Best in show | Embroidered screen, 1884-85, by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo - Museums Association

Best in show | Embroidered screen, 1884-85, by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo

William Morris Gallery, London
Best In Show
John Holt
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Roisin Inglesby
Senior curator, William Morris Gallery, London

“In a exhibition dedicated to the Century Guild and its pursuit of elevating the domestic and decorative into fine art, I thought it important to take a close look at a functional object.

I really like the combination of this firescreen’s satinwood frame and the silk panels with the twisting shapes of lilies, which are so slender and sinuous. You can see how this fed into the art nouveau style; here, the natural world is not symmetrical and neat, but still has a definite order and purpose.

Like much of the guild’s work, there’s a sneaky little ‘CG’ logo hidden away in the fabric, but it’s difficult to spot.

When I look at a lot of the guild’s textiles, I know the logo is there somewhere, but they’re so hard to find, which, in a way, somewhat defeats the point of branding.

The Century Guild members were sincere in their work and had an absolute belief that people were hugely influenced by their environments and that art and design were essential in a healthy society.

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But there was also a playful element to what they did, which could be seen in the pages of their quarterly arts magazine, The Hobby Horse. It was named after the term used in Laurence Sterne’s comic novel Tristram Shandy to describe people’s often all-consuming enthusiasm for pastimes and interests.

The intentions contained in The Hobby Horse were, no doubt, sincere, but the execution of them was often sarcastic and deliberately funny. Looking through the correspondence today, you can see artists collaborating in a spirit of democracy, community and friendship as they mixed with the poets of the Rhymers’ Club and other wits of the day.

I think a party at their studio on Southampton Street in Bloomsbury, London, would have been a lot of fun, with Oscar Wilde popping in for the odd gin and soda.

There are a number of parallels with the pre-Raphaelites and William Morris, of course, but the Century Guild is not as well known as individuals and this exhibition deliberately focuses on the aesthetics of the movement rather than its historical context.

In a crude test, we put some of the Century Guild’s patterns on social media and they received just as favourable a response as Morris’s own designs.

Having said that, the guild’s leading lights were interesting characters too. Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo, who made this firescreen, was an architect who went on to write about social justice and helped found the William Morris Gallery.

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Another, Selwyn Image, was a designer of stained glass who quit the priesthood for a more radical way of life, while guild co-founder Herbert Percy Horne went on to have an affair with an older woman. It ended so badly he was unable to form any other friendships.”

Interview by John Holt. Within the Reach of All: The Century Guild is at the William Morris Gallery, London, from 18 May to 31 August

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