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The Politics of Art: The 19th Century Arts and Crafts Movement


In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, life underwent a considerable change for much of the British population. The industrial revolution completely shifted how people understood work and the opportunities available to them. The economic implications of industrialization were huge, but the effects of it seeped into many other aspects of life as well.

In the 1860s, a movement started to emerge in response to many of those changes. Skeptical of art that increasingly seemed overly ornate and impersonal, the Arts and Craft movement championed older styles and drew a parallel between what was valuable in art and in life.

The Philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement

Although the movement didn't get a name until the late 1880's, it really got off the ground with the ideological influence of proponents John Ruskin and William Morris in the 1850's and 60's. The visual styles of the movement varied, what really brought it together as a movement was the philosophy behind the art created, which was exemplified by four main ideas.

1. Nature

The value of nature showed itself both in the materials used and the designs themselves. Adherents of the Arts and Crafts movement aimed to work directly with materials from the earth, rather than use anything that had been through an industrialized process or factory. Their reverence for nature often meant designs that incorporated flowers, plants or other images from Britain's natural world.

2. Honesty

With such emphasis placed on the importance of the process of creation and choice in materials used, Arts and Crafts objects were designed with the hopes that both would show in the finished product. If you could tell what an object was made of and gain some idea of how it was made just by looking at it, then it had achieved one of the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement.

3. Functionality

Most visual art is created in forms that serve a primarily decorative function. The members of the Arts and Crafts movement weren't creating paintings or sculptures, almost all of the art created served a functional role instead of a just a decorative one.

4. Craftsmanship

The appreciation for craftsmanship was the primary underpinning of the movement's whole philosophy. The growing trend of division of labor and conditions in the factories meant that men couldn't take ownership over the creation of things anymore. Any pride or creativity that once existed in the process of making a chair or a vase, for example, was diminished by the new processes of industrialization.

The point of the movement was to urge a return to art and objects that were handmade and that a person could find value in creating.

The Movement's Art

As briefly discussed, the art itself manifests in objects that provide a use beyond aesthetics. This spans from the design of homes, to that of furniture, and to things such as wallpaper and lamps.

The designs tend to be relatively simple, avoiding anything overly ornate or decorative. Stylistic inspiration came from a wide variety of sources: the Renaissance, medieval designs, and art from India, the Middle East, Japan and more. The main goal was to make it feel human and personal, not detached from the human touch.

The Movement's Politics

William Morris, one of the main names associated with the movement, was a socialist who became increasingly devoted to the political cause over time. The movement itself was not explicitly socialist, but it was clearly inspired by and associated with certain political ideas and concepts. Morris felt it represented a “socialist brotherhood” which encouraged artists to contribute according to their ability for the greater good of society.


The most obvious was the clear thread of anti-industrialization running through the movement. While this was channeled into a specific approach to art, it came from a place of criticizing larger societal changes. The art was one means of communicating a frustration at a lifestyle that devalued the individual, and that was focused on profit over personality.

For Morris, the artistic movement was a stepping stone onto a more committed approach to socialist activities. For others, it was an approach to a symptom of modern life that was unsatisfying and overly mechanical. In this way, the art was less about aesthetics, and more about a commentary on the way people should be and live.

Arts and Crafts couldn't make a dent in the inevitable economic and societal evolution already in play.  Industrialization happened for a reason. It was actually beneficial for a lot of people, as it helped usher in the idea of a middle class and helped to sustain a growing population.

When it came down to it, the slow, careful work of crafting things by hand just wasn't sustainable on a large scale. As more and more members of the movement realized the limitations this placed on their work (and profitability), it started to dwindle. The Arts and Crafts movement still maintains an influence today through the many homes of Craftsman architecture that remain. And now, as it was then, many people still place a premium on objects crafted by hand.

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