Victorian House of Arts and Crafts - Episode 1 - The Parlour...

In episode 1 of the Victorian House of Arts and Crafts we saw crafters create objects for the parlour. Three of these were major builds set by the judges and three were minor builds created under the initiative of the other crafters who did not receive a fixed brief.

I created the wallpaper that adorned each facet of the room, Bryony created the silver porringer and Abi has the most arduous task of building a Sussex chair from greenwood logs! As complimentary items, Stephen created ceramic tiles for the fireplace surround, Rod made a candle sconce and Niamh managed the project whilst also working on the rushing for Abis chair.

In the edit, much was lost in terms of the explanation behind the collaborative efforts of the crafters working together in the Victorian commune. As the socialist ideals of working in harmony through the joy of labour to bring about pride and dignity in the resulting efforts was essentially the contextual backdrop for the transformation of the room, I thought it would be useful to reflect on the discussions we had through the week.

In this blog post I hope to explain the meaning behind some of the design decisions made by each crafter and the attempts that were made collaboratively to harmonise our thinking and get into the mindset of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.

In the first part of the episode we see an initial meeting between the crafters in the kitchen where early thoughts and opinions were brought to light. As the wallpaper would be a major component of the room, it made sense that it should be formed from imagery that brought together the thinking, and feeling of each crafter in their first few days living a Victorian life as surely this would constitute beauty by virtue of the movements ideals. In my early research through those essays and papers I found in the library I came across these thoughts by W. Morris himself which confirmed my direction for the function of the wallpaper in the spirit of the Arts and Crafts philosophies.

"Something that reminds us of life beyond itself and which has the impress of human imagination strong upon it"

"You may be sure that any decoration is futile when it does not remind you of somthing beyond itself, of something which is beyond a visible symbol"

"Stories that tell of mens aspirations far more than material life can give them, their struggles for the future of their race, their unselfish love, their unrequieted service, things like this are the subjects for the best art"

At the table I spoke about how our stories could be represented through graphic shapes that represented each persons experiences. In those early moments it was clear that (rightfully so) Abi felt a huge weight of pressure at the enormity of the woodworking task that lay ahead of him and it was quickly clear that due to his engineering background, Rod was keen to utilise his skills practically to assist Abi with the technical drawings related to the making of the Sussex chair so that Abi could get on with the preparation work. So what we saw here was the support that Abi felt he needed and the tension between Rod and I about time constraints.

We quickly established that Rod and I have very different approaches to how we plan our work schedule and that which we deem to be the most important part of designing and making or "crafting". For me, the concept is super important. For something to be worth making, it needs to be justifiable and relevant, otherwise efforts in bringing it to life, however speedily done or technically precise are wasted...

As such, my first port of call was to consider the etymology of the word "parlour". As this is the room we were essentially breathing new life into, I felt it was important to understand the purpose of the room and how that would have been perceived in Victorian times. The word "parlour" derives from the french verb "parler" which means to speak... The parlour in the late 1890's would have been a room where family and friends gathered at the end of the working day to discuss their pursuits and the successes and failures of the day.

It was with this understanding that I pursued the idea of creating imagery for the wallpaper that served as a visual reminder of our purpose in the Victorian House of Arts and Crafts and encouraged debate, discussion and understanding in our attempts to work collaboratively towards joyful participation, imagery that communicated our fears and provided an emotive representation for our hopes.

The early concept

This idea emerged strongly at the forefront of my mind from the off and absolutely worked within the socialist ideals of the movement in how it made attempts to reach out inclusively to each member of the community. I was very clear and fixed on the idea from day one. The difficulty I found I was having in needing time to develop the imagery related to gleaning the relevant insights from each individual as to the nature of their experience given that each person had a time pressured agenda of their own.

I began by sensitively discussing the format for my design with each crafter and encouraging them to share with me a single word that depicted their overriding feelings towards the initial stages of the task ahead. I began by recording these in the sketchbook as a starting point for developing forms and shapes to represent the collective experience.

Rod and I recognised that tensions were high and despite our creative differences I was keen to incorporate his thoughts and ideas as essentially we were all part of each others lives now and would be for the next month. Bryony's feelings were of pure unadulterated joy at the freedom to be able to explore making (albeit with primitive tools) without the weight of the responsibility of everyday life. Niamh was in hope of forging new connections between us all, Stephen was, well a bit lost for words in those first few days... Abi spoke about the need for us all to be supportive of him in giving him the time and space needed to complete his monster task and for me, I very much saw the opportunity in the house to be one of revival. Having been through a long journey of difficult personal circumstances in the preceding two years I was in search of rediscovering the passion for design which I had felt I had lost in having to focus on sometimes meaningless commercial output.

Aside from assisting Abi in a very practical way, Rod was also keen to lend a hand to me often, sometimes this was met with a sense of pressure from my own perspective as I recognised that Rod wanted to help me practically to create the wooden blocks for the printing but I very much needed time and space to be clear on gathering my thoughts before diving into the make, aside from this, as much as I appreciated his gallant efforts to assist, I also knew that I could afford the time I needed as a fairly competent woodworker myself. None the less we had time for sharing ideas and discussing possibilities which unfortunately did not form part of the final programme cut. I explained to Rod my ideas for the wallpaper motifs and he quickly generated an interpretive response to the idea of tension and support.

This motif for me was very descriptive of what I was trying to achieve but it only covered two aspects of the entire experience and for me was very reflective of Rods own personal visual language and less close to the softness and enlightened approach used by the artisans of the era.

Still, this motif was a good starting point for further exploration and led me onto further imagery forms raising further questions about the contextual "appropriateness" of the imagined motifs from a 21st century mind applied to a 19th century ideal set.

The eventual imagery emerged from a two pronged motif that expressed both tension and support and appropriately was reminiscent of floral stamen, alongside a crown like polygon like a three pointed burst which was rotationally repeated to create a floral form with an fresh and enlightened eastern feel. In isolation, these shapes held deeper meaning, they reflected both the negative emotions felt by some in those early days, but collectively they alluded more closely to the positive hopes we had for the remainder of the experience, the joy in creation, the connection between individuals and the hope for resurgence and new understanding in learning from the past. I felt strongly that the imagery used should not be pure replication of the style of the time but rather an interpretation of the ideals of the era with a contemporary twist.

The central motif

The nine dots used within these forms represented each individual that formed part of the experience (myself, Niamh, Stephen, Bryony, Abi, Rod, Patch, Anita and Keith) as the community at the heart of the of the aspirational ideals. It also worked in harmony with the existing block that I had to work around. William Morris often used pointilism in his motifs and in this case, I used the circles at the centre of each repeat in the existing block to represent the wider members of the public for whom we were engaging with this experience to hopefully inspire.

Identification of the centre dots

Its the small details such as these which really were the conceptual and politically inspired substance behind the overall success of both the wallpaper design and overall room transformation. The colours that were selected were discussed between us and eventually reflected the emotions that were used as the starting point. The vibrant pink brings playfulness, joy and connection. The fresh green layer ran as a vine like thread around the period leaf block bringing fresh life and contemporary revival through joined up ideals.

The original wallpaper print, the block I worked with is in dark green with the dots at the centre which I used to represent the public

Returning to the initial table discussion between Rod and I, he speaks about the room having a "theme" and that theme being dependent on the wallpaper, many of the crafters felt this too. William Morris speaks about approaches to decoration and says to always think first of the walls as it is the walls that provide the canvas for the rest of the components to sit upon. This is indeed why I felt a sense of pressure, not just to have it done in time to allow the others to feed both into and from, but also to ensure that it was right. In how it looked, felt, and most importantly in how it harmonised with the philosophies of the time.

Its a shame that these explanations weren't more prominent in the edit as it is these that would have brought about a deeper sense of understanding as to the design decisions that were made by each individual.

Carving the woodblocks for the green vine layer and the pink central motif

Late night testing of the wood blocks using fabric and whatever paint I could find in the library

Testing colourways using overlays

The collaborative development of the wallpaper imagery and concept for the room itself certainly influenced the detailing in Bryonys beautiful porringer and Abis chair and also fed into the work of Stephen and Rod in the development of the tiles and candle sconce.

Bryony's idea to have a two handled porringer as opposed to the one handled version shown to her initially was to further emphasise the idea that the parlour was a room for discussion. In providing two handles she gave the bowl a second function. Not just for consuming from but also to use for parlour games where topics of the day could be passed around on small pieces of folded paper to encourage conversation and connection. Bryony further integrated the two pronged tension motif in both the handle of the porringer and also in the setting of the cabochon which was made in ceramic by stephen and in the form of the dots used to represent our community on the wallpaper.

The two pronged tension motif in a 3D form on the porringer

Bryony's cabochon setting

Abis chair also held this dot at the top of the two back legs in the form of small silver domes which Bryony showed me how to make for him in her silversmithing shed. Stephens tiles incorporated both the house itself as the central pillar that held the parlour within and the outer side slabs also incorporated the dots to reflect the community theme. Rod's candle sconce used waste material from Bryony's porringer and his concept was one of emotive response, very much in keeping with our communal discussions. Niamh's contribution was arguably the most difficult of all this week as she was the one who literally had to "hold it all together". In weaving the rushing for Abis masterpiece Sussex chair and also in managing 5 strong minded creatives, she succeeded superbly...

Abi completing the Sussex chair through the night

Me cutting and forming the silver dots for the chair

The dots when formed - Bryony polished them and created the pins for fixing to the wood

Rod evaluating the waste material from Bryony's porringer for his candle sconce

Stephen's fireplace tiles

Detail of the finished wallpaper

The parlour complete

It is hoped that this blog post provided some deeper insight into the thinking behind the making and also proved to bring about a fresh perspective to the relationship between the crafters. I will be making a blog post each week about each of the episodes after the are transmitted. Please subscribe for further updates.

Enjoy episode two - Friday 18th January 2019 BBC2 9pm

345 views0 comments