The Art Workers’ Guild was founded in January 1884 at the Charing Cross Hotel. It was the coming-together of two existing informal discussion groups: The Fifteen, composed of designers like Walter Crane and Lewis F. Day; and the St George’s Art Society, composed of six architects, all but one being pupils of Richard Norman Shaw.
The desire to form a society such as the Guild reflected a widespread desire to create social contact between members of different artistic professions, for whom there was no existing institutional meeting place. They were scathing of the hierarchical divisions of the Royal Academy, where painting was elevated above the other arts, as they were of the increasing emphasis on ‘professionalism’ at the Royal Institute of British Architects, which they viewed as antagonistic to the demands of artistic quality. The architectural emphasis of the Guild was typical of the way in which the Arts and Crafts Movement grew out of the Gothic Revival, with its emphasis on a multiplicity of design skills and craft trades through which buildings might regain the unified richness of the past.
1884 was a significant year in British history, when Victorian ideas of relentless material progress were challenged by exposure of the appalling living conditions of many of the population, and the established order was challenged from below as well as being questioned from above. Much of the impulse that previously had fed into religion was transferred to art, retaining a moral seriousness and sense of mission that has characterised the Guild.
As today, members were elected on the proposal of existing members and on the strength of their work. During its early years, the Guild attracted a highly distinguished membership which included most of the prominent younger architects, painters, sculptors and designers of the period. They often worked in collaboration, on buildings such as the church of Holy Trinity, Sloane Street (architect J. D. Sedding), or the Institute of Chartered Accountants (architect J. D. Belcher), which fortunately survive. Guild members were also prominent in the reform of art education in the 1890s, when the new London County Council established courses and qualifications independent of the government teaching system. In contrast to its dull and mechanical exercises, they emphasised ‘learning by doing’, and challenged the class distinction between ‘gentleman’ designers and tradesmen. Essentially, any practitioner who designed their own work, whether they made it or not, was eligible, but not those who only executed the designs of others. A class of Associate Members allowed for non-practitioners who were supporters of the Guild.
William Morris anticipated the Guild in his care for materials and methods, his application of design skills in a multitude of media, and his view that art had a valuable role in improving the quality of life here and now, while setting critical standards for still more radical changes to come. Morris was not one of the founders (his socialism was too extreme for many Guild members), but became Master in 1892.
While its members were active in many aspects of public life, the Guild decided at an early stage that its stability depended on staying out of the public eye. It had little ‘infrastructure’ and we would recognise it today as a networking organisation. Its meetings were not reported in the press, and members felt free to speak their minds on a variety of topics. The function of exhibiting was taken over by the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in 1888, which had a considerable shared membership, although unlike the Guild (at least until 1966), it included women members.
In 1899, members of the Guild wrote, designed and performed a dramatic pageant, Beauty’s Awakening, A Masque of Winter and Spring, at the London Guildhall. This was an attempt to show how London had the potential to become a great artistic city, if only its civic administration would recognise the value of the arts to all the citizens. The critic P. G. Konody described it as ‘the finest and most completely satisfactory artistic spectacle ever witnessed by a London audience.’ Such a public effort was never repeated, although the Guild established a tradition of ‘Revels’ performed for its own members and their friends.
After 1900, the heyday of the Arts and Crafts Movement was beginning slowly to fade. Many Guild members established, for the first time, a conservative attitude in the face of new ideas and styles. Many of the original members were still living in 1914, and several were prosperous enough to support the acquisition of property for the first time. The architects Dunbar Smith and Cecil Brewer had an office in the front of the early Georgian house at 6 Queen Square, Bloomsbury, and when they heard that the freehold was for sale, encouraged the Guild to buy it. The back part of the building was reconstructed as a meeting hall, designed by F. W. Troup and inaugurated on 22nd April 1914. It is furnished with rush-seated chairs to a pattern originally made in Herefordshire in the 1880s by Philip Clisset, and afterwards copied by Ernest Gimson and his successors. The names of all members up to the year 2000 are painted on a frieze around the walls of the Hall. The list of names now continues in the front room known as the ‘Master’s Room’.