Start of the Guild

In 1886-7, Ashbee delivered a series of lectures on John Ruskin at Toynbee Hall. Through public lectures, word spread and his Ruskin class grew in numbers. It was to prove a precursor to a greater project of his…

To put some of the principles on the dignity of manual work which were discussed in Ruskin class into practice, Ashbee and his students decorated the Dining Room at Toynbee Hall. After a talk by Kegan Paul at the opening of the Dining Room, on 8 September 1887, Ashbee wrote that there had been the ‘inauguration of an Idea’. The Idea was essentially to form a new kind of art school which ran alongside a guild-style workshop, combining the ideals of Ruskin, William Morris and Carpenter through labour and comradeship. Ashbee believed that through Craftsmanship and Comradeship the arts could be a great ‘leveller’.

He had discussed art schools with Burne-Jones a month earlier. Ashbee had invited friends like Fry and Carpenter to the opening of the Dining Room so he may have wanted their advice or simply realised the significance of the event. After the opening of that event, he held further discussions on his Idea. In October 1887 he discussed guilds with Carpenter and that December he met Morris, although the latter was rather discouraging. Though Ashbee had had an Idea, the way in which it would be achieved had yet to be determined.

The Idea soon came to fruition, in the form of the Guild and School of Handicraft, which was formally inaugurated on 23 June 1888. This was to become a school and an independent Guild workshop, with members of the workshop educating the students. The school received funds from the public for a two-year trial. For the workshop, Ashbee rented the top floor of a warehouse at 34 Commercial Street, very close to Toynbee Hall. The first crafts carried out were woodwork, metalwork and decorative painting.

The Guild started relatively modestly, with just four members. Fred Hubbard carried out decorative painting and general administration. John Pearson was the senior metalworker. John Williams was also a metalworker, and C.V. Adams was a cabinet-maker. As the Guild was intended to promote collaboration, its members often crafted each other’s designs. Their backgrounds were quite varied so Ashbee tried to support their development, for example sending John Williams to see Roger Fry in Cambridge, in the hope that the craftsman would be initiated into the ‘mysteries of Cambridge’ and shown ‘the best things in the way of decorative art’. Fry was to ‘put some animal magnetism into him’, as Williams was ‘one of those stron silent receptive natures that love you for what small kindness you can give them’.