The best of Dorset in words and pictures

One hundred years of Arts and Crafts in Dorset

Tony Burton-Page celebrates the centenary of the Dorset Arts and Crafts Association

Demonstrations of crafts are always popular with visitors to the Exhibition

The Arts and Crafts movement was given its name in 1888, when the first Arts and Crafts Exhibition was held at the New Gallery in London. Displaying tapestries by William Morris, tiles by William de Morgan and wallpapers by Walter Crane, it was a response to the Great Exhibition of 1851. That celebration of British wealth, power and know-how had been designed to showcase the artistic prowess of a great industrial nation, but the cheap, mass-produced household goods and shoddy ‘art-objects’ were seen by many as a dreadful indictment of the sad state of British design. Artist Edward Burne-Jones spoke of the ‘gigantic weariness’ of the exhibition and Morris dismissed the exhibits as ‘wonderfully ugly’. For such men the Great Exhibition illustrated that there was a clear need for reform and their proselytising eventually brought about the 1888 exhibition.

That exhibition was the spur to the setting up of Arts and Crafts societies all over the kingdom. The Dorset County Arts and Crafts Association was formed in 1907 and its first official exhibition was held in the imposing setting of Blandford’s Corn Exchange. Strangely enough, this was not Dorset’s first Arts and Crafts exhibition; this had been held the previous year under the organisation of Ruth Pitt-Rivers. The Pitt-Rivers name recurs throughout the history of the Association right up to the present day: the current President is Mrs Anthony Pitt-Rivers, the Lord Lieutenant of Dorset.

The leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement – designers and architects, poets and painters – were appalled by the brutality and ugliness that came with industrialisation and urbanisation and set about creating a more humane alternative. Rejecting mass-produced artefacts as soulless and alienating, they turned instead to the pre-Industrial Revolution past for inspiration, drawing on medieval and vernacular designs and reviving traditional, hand-crafted methods of production. The steam-powered machines that churned out identical (and often shoddy) furniture and fittings were despised in favour of honest, articles hand-made from natural and indigenous materials by craft-workers. The craftsman was inseparable from the artist: maker and designer were one and in close contact with the user.

The fine art section is one of the major draws of the Annual Exhibition

It wasn’t just bearded Victorian intellectuals getting steamed up about patterned wallpaper and oak beams. The leading lights of the Arts and Crafts movement were convinced that the quality of design and craftsmanship reflected the moral goodness of the world around them and they believed that their efforts were vital in creating a more just and civilised society. William Morris, for example, firmly believed that mechanised processes led inevitably to what he called ‘useless toil’, which robbed the worker of an essential part of his birthright: ‘joy in the labour of his hands’.

The Dorset Arts and Crafts Association (the ‘County’ in the original title is still officially there but used only on formal occasions) has a unique claim. In the early pioneering days, every county had its own Arts and Crafts Association, but Dorset’s is the only one of its kind to have survived intact since those times, the rest having fallen by the wayside or changed out of all recognition. The 1940s, ’50s and ’60s saw a decline in interest in local crafts, largely because of the advent of television, but Dorset weathered this particular storm. Gavin Russell, the current Chairman, attributes this primarily to the willingness of a large number of people prepared to give up their time without any prospect of financial gain, and also to the support of influential people. The Pitt-Rivers family has already been mentioned, but the DACA archives are generously sprinkled with familiar Dorset names: Hambro, Bond, Mansel, Weld, Digby, Pickard-Cambridge. The only notable absentee is Thomas Hardy himself, but surely he would have approved of such a dynastic continuity.

The Association’s longevity is all the more remarkable given its all-pervading volunteer ethos. Unlike many similar associations, DACA celebrates the work of the amateur. Professional craftspeople occasionally show their work at the Annual Exhibition and many pieces are indeed sold there by both professionals and amateurs, but the vast majority of the exhibitors do not expect to make a profit from their efforts – what a breath of fresh air in this age of money-grabbing cynicism!

The Association is very involved with the encouragement of the young and ‘have a go’ is one of the themes of the Exhibition

A key to the success of DACA is its adaptability. Paul Newsome, Secretary for the last sixteen years, has seen many changes and is convinced that the Association will continue to flourish if it is flexible enough to be willing to welcome new areas; there is even a category now for artefacts made of recycled material. DACA wanted to include photography in that original exhibition in 1907 and it was only omitted because of lack of space, but in the 21st century, photography (hardly a traditional art or craft!) now provides between a quarter and a third of all the entries. This should not come as a surprise, since the current DACA mission statement clearly states that it aims to ‘revive and promote the study of handicrafts and to encourage the education of the residents of the County of Dorset in old and modern [my italics] arts and crafts and industries for their pleasure and personal development’.

The Annual Exhibition is the prime raison d’être of the Association. Without it, everything else would be fine words and dusty theory. There has been an exhibition every year since 1907 except during World War 2 (and, for some obscure reason unknown even to DACA historians, 1960). In the early years, there were many venues for the exhibition as it seemed only fair for it to be held in various parts of Dorset. Blandford, Poole, Sherborne, Dorchester, Gillingham, Shaftesbury and Wareham were all hosts in those days, but as years went by, the number of exhibits increased and more space was needed. School halls were ideally suited to the purpose and the hire charges were affordable. Since the 1930s, the exhibition has been held exclusively at schools such as Canford, Bryanston, Milton Abbey, Blandford, Sturminster Newton, St Mary’s Puddletown and Bovington Middle School – the last-named being the venue for this year’s Centenary Exhibition.

It is only fitting that schools should have played such an important part in DACA’s history, as the encouragement of the young is another of its concerns. Mrs Pitt-Rivers, the President, is emphatic that DACA should welcome the creativity of young people. All too often, the Arts and Crafts world is seen as the preserve of the retired and the elderly, but DACA’s attitude is healthily realistic: to encourage the participation of schools, it offers them not only trophies but bursaries. Here is that thread of continuity again – one of its original aims, stated at the opening ceremony in 1907, was ‘to employ profitably the idle hours of lads and girls’. A hundred years later, the exhibition booklet proudly declares: ‘The display of work by young persons is a special part of our show.’

A stand with work by the blind and disabled

This year’s exhibition at Bovington Middle School is from Friday 27 to Tuesday 31 July. The range of categories is staggering, from penmanship to model boats, from paper-making to beadwork. The Traditional Dorset Craft section includes button-making – one entrant went on to make buttons for costumes in the Harry Potter films. Contributions from the disabled and the blind are always encouraged and they have their own special section. One reason why Bovington has been such a favoured venue is its excellent facilities for the disabled.

This year there are several new trophies, including the Russell Cup for Botanical Illustration, presented by the current Chairman, and the Centenary Trophy for Dorset Land or Seascape, presented by Mrs Pitt-Rivers, who is retiring as President this year. The Pitt-Rivers’ contribution to DACA has been commemorated in a presentation plate hand-painted by Dorothy Newsome, and it is only fitting to end this survey with some Pitt-Rivers thoughts – one hundred years apart. Mrs Anthony Pitt-Rivers wants people to come to the Exhibition and to find their own creativity. Also, ever practical, she points out that volunteers are always needed, both on committees and, in particular, for those vital two weeks when the Exhibition is mounted, stewarded and dismantled. A little over a hundred years ago, General Augustus Pitt-Rivers quoted some lines from Ovid: Ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes emollit mores nec sinit esse feros – ‘To have studied carefully the liberal arts refines the manners and prevents us from being brutish.’

The Association’s President, Mrs Anthony Pitt-Rivers, presents one of its major prizes, the Hallett Bowl, to Mrs Joan Nicholls

Dorset Directory