The Nature of Art and the Art of Nature at Blackwell Arts and Crafts House

Blackwell Arts and Crafts House Lake District

A recent trip to the Lake District afforded the opportunity to visit Blackwell, an outstanding example of Arts and Crafts design, and to reflect on the interplay between nature and human endeavour in the design world.

The Arts and Crafts movement in the 1880s-1920s promoted real craftsmanship in the face of an increasingly mechanised world. It was largely inspired by the writings of John Ruskin who believed that the over-mechanisation and division of labour was harmful to society. He asserted that all objects, furniture and works of art should be designed and manufactured by the same person, ensuring coherence, care and creative authenticity. In short, a designer and craftsman who is truly invested in his work produces results far superior to those achieved through a disjointed manufacturing process. As Ruskin puts it, “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece”.

Arts and Crafts Design Blackwell

I believe this continuity and consistency is reflected in the way we work in the architectural design world. At Boundary Space we always strive to keep the same project team from conception through to realisation, and the advantages of this approach shine through in the coherence of the finished projects (and the meticulous eye for detail when the time comes for snagging!).

William Morris, one of the most famous exponents of the Arts and Crafts movement, echoed Ruskin’s passion for creative human endeavour. He stood by these principles and would not release a new wallpaper pattern until he had mastered the techniques needed to print it himself. The movement centred around the idea that passion, skill and hard work were the qualities needed to produce work of integrity and true beauty.

Morris once said that “the most important production of Art” is “a beautiful House”, and Brantwood is a perfect example. Built 1898-1900, and designed by Baillie Scott, it epitomises the aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts movement. Designed as a holiday home for brewery owner Sir Edward Holt, Brantwood is a Grade 1 listed building, acknowledging its status as an outstanding example of British domestic design.

Arts and Crafts house room interior design Blackwell

The level of craftsmanship and attention to detail in every room is extraordinary, and the focus on artisan manufacture is abundantly evident. Even the smallest details and architectural elements are transformed into things of beauty, adhering to Morris’s “Golden Rule”, which was: “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Arts and Crafts house design interior details peacock frieze carving light fitting Blackwell

The impressive Main Hall, which Baillie Scott referred to as a “living hall”, features beautifully detailed wood panelling and carving by Simpsons of Kendal alongside a peacock frieze by Shand Kydd. The room design takes inspiration from medieval banqueting halls and reflects the reverence with which Arts and Crafts architects regarded the medieval way of life, which they idealised as an embodiment of beauty, simplicity and unity.

Blackwell Arts and Crafts House main hall design interior

Blackwell Arts and Crafts interior details design peacock frieze carving wood panelling

Blackwell Main Hall design Arts and Crafts fireplace interior minstrels gallery

In contrast to the wood panelling in the Main Hall, Dining Room and the entrance corridor, the White Drawing Room gives a very different feel. While the former rooms are darker, grander and more formal, the drawing room is light, airy and open. This juxtaposition is felt particularly strongly as you emerge from the long dark corridor into the room. This space is distinguished and set apart from the rest of the downstairs, both in colour and style.

Arts and Crafts interior design Blackwell house heritage lake district

Arts and Crafts design room interior Blackwell white drawing room view window seating light airy heritage lake district

Blackwell white drawing room Art and Crafts interior design

Blackwell Arts and Crafts white drawing room interior design

Contrasting with the heavier wooden detailing used elsewhere, the slender ornamental columns and decorative floral capitals are light and delicate. The room opens onto the view of Lake Windermere, letting the light flood in, and giving a sense that the architecture of the room works in harmony with its spectacular natural setting. The Lake and the hills are an integral part of the room’s design, and this harmony with nature was an important principle for Arts and Crafts designers. As Morris put it: “…everything made by man’s hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her; it cannot be indifferent…”

Blackwell Arts and Crafts House lake district interior design details stained glass window

The bucolic beauty surrounding the house feels like the most natural setting for it. Arts and Crafts designers took their inspiration from nature in both form and subject matter, and every room at Blackwell is filled with details which demonstrate this. Flowers, branches and animals are depicted in every piece of plasterwork, carving, stained glass, wallpaper, fabric and furnishing. The finished effect is a sense of harmony with the house’s surroundings, as if nature is inside as well as out, and the interiors are merely a domestication of what is found beyond the walls: man’s hand working, as Morris puts it, “in accord with Nature”.

Ruskin himself believed that Nature should be the guiding principle and ultimate source of inspiration for Architects, stating that “An architect should live as little in cities as a painter. Send him to our hills, and let him study there what nature understands by a buttress, and what by a dome.”

Arts and Crafts stained glass window birds flowers Blackwell design

The Arts and Craft movement promotes and brings together the dual values of, on the one hand, the importance of manual labour and artisan craftsmanship, and on the other, the momentousness of nature. Rather than upholding the usual dichotomy, it presents a coherence and collaboration between the notions of ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’.

By Connie Jackson Brown

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