kevin Tucker, DMA unpublished material [2009.10.A-B], 2009.