Wednesday, 2 September 2015



(J.E.H. MacDonald, 'A Word to Us All' (1900),ink and gouache on paper)

JEH MacDonald illustrated A Word to US All in 1900. He meticulously did both the surrounding ornamentation and calligraphy by hand. Furthermore, he wrote the poem A Word to Us All himself. A Word to Us All is in the Arts and Crafts style, which gained popularity in North America and Europe during the late 19th and 20th centuries. That MacDonald would have done the design, calligraphy, ornamentation, and written the poem all himself was not uncharacteristic of Arts and Crafts movement participants. Practitioners of the movement tended not to limit themselves and thus typically engaged in all facets of the arts, including the literary arts. The multimodal artist was a feature of the Arts and Crafts and Pre-Raphaelite movements from an early stage through the influence of John Ruskin. Ruskin was both a successful literary figure and draughtsman during his time.

John Ruskin detailed drawing from observation of Venetian gothic architecture and an example of his literature

A Wardrobe painted and manufactured for William Morris as a gift from his friends Edward Burne-Jones (painter) and Phillip Webb (architect)

Pre-Raphaelite Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti How Sir Galahad, Sir Bor and Sir Percival were fed by the Sang Grael

William Morris was the Father of the Arts and Crafts movement and the epitome of a ‘Jack of All Trades.’ He so happened to be rather good at all the trades he engaged in. He was a particularly important figure in book design, as well as being a prolific non-fiction and early fantasy novel writer. It is widely quoted that upon his death at 62 years old, his physician remarked that the cause of death was “…simply being William Morris and having done more work than most ten men.” Morrisian ideals are central to the understanding of book design in JEH MacDonald’s lifetime. MacDonald admired Morris’s Arts and Crafts design. I can think of comparisons between MacDonald and Morris. Like Morris, MacDonald never reached a very old age and was also a perpetually busy man who worked full time as a graphic designer, pioneered the Group of Seven, scouted out the rugged Ontario north, climbed countless mountains in Western Canada, and was a teacher. He is of course remembered most as a member of the Group of Seven, however A Word to Us All is a reminder that MacDonald was a multi-faceted artist with a worldy awareness of current trends in both fine and applied art.

William Morris Kelmscott Press book written and designed by Morris

William Morris stained glass and wallpaper designs

A Word to Us All is a classic example of the Arts and Crafts movement and stylistically the illustrated poem closely follows the original elements of book design perpetuated by William Morris and his contemporaries. We are pleased to have acquired this rare piece of JEH MacDonald’s Arts and Crafts work at Masters Gallery. Resultantly, I decided that since JEH and William Morris shared common design ideals, I would write a little bit about the origins of Morris’s ideal book and the Arts and Crafts movement. Thus we can get an idea from whence MacDonald was inspired and influenced when he made A Word for Us All. He would have been very aware of all the ideology we are about to discuss, which reinforces again that MacDonald was a worldly designer, as well as prominent Canadian landscape artist.

J.E.H. MacDonald 'A Word to Us All' (1900) ink, gouache on paper (page two)

William Morris illustrated books designed and printed with Kelmscott Press

Book designed and printed at the Kelmscott Press by a colleague of William Morris' Jacobus de Voragine

J.E.H. MacDonald 'A Word to Us All' (1900) ink, gouache on paper (page three)

It was a chain of cultural and artistic phenomena earlier in the 19th century that ultimately led artists to produce the distinctive type of book design seen in A Word to Us All. The roots of the Arts and Crafts book lie in the societal discontent of the time in Great Britain. Backlash and bitterness against the changes wrought by rapid industrialism and growth of capitalism, led Victorians to yearn for the tradition and familiarity of a supposedly ‘better time gone by.’ People chose to look back upon medieval England as a more genuine and simplistic time; the now familiar expression ‘A Merry Olde England’ and other such sentiments appeared. At the time, give or take half a millennium had already past since the medieval era, therefore to Victorians the bygone period was surrounded in mystery and intrigue. This allowed disgruntled Victorians to conjure up their own romantic interpretations of a utopian ‘Merry Olde England,’ in order to escape their contemporary toils and troubles. Thus, Victorians grew selectively fascinated with the more appealing aspects of medieval times. From this phenomenon the gothic and medieval revivals arose in architecture, literature, and fine and applied art. Medievalism provided the kindling that sparked the Arts and Crafts movement to life.

The same John Ruskin that was mentioned in the opening paragraph was additionally a prominent art critic of the time. Medievalism was proliferated by Ruskin and his circle. Medievalists worshipped the culture and productivity of the medieval era. Although it might be a stretch to consider JEH a medievalist, William Morris most definitely was an avid medievalist. As an admirer of Ruskin and father of the Arts and Crafts movement it is no wonder that his medievalism would visually and theoretically infiltrate his own work and consequently Arts and Crafts style.

Morris was in love with the study of medieval society, craftsmanship, architecture, folklore and art. This led him to pour over illuminated manuscripts in libraries and try his own hand at the practice with his best friends in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. We know that Morris was not alone in his interests, albeit he may qualify as one of the most passionate medievalists. Professional illumination using medieval techniques had already been taken up again in Paris in the 2nd quarter of the 19th century, as other European countries also suffered similar nostalgia for bygone pre-industrial times. Although ironically done with modern mass printing, a book of glorious designs of old manuscripts was disseminated by Owen Jones and Noel Humphreys. Manuscripts became collectors’ pieces and they started appearing in museum exhibitions in greater number. People began to look dubiously upon the bland colourless mass produced texts they had become accustomed to when compared with handcrafted illuminated masterpieces. Many started asking themselves how they could blend the dazzling qualities of illustrated books from the past with the texts of the day to make them more interesting. Do-it-yourself manuscript illuminating guides were published in the 1860s and copying out old manuscripts became a popular hobby, especially for women.

Title page of Owen Jones and Noel Humphreys publication

Medieval manuscript with illumination

Example from a manuscript illumination do-it-yourself manual

William Morris wasn’t about to ‘merely’ copy out pre-existing manuscript designs verbatim, instead he learned the ancient techniques and took some ideas and designs to help invent his own hybrid of illumination. It is from this pseudo-medieval hybrid of medieval illumination that Morris and his contemporaries adopted that we owe the advent of the distinctive style of Arts and Crafts book illumination and later small-scale private printing presses. There is a famous quote of William Morris’ that can be found within his essays,

Detail of a medieval illuminated manuscript and William Morris' illuminated manuscript of VIrgil's Aeneid done with Edward Burne-Jones

Examples of William Morris' illuminated manuscripts

If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer a beautiful house; and if I were further asked to name the production next to be longed for, I should answer, a beautiful book.

The high regard that Morris gave to ‘beautiful books’ is a testament to how important designing and decorating them would become within the Arts and Crafts movement. A few decades later MacDonald would also lecture on “The Art of the Book,” as he passed on Morrisian ‘beautiful book fervour’ to prospective Canadian artists and advocates.

It was not just the exquisite ornament of medieval manuscripts that interested Morris, but the cultural structure of the middle ages that supported excellence in craftsmanship. Medieval monastics brotherhoods and guilds were two societal structures that offered communal support to craftsmen and tradesmen so that they could excel at their work in a stable and comfortable environment amongst fellow brethren. Morris and his friends wanted to establish something akin to these antiquated fellowships, and first did by way of the ‘Set’ and then Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Morris’ brotherhood friend Edward Burne-Jones worked on illuminating manuscripts with Morris. Their brotherhood would share ideals and principles and support each other in their endeavors. Morris and his friends often rented houses together after they had lived in close quarters together at Oxford University. Medieval monastic brotherhoods and guilds either lived amongst one another in monasteries or shared communal guildhalls. Other Arts and Crafts communes cropped up, such as the Guild of St. George, the Century Guild, the Guild of Handicraft, and the Roycrofters in New York.

Examples of pages from the Roycroft Press

JEH MacDonald visited the Roycrofters with his wife in order to see the studio of lead Roycrofter, Elbert Hubbard in 1900. Hubbard himself was bewitched by Morrisian design principles and ideologies after he visited England in 1894. He wanted to bring the Arts and Crafts Movement to North America. He bought a printing press and named it the Roycroft Press in the footsteps of Morris’ Kelmscott Press. Although these private printing presses did not produce ‘one off’ books like hand-illuminated manuscripts, the whole process of making books on these small presses was very hands-on and the same design elements were applied. The very limited numbers of books produced were still typically embellished. Typically beforebeing printed, an illustrated version was made that would have looked like the hand painted A Word To Us All. JEH MacDonald likely intended that A Word to Us All would be translated into a printed book. BY MacDonald’s time the Arts and Crafts book and printing press fervor gripped far afield and the Arts and Crafts pseudo-medieval/ pseudo-gothic revival design elements had solidified a definitive style of its own. This is evident in the lettering, foliage and miniatures when comparing A Word to Us All with other work by William Morris, the Roycrofters, and other Arts and Crafts illustrated books.

Details from MacDonald's A World to Us All

It was thought that JEH set about producing the illustrated pages of his poem A Word to Us All with the intent of submitting it for a potential position with the Roycrofters. As it was “a message to all Canadians,” the poem was likely too nationalistic to catch the attention of the American Roycrofters. Regardless, JEH went on to work at a graphic design firm in London instead and later returned to Toronto to work for Grip Ltd. Grip Ltd. would have a great influence on MacDonald because this is where he would meet Tom Thomson and fellow Group of Seven comrades. I cannot help but make a comparison between the fellowship that formed between the artists of the Group of Seven and William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, or other Arts and Crafts groups. In conclusion, A Word to Us All is a well-done and intricately executed work of art. It crisscrosses the boundaries of many art forms: such as drawing, painting, calligraphy and poetry. It is a true example of Arts and Crafts illustration, with elements derived from a style developed out of 19th century pseudo-medieval and gothic design. MacDonald’s work holds a worthy place amongst the world’s Arts and Crafts design of the time, and he himself was a well-rounded man like William Morris whom he admired.

J.E.H. MacDonald 'A Word to Us All' (1900) ink, gouache on paper (page four)


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