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John Ruskin, Parrot and Plant, 1870, drawing of a red Parrot and Plant

The Beginning of the Arts and Crafts Movement and John Ruskin

The Arts and Crafts movement was a British and American aesthetic movement that developed during the last years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century. The movement was in part a reaction to the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution. The movement was inspired by the writings of John Ruskin and his romantic idealization of the craftsman taking pride in their personal handiwork.

The reformist arts and Crafts Movement influenced British and American architecture, decorative arts, cabinet making, crafts, and even garden designs. Its best-known proponents and practitioners were William Morris, Charles Robert Ashbee, Edward Burne-Jones, T. J. Cobden -Sanderson, Walter Crane, Nelson Dawson, Phoebe Anna Traquair, Herbert Tudor Buckland, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Christopher Dresser, Edwin Lutyens, Ernest Gimson, William Lethaby, Edward Schroeder Prior, Frank Lloyd Wright, Gustav Stickley, Philip Webb, Christopher Whall and  Pre-Raphaelite movement artists: William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner.

According to the Victoria and Albert Museum in England “The Arts and Crafts Movement was one of the most influential, profound and far-reaching design movements of modern times. It began in Britain around 1880 and quickly spread across America and Europe before emerging finally as the Mingei (Folk Crafts) movement in Japan.

It was a movement born of ideals. It grew out of a concern for the effects of industrialization: on design, on traditional skills and on the lives of ordinary people. In response, it established a new set of principles for living and working. It advocated the reform of art at every level and across a broad social spectrum, and it turned the home into a work of art.

The Movement took its name from the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in 1887, but it encompassed a very wide range of like-minded societies, workshops and manufacturers. Other countries adapted Arts and Crafts philosophies according to their own needs. While the work may be visually very different, it is united by the ideals that lie behind it.

This was a movement unlike any that had gone before. Its pioneering spirit of reform, and the value it placed on the quality of materials and design, as well as life, shaped the world we live in today.

The origins of the Movement

In Britain the disastrous effects of industrial manufacture and unregulated trade had been recognized since about 1840, but it was not until the 1860s and 1870s that architects, designers and artists began to pioneer new approaches to design and the decorative arts. These, in turn, led to the foundation of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The two most influential figures were the theorist and critic John Ruskin and the designer, writer and activist William Morris. Ruskin examined the relationship between art, society and labor. Morris put Ruskin's philosophies into practice, placing great value on work, the joy of craftsmanship and the natural beauty of materials.

By the 1880s Morris had become an internationally renowned and commercially successful designer and manufacturer. New guilds and societies began to take up his ideas, presenting for the first time a unified approach among architects, painters, sculptors and designers. In doing so, they brought Arts and Crafts ideals to a wider public. “


Portrait of John Ruskin by John Everett Millais 1853

John Ruskin

John Ruskin, 1819 – 1900, was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era. Ruskin was truly a well-rounded individual. He was an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist, well known social thinker and philanthropist. His writing styles and literary forms were equally varied. Ruskin penned essays and treatises, poetry and lectures, travel guides and manuals, letters and even a fairy tale. He wrote on subjects as varied as geology, architecture, myth, ornithology, literature, education, botany and political economy. In all of his writing, Ruskin emphasized the connections between nature, art and society.

Born into the close-knit family of a prosperous wine merchant in London, England, Ruskin attended Christ Church College.  He became known as a brilliant critic of landscape painting and a champion of the works of the painter J.M.W. Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. From the 1850s he championed the Pre-Raphaelites who were influenced by his ideas. His work increasingly focused on social and political issues. In 1869, Ruskin became the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford, where he established the Ruskin School of Drawing. In 1871, he began his monthly "letters to the workmen and laborers of Great Britain", published under the title Fors Clavigera (1871–1884). In the course of this complex and deeply personal work, he developed the principles underlying his ideal society. As a result, he founded the Guild of St George, an organization that endures today.


View of Amalfi painted by John Ruskin 1844

Ruskin is most famous for his two books; "The Seven Lamps of Architecture" (1849) and "The Stones of Venice" (1853). These works established the criteria for judging the value of art(s) for several generations in both Britain and America.

John Ruskin's Lion's profile from life. Pencil, ink, watercolor and body color on buff paper 1870

Ruskin came to public attention with the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), an extended essay in defense of the work of J. M. W. Turner in which he argued that the principal role of the artist is "truth to nature". Ruskin’s influence reached across the world. Tolstoy described him as, "one of the most remarkable men not only of England and of our generation, but of all countries and times" and quoted extensively from his writings. Proust admired Ruskin and helped translate his works into French. Gandhi wrote of the "magic spell" cast by him (Ruskin), calling it for "The Advancement of All".  In Japan, Ryuzo Mikimoto actively collaborated in Ruskin's translation. He commissioned sculptures and sundry commemorative items, and incorporated Ruskinian rose motifs in the jewelry produced by his pearl empire. He established the Ruskin Society of Tokyo and his children built a dedicated library to house his Ruskin collection.

Self Portrait with Blue Neckcloth, by John Ruskin. Watercolor 1873

Ruskin’s work has been translated into numerous languages including, in addition to those already mentioned (Russian, French, Japanese): German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian, Polish, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Chinese, Welsh.

If John Ruskin was the Grandfather of The Arts and Crafts Movement then William Morris is the Father of the Arts and Crafts Movement.......

Check back for our next blog William Morris the Father of the Arts and Crafts Movement.