Saturday, 14 February 2015



The Canadian art that is most remembered from the late 19th and early 20th centuries is impressionistic and neo-impressionistic in style. Renowned Canadian artists of these formative years were primarily influenced by French art, either directly of indirectly. However at this time Canada was influenced by Britain for almost everything else. As a part of the Commonwealth, a majority of the population were British immigrants themselves at the turn of the 20th century. Thus I have often wondered why a highly influential worldwide art movement that was kindled in Britain around that time never fully burgeoned in Canada like it did elsewhere, despite Canada being a dominion of the British Empire. I am referring to the Arts and Crafts movement. There are hints of its presence here and there so I wonder if it might be more widespread than meets the eye, and just is not focused on in scholarship. Or despite some remnants of its presence, perhaps for certain reasons it was just never quite as popular in Canada. Elsewhere the Arts and Crafts movement was hugely popular, it moved from Great Britain across Continental and Northern Europe and to the United States in various guises. In Britain alone the Arts and Crafts Movement overlapped conceptually and aesthetically with many other groups, guilds, styles and sub-movements. Simultaneous and near simultaneous connections with the Arts and Crafts movement included the Medieval and Gothic revivals, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Glasgow School of Art, Symbolism, Aestheticism and Art Nouveau. As these movements swept across Europe the recognizable styles and ideologies often branched off into regional sub-movements of art and design, such as the Viking Revival in Scandinavia, the Dutch De Stijl, the Jugenstil in Germany, the Vienna Secession in Austria, the National Romantic Style in Finland, and the Abramtsevo Colony in Russia. Symbolism, Aestheticism and Art Nouveau were also very popular in Central and Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

(An English Period Arts and Crafts Interior)

(Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones The Four Days of Creation)

(Symbolist English artist Frederic Watts' Sir Galahad)

(An example of Glasgow School of Art graphic design)

(Symbolist French artist Gustave Moreau The Voices (circa 1880))

The Arts and Crafts movement and its related movements incorporated not just fine art, but decorative and applied arts and design, architecture, and even literature. In fact, it was romantic literature that was an inspiration to the Pre-Raphaelites and William Morris in the first place. William Morris is often considered the father of the Arts and Crafts movement. I wrote my MA thesis on his illuminated manuscripts, which he did with his Pre-Raphaelite friends. It is one example of the crossover that existed between fine and applied arts within the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris was involved in all facets of fine and applied arts from book illumination and printing, to furniture and textile design and much more. In the wake of Morris’ bustling activities, talented visionaries took book illustration and private printing presses to a new level of excellence, and the design and craftsmanship of furniture and household decorations flourished. Examples of those who took up the torch upon Morris’ death were Aubrey Beardsley in illustration and furniture design, John Dearle and Co. in textile production, and Gustav Stickley in America. This is just the smallest selection of innovators in applied and decorative arts. Canadians also looked to William Morris’ model for the creation and production of quality crafted arts in forming their own likeminded firms and societies. You may be surprised at some of the Canadian artists who engaged in overlap with applied arts and designs, as I will hopefully illustrate next.

(William Morris St. George Cabinet made in collaboration with Phillip Webb with Arts and Crafts wallpaper in background)

(Three interior rooms designed by William Morris (the first Wightwick House, the next two Red House (where he and Pre-Raphaelites lived))

(Pages of illuminated manuscripts by William Morris with the assistance of friend Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones for miniatures)

(William Morris' Kelmscott Press publication of The Nature of Gothic by John Ruskin)

(William Morris Acanthus design)

(Aubrey Beardsley book design How Queen Guenever Rode on Maying)

(John Dearle & Co. Orchard wallpaper)

(Charles Rennie MacIntosh's interior of the Glasgow School of Art)

(A Gustav Stickley Interior (American Arts and Crafts))

At present many Canadians are familiar with William Morris (or at least would recognize his textiles) and the Arts and Crafts Movement (widely referred to in America as Craftsmen Style in architecture) Morris’ textiles adorn gift cards, notebooks, pencils, stationary, and there are even gardening tools patterned with his famous designs. There are societies worldwide celebrating his work, including a William Morris Society in Canada that is based out of Toronto. In fact, Canada plays host to one of the foremost scholarly journals on the subject of the Arts and Crafts called The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies published out of York University, Toronto. So, if there is so much interest in the movement in general in Canada today, why has there not been much recognition of Canada’s own contribution to the Arts and Crafts movement in mainstream Canadian Art History so far? Even if it was not as prevalent as it was in other countries, there indeed were Canadian artists and designers doing exceptional work in the Arts and Crafts style, that is noteworthy and worth consideration. So let’s have a look. What is even more interesting is that some of the most distinguished artists in Canadian art history also engaged in other productivity that was in the Arts and Crafts style. I would like to highlight a small selection of these artists that were surprisingly adept and knowledgeable about the international arts and crafts movement, as evidenced in their work on par with British, Continental or American artists and designers. I also wanted to mention one very accomplished Arts and Crafts painter-designer who was not active as a fine art painter in any other capacity on the side of his commercial art. He is somewhat forgotten in mainstream Canadian art history, but was a part of the art scene in Toronto at the turn of the century and would have known the Group of Seven and prominent Academicians of the time through involvement with the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto. I will discuss this artist shortly.

(William Morris patterned gardening tools sold by the Victoria and Albert Museum collection)

There is one recent publication that has helped bring some attention to the Canadian Arts and Crafts practitioners of the early 20th century. The National Gallery of Canada had an exhibition and published a comprehensive catalogue called Artists, Architects, and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890-1918 last year by Charles Hill. This publication and show brought many of the activities related to the Arts and Crafts movement in Canada to limelight and thus contributed greatly to a better overall picture of the art scene in Canada at the opening of the 20th century.

George Agnew Reid is remembered well in Canadian art history for being one of the earliest members of the Royal Canadian Academy of artists and, and for being a master of Academic genre painting. The Foreclosure of the Mortgage is generally considered his piece-de-resistance. Most surprisingly Reid was very deeply involved with the Arts and Crafts movement. The extent of his involvement was unknown to me until I got a copy of the National Gallery’s book. Artists, Architects, and Artisans is riddled with George Reid’s phenomenal mural paintings, furniture design, and even more astonishingly gifted ‘Craftsmen’ architectural and interior designs. At the point where I reached a chapter in this book devoted to his architectural endeavours I actually questioned to myself whether or not I was still reading about the same George Reid that I know. By the volume of his Arts and Crafts design output; I am amazed it is not for this aspect of his career that he is more recognized than for his Academic paintings. Certainly it would appear to me as though he was more prolific at mural painting and design that he was decades earlier with his Academic painting (which of course are also first class).

(A Gustav Stickley oak smoking cabinet)

(A George Agnew Reid designed and painted oak music cabinet and detail of painted panel)

(A George Agnew Reid designed and painted oak upright piano circa 1905)

(Marie S. Stillman The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo (1889))

(George Agnew Reid Staking the Pioneer Farm (1900) in the entrance hall of the Toronto Municipal Buildings (Old City Hall))

(George Agnew Reid symbolist style murals in the entrance hall of the Toronto Municiap Buildings)

(Two interiors designed by George Agnew Reid)

(George Agnew Reid, Study for decorations in All Souls' Church, New York State, 1914)

I scarcely need to introduce Tom Thomson. We know this individual spirit for his ability to capture the essence of the land in his rapid and fluid sketches and their brilliantly calculated translations to canvas. He is the keystone for the creation of a national style of art that upon his death was carried forth by his dear friends, the Group of Seven. His incredible achievements as a landscape artist eclipse the fact that he was also quite the precocious illustrator and designer. It is well known that he and his friends worked at major graphic design firms in Toronto such as Grip Ltd, and Rous and Mann. Thomson also did design work before this in Seattle. It is often mentioned that these famous Canadian artists worked in these firms but it is rarely mentioned what they actually made while there. Snippets of their work has sporatically been included in publications, and what we do see indicates they followed international trends as we see a blend of the Arts and Crafts, Glasgow School of Art, Aestheticism, Symbolism and Art Nouveau in these illustrations. Colleagues of theirs at these firms were also following these models.

(Tom Thomson illustration The Foot Path of Peace (circa 1915))

(Tom Thomson Quotation from Maurice Maeterlinck (c.1908))

(Tom Thomson Quotation from Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1915–16))

(Designs for Book plates in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles by contemporary of Thomson's A.H. Howard)

Two important advocates of Canadian impressionism were William Brymner and Maurice Cullen. Their interpretations of French impressionistic paintings made uniquely beautiful and ethereal Canadian landscape scenes that foreshadowed advances in national landscape painting. Both artists also painted phenomenal murals in situ as decoration in en vogue Arts and Crafts houses in Quebec. If you look closely the hands of these artists can be found, but all in all the murals relate far more to aesthetic and symbolist painting than impressionism.

(William Brymner mural paintings in an Arts and Crafts/Aesthetic interior)

(Maurice Cullen mural paintings in Arts and Crafts/ Aesthetic interiors)

Lastly, I mentioned earlier that I wanted to briefly discuss an Arts and Crafts style artist and designer who was only active commercially. This was Gustav Hahn. He trained in Stuttgart and moved with his family to Toronto in 1888. He painted murals and ceilings, decorated and designed furnishings for interiors and churches. His paintings are very reminiscent both of late Pre-Raphaelite and symbolist paintings and are very adept. He moved to the countryside during the First World War because of anti-German sentiment and took up farming. I wonder if he had not quietly reverted to the countryside whether or not he might have established a more prominent place in Canadian art history, for he had been a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art and helped found the Arts and Crafts Society of Canada in 1903. Yes, there was an Arts and Crafts Society of Canada. This only proves that regardless of the lacking memories of this movement in Canada it was present in a very real way.

(Various paintings and design by Gustav Hahn in Arts and Crafts and Symbolist style)

The Arts and Crafts Society is probably worthy of a whole new blog and I have thus far given a lengthy introduction to the Arts and Crafts and Canada, so it is probably best to close at this and save the Arts and Crafts Society for another time.

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