Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Back to the Land! in 1905

A recent visit to Letchworth to talk about May Morris took me back to a book I wrote a long time ago a book on the pastoral impulse in late nineteenth-century Britain, which naturally featured garden cities alongside rural communes, vegetarianism, new schools and much more.  See here for the Faber Finds page.

Among all the books, poems and pamphlets I read at the time, I failed to investigate the Artistic Crafts Series of Technical Handbooks  edited by W.R.Lethaby, a chief Arts and Crafts figure.  Or I would surely have cited this passage, which comes in the middle of  Christopher Whall’s textbook ‘for students and workers’ on Stained Glass Work, published in 1905.  Following 15 chapters on technical matters like cutting, painting, staining, leading, fixing etc., comes one on Colour, which itself then bursts into impassioned protest that reads as a prelude to Howards End:

“I have tried to show you one side by speaking of a little part of what may be seen and felt on a  spring morning, along a ridge of untouched hills in ‘pleasant Hertfordshire’, west of the road between Welwyn and Hitchin: if you want to see the other side of things ride across to Buntingford, and take the train back up the Lea Valley.  Look at Stratford (and smell it) and imagine it spreading, as no doubt it will, where its outposts of oil-mill and factory have already led the way, and think of the valley full up with slums, from Lea Bridge to Ponders End!  For the present writer can remember – and that not half a lifetime back – Edmonton and Tottenham, Brondesbury and Upton Park, sweet country villages where quiet people lived and farmed and gardened amidst the orchards, fields and hawthorn lanes.
Here now live, in mile after mile of jerry-building, the ‘hands’ who, never taught any craft or work worthy of a man, spend their lives in some little single operation that, as it happens, no machine has yet been invented to perform; month after month, year after year, painting, let us say, endless repeats of one pattern to use as they are required for the borders of pious windows in the churches of this land.
This is ‘the other side of things’ , much commended by what is looked on as ‘robust common sense’; and with this you have – nothing to do.  Your place is elsewhere, and if it needs be that it seems an isolated one, you must bear it and accept it.  Nature and your craft will solve all; live in them, bathe in them to the lips; and let nothing tempt you away from them to measure things by the standard of the mart.
Let us go back to our sunny hillside. ‘It is good for us to be here’, for this also is holy ground; and you must indeed be amongst such things if you would do stained-glass, for you will never learn all the joy of it in a dusty shop.
“So hard to get out of London?”
But get a bicycle then; - only sit upright on it and go slow – and get away from these bricks and mortar, to where we can see things like these! Those dandelions and daisies against the deep, green grass; the blazing candle of sycamore buds against the purple haze of the oak; and those willows like puffs of grey smoke where the stream winds. Did you ever? No, you never!  Well – do it then!”

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