‘Useful and Beautiful’ – Arts and Crafts Furniture at Cannon Hall

Freelance Curator Melissa Gallimore explores some of the furniture found at Cannon Hall Museums

In 1880 William Morris said in a lecture to the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ This phrase has been used in many different circumstances over the years and could currently by used by all those people sorting through their household belongings during lockdown. It summed up his desire to ensure beauty in everyone’s homes as part of his socialist principles.

Morris was one of many men and women who heavily influenced the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain in the late nineteenth century. Due to an increase in mechanisation and factory production in the nineteenth century many decorations for the home were mass produced. Morris and many others disliked the lack of artistry in these objects and were also concerned about the loss of traditional craft skills. The Arts and Crafts furniture at Cannon Hall Museum shows how art, design and skill became increasingly popular in the period to counter mass production.

Oak Cabinet by E G Punett for William Birch

A great deal of Arts and Crafts furniture was made from oak as this was seen as a traditional, British wood. Its strength meant it was good for construction and it could also be carved to add some detail. Imported woods such as mahogany, rosewood and satinwood that were popular in the eighteenth century initially came to Europe through the slave trade and fell out of fashion for a time in the nineteenth century. The ethos of the Arts and Crafts was to focus on the skill of the craftsperson; for furniture this was traditional joints, construction and hand-carving. The style resembled the architecture of Elizabethan England such as this cabinet that has leaded glass doors designed to look like early windows.

The firm, William Birch of High Wycombe (Buckinghamshire), started out in the Victorian period and soon gained a strong reputation for making chairs. In the late nineteenth century they started branching out to make other pieces such as cabinets. They worked with a number of designers and quickly increased the scale of their production.

‘Sigeburt’ Table by Leonard F Wyburd for Liberty

In the 1870s Arthur Liberty founded his first department store on Regent Street in London selling many items inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement as well as goods imported from all over the world, especially Japan. Liberty founded its own furnishing and decoration studio which included making furniture designed by a number of fashionable designers. Leonard F Wyburd was the head of the studio and produced numerous designs in the Arts and Crafts style. Many of the ranges were given names inspired by ancient and Medieval history or literature. This table was named, ‘Sigeburt’ after a number of different Anglo-Saxon kings.

Cabinet by Shapland and Petter

This cabinet was made by Shapland and Petter who were based in Barnstaple, Devon. They produced Arts and Crafts furniture on a large scale but kept the focus on good materials and high-quality finishes. Shapland had trained as a cabinet maker in the 1850s and Petter dealt with the marketing and financial side of the business making them a successful partnership.

Tea Trolley by J S Henry

Some companies used the style of the Arts and Crafts movement but moved away from the core principles by moving production into large factories. J S Henry were based in London and made large amounts of very stylish furniture. This tea trolley would have been ideal for serving afternoon tea in a smart home at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Occasional Table by Liberty & Co.

Many people think of the Arts and Crafts movement as the epitome of British style but it is interesting to note that there were many influences at the time. In the later decades of the nineteenth century Japan was trading more with other countries and this created a fashion for all things Japanese. Many genuine Japanese objects made their way to Britain and were praised for their aesthetic qualities. Liberty was well-known for importing Japanese items to sell in the department store including furniture, ceramics and textiles. Many of the designers working for Liberty used the Japanese aesthetic in their own designs. This table has a circular top that is decorated with a pseudo-Japanese design and the stand is shaped to resemble a temple.

Some of the Arts and Crafts furniture and a small selection of metalwork is on display in the Oak Bedroom at Cannon Hall Museum and will be available for viewing once the Hall is open to the public. Please check the Cannon Hall website and social media for details.

Take a virtual tour of the museum

Take a virtual tour of the museum and then browse even more of our collections on our website: https://www.cannon-hall.com/collections

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