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William Morris Gallery celebrates the Century Guild 1

brown wallpaper with repeating pattern of a dancing girl with a trumpet

Herbert Horne, The Angel with the Trumpet cretonne (c.1884). Textile, block-printed. Mackmurdo bequest, 1942 © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

The William Morris Gallery reminds us how the Century Guild were more than just part of the Arts and Crafts movement

Founded in 1882, the Century Guild was a forum for designers and artisans to collaborate and sell work and, much like the Arts and Crafts Movement that it was part of, it spanned architecture, painting, furniture, sculpture, textiles, wallpaper and metalwork.

It was established by the architect and designer Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1851 – 1942), who later helped found the William Morris Gallery, and his assistant, Herbert Percy Horne (1864 – 1916), in close collaboration with designer Selwyn Image (1849 – 1930) and although other designers were attracted into their orbit, the three men remained their core members.

Together they aspired to elevate crafts to the status of art, integrate both art and crafts in domestic interiors, and democratise good design. Within The Reach of All: The Century Guild, is the first exhibition in 20 years to explore their pioneering aesthetics and lasting legacy.

The William Morris Gallery holds the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Century Guild works and the exhibition draws on this holding to explore not only the group’s key figures, but also how they influenced the development of Art Nouveau, 20th-century design and even modern arts publishing.

textile pattern of green leaves against a bronze and rust background

Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo Design for Artichoke, Birds and Squirrels textile. Early 1880s Design, bodycolour
50.8 x 50.8 cm Mackmurdo bequest, 1942 © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

four stained glass panels each featuring a red figure in a red smock

Selwyn Image, Brownies. Designed c.1890s stained, painted, leaded glass 93.1 x 114.8 cm © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

a swirling geometric leaf design

Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo Swirling Leaf wallpaper design c.1880-1883. Mackmurdo bequest, 1942 © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

The latter was inspired by their innovative journal, the Century Guild Hobby Horse (1887 – 1892) which contributed to the popularisation of the British Arts and Crafts movement amongst a European audience, and perhaps more importantly, pioneered the integration of graphic art, design and illustration.

Readers of this aesthetic quarterly were treated to a sumptuous blend of graphic design and typography with accompanying sketches, plates, photographs, engravings, wood cuts, lithographs and reproduced paintings. There was also a wide range of topics beyond art and design, encompassing music and poetry, with contributions from revered contemporaries such as Edward Burne-Jones, May Morris, John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde.

Partly due to the success of Hobby Horse, the Guild’s designs and ideas became more widespread and influential, both in Britain and internationally, and Mackmurdo became one of the most significant figures in British design history. Today he is credited with popularising a number of innovative ideas with the British public, including community-focused architecture, modern interior design and building conservation.

With Morris as one of his associates, Mackmurdo and the Guild always followed a tradition of the revival of crafts, while simultaneously furthering the emphasis on aesthetics.

There are also similarities to be found in the way the Guild retained the social values and ideals set out by Morris and John Ruskin, and they also frequently incorporated motifs from the natural world into their designs, which evoked the sensation of nature but without directly imitating it. On display in the exhibition are wallpapers and textiles, intricately decorated with animals and flora such as peacocks, tulips and squirrels – one of Mackmurdo’s favourite motifs.

But the Century Guild also began to incorporate figures into their wallpaper and textile designs, which many see as foreshadowing the Art Nouveau movement.

wallpaper design with repeated seated female in a blue dress against a brown bay leaf background

Herbert Percy Horne, Bay Leaf Frieze wallpaper. Designed c.1882. Wallpaper, block-printed 56.5 x 444.5 cm Mackmurdo bequest, 1942 © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

a large floral square framed textile design

Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo. Large Floral printed cotton. (Designed c.1882) Textile, printed cotton 87 x 79 cm Mackmurdo bequest, 1942 © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

a repeating symmetrical peacock pattern in turqoiuse and purple

Mackmurdo Peacock pattern. © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

With a firm belief that all branches of art and design should be unified under the umbrella of architecture, Mackmurdo was also interested in the interplay between architectural structure and interior design, as demonstrated by the Guild’s decision to exhibit their projects as complete rooms.

This aesthetic harmony across media can be seen in the Guild’s furniture designs – most notably Mackmurdo’s mahogany chair (c.1882) which features wooden fretwork in organic twisting forms inspired by marine botany. Elsewhere their furniture favoured a simplicity of form that influenced their contemporaries Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Charles F.A. Voysey.

Also on display is a wooden settee (c.1886 – 87) created for Christian Socialist and anti-prudery campaigner Stewart Headlam, who helped pay Oscar Wilde’s bail during his first trial and later offered him his home as a refuge following his release from prison in 1897.

Always a proudly socially progressive movement, the Guild’s Selwyn Image attended every day of Oscar Wilde’s three-week trial for homosexuality in 1895.

But it was their influence on the art and design that followed in their wake that marks them out as innovators – Mackmurdo’s architectural designs are even seen by some as early examples of Modernism, with function and usability integral elements of their design. This exhibition promises to remind us once again of their significance and how they were always more than just a fascinating part of the Arts and Crafts movement.

photo of an ornate carved chair back

Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo, Fretwork chair (c.1882). Furniture, mahogany, leather and brass WMG purchase, 1966 © Paul Tucker for William Morris Gallery

Within The Reach Of All: The Century Guild is at the William Morris Gallery from April 1 – 31 August 2021. Admission Free.


William Morris Gallery

London, Greater London

The William Morris Gallery is the only public gallery devoted to the life and legacy of William Morris: designer, craftsman, socialist.

One comment on “William Morris Gallery celebrates the Century Guild

  1. Alan Long on

    I visited the WM Gallery a number of times. I enjoyed the displays, paintings, crafts and artwork. It’s also set in Lloyds park where I grew up – many hours of sports and outdoor attractions. Given the money from the Olympics it’s development is classy without being over the top.
    Also cafe was good too.
    Going again as soon as I can.


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