Book cover of Arts & Crafts Churches, showing the interior of a lavishly-decorated church.

Alec Hamilton, Arts & Crafts Churches (Lund Humphries, 2020)

Reviewed by Imogen Hart

View on the Lund Humphries website

The Arts and Crafts movement elevated the ideal of a public decorative art. Church commissions provided opportunities to carry out ambitious, collaborative, communal artistic projects employing a range of materials. Alec Hamilton has published an invaluable new guide for anyone interested in exploring this important dimension of the Arts and Crafts movement. Hamilton’s accessible book offers a comprehensive study of more than 200 Arts and Crafts churches in England, Wales, and Scotland.

A lively introduction, followed by concise yet detailed chapters on ‘Architecture as Art’, ‘Religion’, and ‘Society’, provide essential context. Anticipating the question, ‘Where is there an Arts & Crafts church near me?’ (45), the Gazetteer is organized by region. The book’s relatively small size (for an art book) at 250 × 190 mm suggests that it has been designed for portability. The 250 colour illustrations offer enticing glimpses of some remarkable details hidden in these extraordinary buildings. Ending with a helpful list of recommended reading, the book will be a useful starting point for researchers wishing to undertake further study.

Hamilton recognizes the unwieldy variety of Arts and Crafts, an often contradictory category that eludes precise definition. The influence of John Ruskin and William Morris, unsurprisingly, is noted as an important point of connection (14). The book explores ‘buildings that are seductive, original; seemingly simple, yet disarmingly complex’ (15); ‘personal, intense, hands-on, self-absorbed, meant’ (129). Some were built as cohesive schemes while others consist of elements added gradually over time. Overall ‘Arts and Crafts church’ is defined as much by what it is not (‘neither Victorian nor modern’ (15)) as what it is. Perhaps the most rigid criterion for inclusion is date, since the book largely concentrates on the period from the founding of the Art Workers’ Guild (1884) to the First World War.

Though the tight timeframe helps to keep the book focused, one might take issue with Hamilton’s claim that Arts and Crafts was a ‘dead end’ that did not ‘lead anywhere’ (24). Consider, for example, the continuing influence of William Morris on contemporary artists (as discussed by contributors to the WMS-US-sponsored session at the 2021 CAA conference, ‘William Morris Today’). More broadly, the significance of Arts and Crafts for modern and contemporary craft is widely recognized. For instance, Tanya Harrod describes the British Arts and Crafts movement as the ‘fons et origo’ of modern craft (Craft, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018, 13) while Fabien Petiot and Chloé Braunstein-Kregel see it as one of the origins of contemporary ‘craftivism’ (Crafts: Today’s Anthology for Tomorrow’s Crafts, Paris: Norma Editions, 2018, 33).

The regional structure makes it difficult to trace the chronology, but as Hamilton explains, ‘Presenting the churches chronologically would have suggested a single, solid direction of travel, and a coherence of purpose which simply wasn’t there’ (18). The book emphasizes how the phenomenon of the Arts and Crafts church unfolded synchronically rather than diachronically. Asserting that ‘“Arts & Crafts” meant different things, and had different impacts, depending on where you were’ (18), Hamilton is alert to local circumstances. Nevertheless, many architects and artists worked in multiple regions. For example, Heywood Sumner’s contributions can found in the chapters on Wales, the North of England, the East of England, London and Middlesex, the South of England, and the West Country. There are visual echoes, too, across regional boundaries. Throughout the book the illustrations tell a story of Arts and Crafts churches marked by vibrant colour, natural materials, and linear ornament in various techniques including sgraffito (usually by Sumner), gesso, stenciling, mosaic and wood carving.

Hamilton’s project is motivated partly by the aesthetic power of these spaces. He writes, ‘I have only felt the desire to write about these buildings because they strike a chord’ (15). And in true Arts and Crafts style, this book issues a call to action. We are repeatedly reminded that these churches are under threat. Readers are urged to contribute to their preservation by donating, buying church histories and postcards, and simply demonstrating through their presence and interest that these buildings are still valued. ‘But go now – churches are closing and the days are short’, writes Hamilton (47), echoing Morris’s support and concern for ‘the English art, whose history is in a sense at your doors, grown scarce indeed, and growing scarcer year by year’ (‘The Lesser Arts’, 1882). The book communicates a sense of responsibility and ownership: ‘These are our churches, built by us’ (18, emphasis in original).

Such comments (along with phrases such as ‘we, the British’ (13) and ‘our Little Britain’ (23)) indicate that the book assumes a primarily British readership. Moreover, Hamilton sees the Arts and Crafts movement as ‘a deeply British phenomenon’, arguing that ‘what was going on in Europe and America was different: nationalistic, nation-defining, combative’ (23). While the focus on Britain (or, rather, on England, Scotland and Wales) allows for a welcome specificity that can sometimes be lost in accounts of a broader, international movement, the question of whether or not Arts and Crafts in Britain was ‘nationalistic’, ‘nation-defining’, and/or ‘combative’ deserves further consideration.

This painstakingly researched survey of a thirty-year period of church building and decoration suggests some tantalizing avenues for future research. The book draws attention to the work of women as makers and patrons (e.g., 14, although the text sometimes defaults to the masculine, as in ‘the men of the Arts & Crafts’ (26)), indicating that there is scope for deeper analysis of Arts and Crafts churches in relation to feminist scholarship on the history of craft and the decorative arts. Likewise, Hamilton’s comment that ‘LGBTQ+ sensibilities – far too contested and intricate for this book – may also be borne in mind’ (24) invites further consideration. Written in an appealing, direct style, Arts and Crafts Churches is an indispensable resource. It promises to encourage new audiences to visit these sites and to inspire further research in the field.

Imogen Hart

Imogen Hart teaches in the History of Art Department at the University of California, Berkeley and WMS-US Board Member. Read more about her work on her board profile.