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Living the ideal of craftsman-artist. C. R. Ashbee, a leader of the arts and crafts movement

C. R. Ashbee: Architect, Designer and Romantic Socialist, by Alan Crawford. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 499 pp. $45. The fine, almost ceremonial leisureliness with which this book goes about its task of introducing us to C. R. Ashbee, one of the leaders of the late-Victorian arts and crafts movement, seems justified. Elaborately organized into three parts -- one each for his biography, the various arts and crafts Ashbee practiced, and his wide influence -- ``C. R. Ashbee'' succeeds in evaluating a complex individual as a person and as a historical phenomenon.

Throughout his big, lavishly illustrated book, Alan Crawford keeps reminding us that it was Ashbee's fidelity to ideas, for better and for worse, that made him what he was.

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Indeed, as Mr. Crawford shows, ``the Arts and Crafts was an intensely thoughtful movement.'' Behind it was the ideal of the craftsman-artist, and behind that was the idea that useful objects could be beautiful if they were lovingly made.

Well-known leaders of the movement include John Ruskin and William Morris. There was Ruskin's romantic attitude toward the medieval workmen who carved Venice and the cathedrals of northern France out of stone, and William Morris's vision of the English character behind the vernacular buildings of the English countryside.

And now there's Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942). Known hitherto for the beautiful objects he designed and made, for silverwork, furniture, jewelry, buildings -- all touched with the almost solemn sensuousness that radiates from the best work of the movement -- and as the founder of the Guild of Handicraft in the East End of London, Ashbee was also prominent as a lecturer and author. He was always talking up ``the ethics of production.''

Musing on these ethics, he once wrote: ``The artist producer stands forth. This trifle of mine is a mere symbol, the thing itself is empty, vain, its goodness consists in the spirit put into it, and the doing it, its creation by us, reflects a greater doing, symbolizes a creation elsewhere, in which we are sublimely and unconsciously taking part.''

As so often happens, seen from the biographical point of view, these noble words have their ironies. Ashbee's idealism, as presented by Crawford, can't be separated from his restless, troubled nature. For example, it's now fashionable to exploit the subject of homosexuality; happily, Mr. Crawford keeps this aspect of Ashbee's life in perspective. His account of Ashbee's marriage to Janet Godden, her long-suffering support of her husband's idealism and her growing respect for her own feelings, Ashbee's gradual assumption of responsibility for their four daughters -- all this gives us a full sense of Ashbee as a man.

Ashbee's idealism had a political side. Edwin Mullins, in his fine survey ``The Arts of Britain,'' writes that: ``at the turn of the century, the power of the crafts movement to change the fabric of society still seemed real. C. R. Ashbee, the remarkable designer and craftsman who had founded the Guild of Handicraft in the East End of London, transported his entire Cockney workforce to Chipping Camden, in the Cotswolds, where both their souls and their workmanship were supposed to benefit from `the elemental things of life' and . . . from maypole dancing. Though the experiment failed, it shows that Morris's followers still had the rather foolhardy courage of their convictions.''

Ashbee rebounded from the failure of the guild by lecturing in America, where he discovered Frank Lloyd Wright in Illinois and the Greene brothers in California.

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He also spent four years in Jerusalem as town planner. There he helped bring back traditional crafts and made of the medieval wall surrounding the city a public walk and garden. He left in 1922 when the tensions between the Zionists and the Arabs made his idealism seem merely romantic.

Crawford notes that Ashbee's plans for Jerusalem seem to have been vindicated by the building boom since reunification in 1967. The city was almost brutalized with high-rises and highways before public protest forced the city to return to the idea that had governed Ashbee's work: respect for the character of the Old City.

As presented by Crawford, Ashbee was an idealist in a rather tougher sense than common usage allows. In an article published in German in 1935, Nikolaus Pevsner, who later became the chief historian of English vernacular building, wrote of Ashbee as ``a really original and extensive thinker.'' Pevsner added that in the critical years of 1900-1910 Ashbee seemed blind to the ``coming revelation of the machine aesthetic in Gropius' model factory . . . and in the establishment of the Bauhaus.'' Ashbee didn't argue the point. Crawford explains: ``those years were too real, too much a matter of personal experience, for him to be impressed by such determinism.''

Actually, Ashbee had himself argued that ``we artists ourselves . . . are but the instruments through which breathes the Over-Soul, the Zeitgeist.'' The Zeitgeist as perceived by the historian may differ from that perceived, or experienced, by the artist.

Looking back as we do now, in our post-modern mood, it is Ashbee's Zeitgeist that seems compelling. Reading Crawford, one experiences a strange sense of fulfillment or d'ej`a vu: these beautiful, enameled silver dishes; these brooches of gold, silver, pearls, with a ruby in the peacock's eye; these writing cabinets of ebony and holly; these houses at once ``countrified, demure, and honest looking,'' but also ``clever, reserved, sophisticated'' -- are not these works by Ashbee and his guildsmen the very avatars of our own newly awakened taste for the decorative as a central element in design?

I think so. As presented by Alan Crawford, this ``architect, designer, and romantic socialist'' was something more than a sum of his labels. Complex and flawed as we now know him to have been, Ashbee continues to provoke and inspire. Grand as an art book, moving as a biography, and fascinating as cultural history, ``C. R. Ashbee'' illuminates our world.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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