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How the Arts and Crafts Movement Rebelled Against the Machine Age

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

The Industrial Revolution evoked varied emotions from society, such as an enthusiasm for humanity’s technological advancement and anxiety for the rights of the working class, along with the decay of artistic integrity. The latter was the prominent perception from artists, as several movements arose to challenge the Machine Age, including the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century.

This movement placed emphasis on how artists and general society should create their own decorative goods rather than rely on machines. Artworks created in this era consisted of Tellis, Strawberry Thief and The Orchard by William Morris and The Angel with the Trumpet by Herbert Percy Horne. The Arts and Crafts movement was drenched in anti-capitalist sentiments, utilising the handmade methodology of producing art as a stance against machine-made goods.

Tellis by William Morris

Tellis by William Morris

The Arts and Crafts movement started in 19th century England, inspired by the Gothic Revival, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and Aesthetic Movement (Stankiewicz 1992), and was pioneered by William Morris (Gladstone's Library 2021). Morris claimed, “production by machinery is altogether an evil” (Krugh 2014), which was a sentiment carried within this movement.

To elaborate on this, Arts and Crafts was an anti-Industrial movement that reacted to the decay in standards in art that came with machinery and factory productions (Petts 2008). Mass manufacturing caused a lack in workers' rights, lack in creativity, lack in quality and intention of the artists (Brandy 2019). Advocates of the Arts and Crafts Movement perceived the soulless machine-made production caused humans to become slaves to the industrial machine.

The legacy of such a movement was its influence on the teaching of art, craft, and design in Britain through to the 1950s (Ylva 2004). Therefore, the movement itself was an inherently socialist response to the change in the industrial period, as highlighted by its driving philosophy in opposition to the industrial machine.

Strawberry Thief by William Morris

Strawberry Thief by William Morris

An inherently socialist movement, Arts and Crafts revolted against the Machine Age through the production of high-quality art that machines could not replicate and the centralised subject of beauty. Followers of the movement placed emphasis on how products were made.

Typically, manufactured goods of that era were poor in design and quality. Followers of the Arts and Crafts Movement rebelled against the growth of convoluted fashion designs through using simple forms and nature as source of pattern. William Morris insisted artists should be craftsmen and designers, producing art by hand (Nikolaus 2005). He perceived the Industrial Age as ugly, a blight on aesthetic beauty, in which he argued households should only contain the useful and the beautiful (Morris 1882).

These ideas and the concept of beauty was echoed by his wallpaper, Tellis, and textile pattern, Strawberry Thief. Morris’ perception of beauty was evoked through repetition, symmetry and simplification which were encompassed in his works. For example, both artworks used repetitive imagery of birds, leaves, branches and flowers, depicting exuberant naturalistic themes. As highlighted by these artworks, the vivid colours, detailed patterns and textures were valued in the Arts and Crafts Movement, creating visually beautiful works (Ylva. 2004).

These depictions of nature embodied his desire for culture merging with nature, a philosophy which conflicted the with man-made objects central to the industrial movements. Hence, the Arts and Crafts Movement placed emphasis on the aesthetic beauty of manufactured goods as a way of rebelling against the convoluted art style of the industrial era.

The Orchard by William Morris

The Orchard by William Morris

Ideologies arose from the Industrial period, where positive sentiments grew, and in essence, conflicted with the Arts and Crafts Movement. Nonetheless movements such as Futurism combated this idea. Futurism found beauty in objects such as cars, airplanes, and industrialism.

The opposing idea of both movements could be depicted in the naturalistic themes in Tellis and the imagery in Skyscrapers and Tunnels. The latter emphasizes skyscrapers within a triangular composition and halos of light, implying the holy nature of technology through use of religious symbolism. Contrastingly, in the Arts and Crafts movement, people or angels were depicted as holy through the repetition of halos.

This was perceived in Angel with the Trumpet in which the halos included crosses which symbolised Jesus while the swirling designs depict pollution. The angels depicted suggested a final judgment on humanity as via the bible passage, “with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first” (Bible Gateway 2019). This suggested a negative perception of the Industrial Age, alluding to the pollution due to the charcoal factories, creating thick smoke which eroded the atmosphere.

This work revolted against positive perspectives of the Industrial period, implying it would lead humanity and the natural world to ruin. Consequently, the Arts and Crafts Movement utilised naturalistic and religious motifs to protest against positive sentiments on the Industrial period and in turn, reacted to the against the Machine Age.

The Angel with the Trumpet by Herbert Percy Horne

The Angel with the Trumpet by Herbert Percy Horne

The Arts and Crafts Movement attacked industrial society, replacement of workers with machines, division of labour and capitalism, while restabilising traditional crafting methods (Kaufmann 1975). Morris desired to free the working class from repetitive labour as the production of mechanical commodities and child labour sweat shops was bad for the nation’s health (Breton 2002).

This perspective was supported by art critic John Ruskin who suggested mass production malignantly impacted society’s health (Harvey 1995). It blocked the artist from designing which was both socially and aesthetically damaging. To them, good design linked to a good society. This was captured in The Orchard exemplified the values of the movement through its revival of the tapestry method, which was valued highly in Europe while beautifying spaces and showcasing values on virtuous living.

Vegetal and floral motifs in the background match the seasonal verses written on the scroll. The patterns portrayed truth to nature and concise design. Thus, designs were aimed "for the people and by the people" which was explored through the satisfaction of making art by hand and reviving old methods of artmaking (Charles 1995).

The Industrial Revolution gave rise to the Arts and Crafts movement which focused on the concept of beauty and the deteriorating status of art. Advancements in the Industrial Age gave rise to anxieties within the art community. Beauty was focalised in Arts and Crafts along with the emphasis on how products were made as viewed in Tellis and Strawberry Thief. The ideologies of the Arts and Crafts Movement conflicted with Futurism which glorified industrial society with the use of religious and naturalistic motifs.

Socialist sentiments were embedded in Arts and Crafts along with aesthetic beauty, conciseness, and truth to nature. Ultimately, the Arts and Crafts Movement inspired generations of people to take pleasure in artmaking processes and DIY projects.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Simran Singh