Friday, 1 April 2011

The Peasant Arts Museum - a beginning

One of the most tangible legacies of the Peasant Arts movement is the Peasant Arts Museum’s works.  The collection is of household items, woodwork, metalwork and textiles.  These are now held by the Haslemere Educational Museum..  The Peasant Arts Museum pieces were mostly collected by the Rev. Gerald Davies, who sold it onto the Peasant Arts Guild. 

Davies was a master at Charterhouse School in Godalming, Surrey nearby to Haslemere.  He began collecting pieces that he found beautiful following a holiday in Norway in 1885.  Lou Taylor (Establishing Dress History, Manchester University Press, 2004) describes Davies’ motivation to display peasant works “as a counterweight to mass-produced goods”.  Taylor claims that the “motivations behind the formation of this specific collection stemmed from the same utopian interests in the ‘purity’ of peasant culture, coupled with local philanthropic concerns over migration from the countryside to the city”.

Davies held strict puritanical views on what constitutes a “peasant object”; Taylor recounts that Davies “decided that pottery, even if made by a village potter for commercial sale to his local community, was not of genuine value as ‘folk art’”.  Davies’ “guiding principal in buying the craft was to obtain work made by the peasants themselves, ‘for their own use and not for sale’” (Crowley, David and Taylor, Lou, The Lost Arts of Europe: The Haslemere Museum collection of European Peasant Art, Haslemere Educational Museum, 2000.
page from Guide to the Collections of Peasant Arts, Haslemere Educational Museum

Davies looked for a buyer for his collection in 1908 as his job moved to London, to become the Master of Charterhouse, London.  Greville MacDonald says in his memoirs MacDonald (Reminiscences of a Specialist, London, George Allen and Unwin, 1932)  “…he (Gerald Davies) allowed me to buy it at a price well below its value, but on the condition that it should never be displayed in any City Museum, where, he thought, its beauties might be swamped, and its materials damaged by smoke.  Realizing the national worth of the collection, I put it, by Trust Deed, in the hands of the Founders of the Peasants Arts Guild for the public benefit, thus protecting it against any possible mishap to the Guild.  But at last, because Mrs Joseph King’s illness made it no more possible to carry on the Guild, we, the Trustees, offered the collection to the Haslemere Museum, whose Committee put at our disposal two of their largest and best-lit rooms. …One passage of an article he (Gerald Davies) contributed to The Vineyard dealing with his collection is worth quoting:

“…I am not saying that Peasant Art is the only art worthy of preserving or practising.  It is the spontaneous expression of the joy of life uttered in a very simply and very delightful language.  It is full too of the handcraftsman’s pleasure in and understanding of material.  It asserts, all unknowingly, the Use is beauty and beauty is Use.  If you divorce one from the other there is less beauty and also less use.  But it does not attempt to express any great independent idea, spiritual, social, intellectual, literary.  These ideas are the property and field of a different Art which exists as a rule but not invariably, in isolation from the industries.  The two phases of Art aim at satisfying two very different cravings of humanity, though once upon a day very far back in human history they set out from the same starting-point.  It is as the difference between a Devonshire folk-song and a sonata of Beethoven…”

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