Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942) and the Guild and School of Handicraft

The Arts and Crafts artist and designer C. R. Ashbee studied under the architect G. F. Bodley, and took his inspiration from Ruskin to found a workmen's movement to combine a workshop of applied art with a teaching faculty - the Guild and School of Handicraft. In 1888 Ashbee also set up the Guild and School of Handicraft, at first London-based, at Toynbee Hall, and by 1890 with workships at Essex House, Mile End Road, East London, and a depot in Brook Street, Hanover Square. After the turn of the century the works moved to Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds.

The Guild of Handicraft specialised in jewellery, also coppersmithing and ironwork, enamelling, furniture, and later, book making. The School taught across a very full range of crafts. Ashbee himself was willing to do complete house design, including interior furniture and decoration, as well as items such as fireplaces. The Guild operated as a co-operative, and its stated aim was to:

'seek not only to set a higher standard of craftsmanship, but at the same time, and in so doing, to protect the status of the craftsman. To this end it endeavours to steer a mean between the independence of the artist - which is individualistic and often parasitical - and the trade-shop, where the workman is bound to purely commercial and antiquated traditions, and has, as a rule, neither stake in the business nor any interest beyond his weekly wage.'

Although the School of Handicraft became highly successful, with around 200 pupils in 1896, the Guild abruptly had to give up the School when it was undercut in fees by the London County Council's introduction of the Polytechnic Institutes, which took on craftworkers at a minimal charge.

After the Kelmscott Press closed in 1897, following the death of William Morris, Ashbee set up the Essex House Press, using workers and presses from Kelmscott. The Essex Press started production in 1898, and by the time it closed in 1910, had produced more than 70 titles.

Representative work by Ashbee and the Essex Press can be seen at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow.

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