Imogen Hart, “On the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society”


The first exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society made new and ambitious claims for the public significance of decorative art. This article analyses the innovations and methods of the Society while also examining the conflicting motivations and ideological tensions within it. Instead of seeing the Society as straightforwardly representative of the Arts and Crafts movement and the activities of William Morris, I consider how it fits into a broader history of Victorian art and design, revealing its relationships with the Royal Academy of Arts and the Schools of Art system for training industrial designers.

photo of Walter Crane

Figure 1: Photograph of Walter Crane, first president of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society

The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society made new and ambitious claims for the public significance of decorative art. Although the nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of display spaces available to artists, these opportunities were enjoyed mainly by painters and, to some extent, sculptors. Artists whose medium fell into the category of the so-called decorative arts (which included ceramics, textiles, metalwork, furniture, and glassware, among other media) benefited less from these developments and felt marginalized by the system. The imbalance had both financial and ideological implications. The lack of opportunities for public exposure meant that decorative artists struggled to market their work to potential purchasers. At the same time, many such artists craved the social and intellectual status attained by fine artists when their work received critical acclaim at the exhibitions of the map iconRoyal Academy, the Society of Artists, or the Grosvenor Gallery, to name a few examples. (See the relevant BRANCH essays for more information on these institutions, for example Pamela Fletcher, “On the Rise of the Commercial Art Gallery in London.”) While decorative artists did find ways of displaying their work—at the map iconGreat Exhibition of 1851 and its successors, for instance, or by contributing to public interiors such as the refreshment rooms at the map iconSouth Kensington Museum—there was no regular exhibition venue where they could present their work to the same public, and on the same terms, as their painter colleagues could at prestigious fine art exhibitions. (On the Great Exhibition, see Audrey Jaffe.) This was the gap that the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society was designed to fill.

The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society was founded in 1887 and opened its first exhibition at the map iconNew Gallery, Regent Street, on October 1, 1888. Arts and Crafts exhibitions were held annually until 1890. When it became apparent that more than a year was needed to generate a new supply of exhibits, the exhibitions continued triennially until 1899. A gap of four years then took place—explained by the Society’s involvement in the 1902 map iconTurin Exhibition—before the next exhibition in 1903, after which the triennial pattern was re-adopted, with occasional longer gaps. The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society kept its name until 1959, when it became the Society of Designer Craftsmen.

Like most large organizations, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society was made up of a number of different factions, often resulting in divisive internal conflicts. These fundamental tensions produced exhibitions of a markedly different character within a relatively short period. For example, one of the key debates revolved around the Society’s attitude to commercial transactions, which underwent significant changes. At first no prices were included in the exhibition catalogues, and while the Society was willing to register purchases, it would “undertake no responsibility, either with regard to payment, or to the delivery of works” (Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society 1889 104). However, in 1893, the Secretary was prepared to take the purchaser’s details and accept a twenty-five-percent deposit, and from 1903, prices were displayed in the catalogue itself. This development was the subject of debate amongst members. Book designer T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, in his role as Honorary Secretary, is recorded as having “deprecated the Exhibition being turned into a shop for sale of wares” (“Extraordinary General Meeting”).

The name of the Society has been the cause of some widespread misconceptions. Initially its founders gathered under the title “The Combined Arts” but later adopted “The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society” on the suggestion of Cobden-Sanderson. Consequently, the Society has been incorporated into the history of the Arts and Crafts movement. Scholars have defined it as the movement’s “form,” “substance,” “public face,” and “coherent public identity” (Stansky 12; MacCarthy 593; and Hitchmough 19). Yet the phrase “Arts and Crafts movement” does not appear in print until almost a decade after the founding of the Society and was not widely used until the early twentieth century (see Crane 242 and Hart 5). It is, therefore, misleading to consider the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society as straightforwardly connected to a movement with the same name (see Hart 148-74).

A related misconception has to do with William Morris’s involvement in the Society. Given that Morris is generally held to be the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, we might assume that he was at the center of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, especially if the latter is considered the “substance” and “public face” of the movement (see Hart 20-21). Yet Morris’s relationship with the Society is complex. He was not a founder of the Society, and when he first heard of the venture, he was far from supportive. In a letter dated December 31, 1887, he outlined his many misgivings, asking who was to “find the money” and predicting that attendance would be low “after the first week or two” since “the public don’t care one damn about the arts and crafts” (Kelvin 730). He added that while Walter Crane and Edward Burne-Jones’s works would be “worth looking at,” the rest “would tend to be of an amateurish nature, I fear.” (730). In conclusion, Morris admitted, “I rather dread the said exhibition” (730). Morris’s reservations point to his respect for professionalism, indicating that he considered the quality of objects more important than the opportunity to raise the status of decorative artists (see Hart 157-63).

One of the most widely known aspects of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society is its insistence on the acknowledgment of everyone involved in an object’s production. In other words, not only the designer but also the executants were to be identified by name, a move that was intended to raise the status of the craftsperson in line with that of fine artists. This was not a policy to which Morris attributed much importance. In an interview conducted at the 1893 Arts and Crafts exhibition, Morris declared, “The object of the Arts and Crafts is to give people an opportunity of showing what they could do apart from the mere names of firms. . . . The executant generally gets in. It is impossible, besides, to give the name of everybody concerned in the production. . . . A work of art is always a matter of co-operation. After all, the name is not the important matter. If I had my way there should be no names at all” (“Art, Craft and Life”). This rather dismissive attitude to the Society’s preoccupation with recognizing authorship reflects Morris’s deep investment in the principle of collaboration.

While Morris was neither the instigator nor a notable supporter of the Society, however, he did become heavily involved in it during the 1890s. He took over from Crane as the Society’s president in 1891 and edited the Society’s first non-exhibition-related publication, Arts and Crafts Essays (1893). Morris’s preface to Arts and Crafts Essays promoted the activities of the Society: “It is this conscious cultivation of art and the attempt to interest the public in it which the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society has set itself to help, by calling special attention to that really most important side of art, the decoration of utilities by furnishing them with genuine artistic finish instead of trade finish” (xiii).

Morris died on the opening day of the fifth Arts and Crafts exhibition in 1896 and the Society decided to postpone the opening as a result. A retrospective dedicated to him was held as part of the next exhibition (in 1899), whose catalogue included a “Note on the late President of the Society, William Morris” by Crane. These events may have contributed to the misconception that Morris was a founder or fundamental supporter of the Society. During the committee’s discussion of the proposed retrospective, Philip Webb declared that the Arts and Crafts exhibition “would gain in relief and interest by setting apart some space for William Morris’s work and that his work would also gain in interest by being shown with contemporary work which he has so largely influenced” (“Minutes of the General Committee” 208). For many of the individuals involved in the Society, Morris had been deeply influential, not to mention, as in Webb’s case, a close friend. Not only did they wish to honor Morris, but they saw, no doubt, that an association with Morris’s sophistication as a design theorist, political thinker, businessman, and artist would lend weight to their endeavors.

Instead of being considered an institution that can be fully explained in terms of an Arts and Crafts movement headed by William Morris, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society needs to be understood as part of a broader network of interwoven histories, including those of the Schools of Design, the Royal Academy, the Design Reform movement, and the Aesthetic movement. The first two of these connections will be explored here in further depth.

A priority of the Society was to make the Arts and Crafts exhibitions accessible to practising craftspeople, indicating that pedagogy was considered an important part of the Society’s mission. For example, in 1890 the catalogue announced that entry was free on Monday evenings to “craftsmen and others who may be unable to attend during the day.” In the same year, students “of any recognised Art School” were also admitted free of charge at any time (Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society 1890). On the advice of the Select Committee of Arts and Manufactures (1835), the British government had established Schools of Design (later renamed Schools of Art) around the country to foster the development of design expertise. The Select Committee had also recommended the provision of museums in which designers could examine good examples to inform their own practice. When the map iconManchester School of Art began to develop a collection of decorative art with the aim of setting up a museum for students, it sourced many of its objects from the Arts and Crafts Exhibitions, along with glass cases for the purpose of displaying the collection. The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society thus contributed directly to the training of a generation of designers.

A vital element of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society’s motivation and significance stemmed from the way it situated itself in relation to the map iconRoyal Academy. The Society grew out of the Art Workers’ Guild (which in turn was formed by two separate groups, the St George’s Art Society and The Fifteen). The Art Workers’ Guild brought together those “who were neither the oil painters of the [Royal] Academy nor the Surveyors of the Institute [of British Architects], but craftsmen in architecture, painting, sculpture and the kindred arts” (Massé 7). In The Arts and Crafts Movement (1905), Cobden-Sanderson writes that because the Royal Academy was restricted to painting, sculpture, and architecture, “protesters” formed the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (4). The first exhibition catalogue implicitly presents the Society as a counterbalance to the Royal Academy. In the preface Crane declares, “We cannot concentrate our attention on pictorial and graphic art without losing our sense of construction and power of adaptation in design to all kinds of very different materials and purposes” (Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society 1888 7). In particular, equality in terms of public exposure is sought, as it is the Society’s goal to provide a chance for decorative artists to appeal to “the public eye . . . upon strictly artistic grounds in the same sense as the pictorial artist” (Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society 1888 5). Similarities between the Royal Academy and Arts and Crafts exhibition catalogues demonstrate further that the Society was self-consciously presenting itself as the equivalent of the Academy.

The aims, policies, and personnel of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society shifted over the years. Yet during this time its exhibitions remained the most important display space for decorative arts. They not only served as a point of exposure for artists but also offered a site in which to mount retrospectives of influential pioneers in the field, allowed critics and the general public opportunities to assess the progress and development of the decorative arts, and provided a natural training ground for student practitioners. Before the foundation of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, there had been no public platform for the display and analysis of contemporary British decorative art on the same terms as fine art. The Society helped to make it possible to look at and write about decorative art in new ways.

The significance of the Society reached beyond Great Britain. Reviews of the Arts and Crafts exhibitions in journals such as The Studio (founded in 1893) brought awareness of the work of British practitioners and theorists in the decorative arts to an international audience. Thus, the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society not only promoted British design and craftsmanship but also contributed to an international reevaluation of the status of decorative arts and provided an influential model for exhibitions that would challenge existing hierarchies by encouraging the art-going public to see such objects differently.

Imogen Hart is an Assistant Curator at the Yale Center for British Art. She is the author of Arts and Crafts Objects (Manchester University Press, 2010) and co-editor, with Jason Edwards, of Rethinking the Interior, c. 1867-1896: Aestheticism and Arts and Crafts (Ashgate, 2010).


published June 2012

Hart, Imogen. “On the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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Crane, Walter. Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New. London: George Bell & Sons, 1896. Print.

“Extraordinary General Meeting.” 20 Mar. 1901. N. pag. MS Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society minutes. ACES Papers, AAD 1/48 – 1980. Archive of Art and Design, Victoria and Albert Museum.

“Minutes of the General Committee.” 24 Nov. 1896. MS Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society minutes, 1889–96. ACES Papers, AAD 1/43 – 1980. Archive of Art and Design, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Hart, Imogen. Arts and Crafts Objects. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010. Print.

Hitchmough, Wendy. The Arts and Crafts Home. London: Pavilion, 2000. Print.

Kelvin, Norman, ed. The Collected Letters of William Morris. Vol. 2. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987. Print.

MacCarthy, Fiona. William Morris: A Life for Our Time. London: Faber and Faber, 1994. Print.

Massé, H. J. L. J. The Art Workers’ Guild 1884–1934. Oxford: n.p., 1935. Print.

Stansky, Peter. Redesigning the World: William Morris, the 1880s and the Arts and Crafts. Guildford: Princeton UP, 1985. Print.


Morna O’Neill, “On Walter Crane and the Aims of Decorative Art”