Saturday, 12 February 2011

Walter Crane and the Peasants

I have found a number of different links between the artist and illustrator Walter Crane and members of the Peasant Arts movement.  Following on from the recent posts, let us start with the Healthy & Artistic Dress Union connection. 

Walter Crane, self portrait, 1885, The Whitworth Art Gallery

Godfrey and Ethel Blount were on the General Committee of the Healthy & Artistic Dress Union from 1904 until at least the end of 1906.  At the same time, Walter Crane was a Vice President of the Union, one of ten Vice Presidents in position at any one time!  The Dress Review cover and promotional leaflets (see my earlier post The Corset) were designed by Crane.  Mrs G.F. Watts, wife of the painter and sculptor, from Compton, a few miles away from Haslemere, was another Vice President.   Mrs Walter Crane was also involved in the Union.

According to the Victoria & Albert Museum, Crane designed some gowns for ‘aesthetic dress’ in Aglaia the journal of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union, preceding The Dress Review.  However the only writing I have come across that demonstrates what the Healthy & Artistic Dress Union meant to Walter Crane, is the reproduction of his letter in The Dress Review in October 1905.  Unable to attend a Union committee meeting at the studio of Mr Frank S. Ogilvie, the painter, who was on the Executive Committee of the Union, Crane sent a letter saying:

Wychombe Studios, London, where painter Frank S. Ogilvie had a studio in 1905,
site of the Healthy & Artistic Dress Union meeting
“As I am not able to attend the gathering of the members of the Healthy and Artistic Dress Union at your studio and I am invited to write a line on the objects of the society, may I say that of course I sympathise with the movement towards a better ideal of beauty and health in costume.  At the same time the subject is full of difficulties.  I feel that dress is, as it always has been, the result of slow evolution, and is dependent upon the form and system of society under which it takes shape.  There is a great variety in modern dress, and the tendency seems to be to specialize it more and more in adapting garments to every kind of employment and sport.  Now I think that such specialised costumes must always have a certain character of their own, though they may be by no means always beautiful.  Convenience and utility seem to be the principal objects with their makers and wearer…while we have many convenient costumes carefully adapted to various pursuits, both for men and women, they are shorn of romance and, though not altogether without their picturesque aspects, they are prosaic, as a rule.

detail from the cover of The Dress Review, 1904, illustration by Walter Crane

The present mode in ladies’ dress often attains great elegance, and there are abundant beautiful materials, charming in colour and texture, to be had, needing only taste to utilize them with delightful effect.  Whether it is part of the great modern movement for freedom on the part of women that they should have now so much more liberty in the matter of dress than men, I won’t ventute to say, but  certainly a lady of taste  seems to have far more range in the matter of costume, choice of material, change and variety than a man at the present day, and men seem much more slaves to convention—at least in formal and commercial life.
Summer by Walter Crane 1895

In underclothing a great pitch of excellence has been undoubtedly reached and much science and invention devoted to its manufacture, but few, I fear, would venture to follow the suggestion of Du Maurier, who once in Punch represented an evening party attired in these beautifully fitting garments, chiefly, if I remember rightly, as a substitute for the modern evening dress of gentlemen.

Climate comes in as an important factor in deciding a form of dress, and social habits and custom also.

Tea gown made by Liberty's c. 1894, similar to
Walter Crane's designs,
at The Victoria and Albert Museum 
Conscious efforts towards beauty are not always successful, and any sudden reversion to past types is apt to have a theatrical suggestion about it, so that, in the main, dress reformers have a rather narrow field to move in, and it becomes a question often of simplification, or small changes, or grafts upon existing types rather than any frank departure on new lines.  Until great social and economic changes take place in the constitution of society, therefore, I do not think we can expect any very general adoption of new types of dress except special adaptations to practical purposes of new inventions, such as the motor, which has brought in quite a distinct type of costume, both for men and women, not without a certain weird picturesqueness sometimes (the linen coats of the chauffeurs are quite a good feature).

When again in a community of workers, people are proud of their employments, and consider it an honourable distinction to wear the distinctive dress appropriate to their work, we might again have great variety and beauty, bringing character and colour into common life.

Yours very truly
                      Walter Crane"

Mrs Walter Crane (Mary Frances), c.1886 wearing a high waisted, uncorseted dress from The Victoria & Albert Museum

In July 1906 The Dress Review has a quite amusing recount of a Healthy and Artistic Dress Union meeting, “presided over by Mistress Walter Crane, who wore a charming costume of olive-brown velvet…A few highly appreciated words were spoken by Mistress Crane, who emphatically condemned tight-lacing, though she admitted she now liked a little support herself.”


  1. I adore reading your blog :)

  2. Thanks Zoe. I like to think I have a small but discerning following of our Haslemere Peasants!

    Did you finish that research off about Benson etc.?


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...