Thursday, 17 February 2011

Walter Crane's Peasant Blouse

Another connection between the Peasant Arts movement and Walter Crane, is Crane's interest in peasant clothing and embroidery.  Crane travelled Europe admiring peasant embroidery.  Peasant Arts members also travelled Europe gaining inspiration from peasant art, the most significant traveller being the Rev. Gerald Davies who amassed the objects that were donated as the Peasant Arts Museum.
Russian Peasant Embroidery illustration by Walter Crane from Crane, Walter, William Morris to Whistler G. Bell and Sons Limited, London, 1911) 

In his book William Morris to Whistler (Crane, G. Bell and Sons Limited, London, 1911) Crane writes “embroidery as an art of design may be considered from many different points of view – but none of these are more important than those of colour and its treatment.  It is indeed to colour that decorative needlework owes its chief charm, and in no direction is the influence of controlling taste more essential, and in its absence the most elaborate workmanship and technical accomplishment are apt to be wasted…

The Russian peasants have a form of frock or long blouse worn by young girls, which affords an instance of effective use of frank and bright colour upon a white ground.  The garment itself is of homespun linen.  It has a square opening for the neck, and is put on over the head, like a smock frock.  The sleeves are quite simple, full on the upper arm and narrowing to a band on the wrist.  The skirt, which falls straight from the shoulders, is decorated with a series of horizontal bands of pattern worked in cross-stitch, the principal colours being red and green, colours which always tell well upon white.  The square-cut opening at the neck and the cuffs are emphasized by embroidered pattern of similar kind but on a smaller scale.  The garment is ingeniously adapted to the growth of its wearer by adding extra rings of pattern to the skirt, and by enlarging a square piece let in at the arm-pits.”
From Crane, Walter, An Artist’s Reminscences, Macmillan Company, 1907

Upon discussing the use of colour in embroidery, he states “as a general principle, especially where many colours are employed, we are more likely to secure harmony if we choose reds, for instance, inclining to orange, blues inclining to green, yellows inclining to green or brown, blacks of a greenish or olive tone.  Perfectly frank and pure colours, however, may be harmonized, especially with the use of gold, though they are more difficult to deal with – unless one can command the natural, primitive instinct of the Hungarian, the Greek, or the Persian peasant.”
Embroidery detail of 1620s linen jacket, formerly of the Isham Collection at the V&A Museum

In Establishing Dress History (Taylor, Lou, Manchester University Press, 2004), it is described that “In 1900, Walter Crane much admired the quality of craft work in this collection (the Isham collection from Lamport Hall, Northamption, of twenty-seven rare examples of seventeenth-century dress and embroideries.  This included entire men’s suits of the 1675-1700 period and remains one of the great treasures of the Victoria and Albert Museum) and believed, all too optimistically as it turned out, that it ‘would make possible an instructive exhibition of costumes in the Museum’”.
Illustration by Walter Crane from Mrs Molesworth, The Tapestry Room: a Child's Romance,
MacMillan and Co., 1879

Describing a visit to Bohemia in 1890 (Crane, Walter, An Artist’s Reminscences, Macmillan Company, 1907), Crane writes “we made the acquaintance at Prague of M. Borowsky, the curator the Rudolphinum Museum…The most interesting things, however, to us were Bohemian peasant costumes, of which there was a fine collection.  Many of the peasant women’s head-dresses were wonderful, embroidered with gold and silver, and the dresses also embroidered.  The peasant women still embroider their own dresses and the national costume is kept up, and the peasants come out in their bravery, though it is true one heard that they did not like being stared at by the townsfolk.  They certainly seemed to belong to another race, and mad a striking contrast in the streets to the ordinary citizens in the unromantic garb of modern business and town life.   

Walter Crane by G.F. Watts, 1891
National Portrait Gallery
(G.F. Watts lived in Compton, a few miles from Haslemere)

Through the kindness of M. Borowsky, who induced a group of country folks in their costume to submit to the process, I was enabled to get a sketch of typical group who happened to be wandering through the Museum.  The lady was remarkable for her daring arrangement of colour.  A red kerchief, curiously folded, covered her head, showing a long plait of hair, to which was attached a big bow of pink ribbon edged with lace.  Her jacket was bright purple, elaborately embroidered and braided, and her skirt was a vivid print, in vertical stripes of red and yellow, bearing floral patterns.  Striped stockings (red and white) and (alas!) modern kid boots completed the costume.  She held a little rosary in her hands as she stood for me.”

In Carrara, Tuscany, on the same journey, Crane describes how he painted a model who was a fine “fine-looking peasant woman”, he explained that “the effect of the warm hite robe and deep-toned flesh against the blue in the full Italian sunlight was very striking and beautiful, and I made a study at the same time, which I afterwards exhibited at the R.W.S under the title of “Madonna of the Vineyards”.  I cannot trace this painting.

Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest

In 1900 Walter Crane took his touring exhibition to the Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest.  Crane recalls a speech that M. Radiscics, the Director of the Museum of Applied Arts, gave in his honour around 1900 “We must learn how the Hungarian peasant cloaks, flower-decorated trunks, dishes, cups, must be transformed into ornaments fit to embellish drawing-rooms, palaces, altars; we must learn how to transform into a creating power the aesthetical sense and artistic inclination of our people.  Should one man not be able to execute the task Walter Crane has finished alone, then the task must be shared among ten, among a hundred – and their activity will be blessed.”

Embroidery from Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest: "Dísz nyeregtakaró, részlet, 1600 körül"

 Crane writes that “I was able to get some sketches of the peasants in their costumes here, and very brilliant in colour they were.  They were quite willing to stand for one, too…An old woman was sitting at the small window busy at work on an elaborate piece of embroidery, which would take about six months to finish, she said.  These peasant embroideries were now being collected extensively by the rich people in the towns, and fine old pieces were becoming rate.  

Newer embroidery from Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest:
 "Vörösruhás nő, Rippl-Rónai kárpit, 1898"
Schools of embroidery were being established in the towns to teach the work which the peasantry had taught themselves, and of course, at every remove, the patterns became tamer.  It does not seem possible to transform unconscious spontaneous art into learned art, any more than it is possible for wild flowers to flourish in a formal garden.”  This places Crane potentially at odds with Godfrey Blount's prescribed works for the Peasant Arts movement.

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