On this day in 1893, a secret meeting was convened at 121 Regent Street, London. In attendance were some of Britain’s leading Arts & Crafts designers, artists and influencers: William Morris, John Ruskin, Christopher Dresser, Edward Burne-Jones, John Pearson, Archibald Knox and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. They had not been informed of the purpose of the gathering—though they were instructed to come separately, and to enter through different doors. The hand-written, anonymous invitation read “Your attendance is most-required on the evening of 1 April at half-Seven” (that is, 7:30).
As the invited arrived, they began to recognize other artists and designers filling the luxuriously-appointed room—and, in many cases, these other craftsmen were their own competitors. A hush fell across the sweltering chamber as the statuesque (and familiar) figure of Lady Aprile Foulin entered the room and mounted the podium. Lady Foulin was a wealthy (and socially-engaged) patron of the arts. As a significant purchaser of Arts & Crafts furniture, ceramics and metalware, she effortlessly held the attention of the curious crowd gathered before her.
Lady Foulin had been twice-married. Her first husband, an American, was now back in New York where he was investing in budding American Arts & Crafts manufacturers. A decade earlier, in England, he had been influential in spurring the British Arts & Crafts Movement—mostly by promoting the works of Arts & Crafts manufacturers to American art dealers and high-end emporiums. He would also arrange shipment of these goods on his family-owned cargo vessels (his primary business). Now he was trying to develop domestic (American) production to replace the imported goods from England. And this, it turned-out, was the problem for which Lady Foulin had arranged the April 1st meeting.
“Alas America, with the help of my ex-husband, is about to increase significantly the production of its own Arts & Crafts manufacture,” she began. “We must organize and pull as one to ensure that they will not succeed.”
One of the (unfortunate) realities of the Arts & Crafts Movement was that hand-made, small-batch production is expensive. While the raw materials were not always precious, the man-hours required for such labor-intensive, non-mechanized production was costly. Many Arts & Crafts workshops were only just breaking-even (or worse), often kept afloat by the likes of wealthy patrons like Lady Foulin. She laid-out a strategy for survival which included speeding-up worker production, cutting daily pay rates, and putting-to-work teenagers and some of the newly-arrived refugees from Russia. On one point she would not budge: “We must not succumb to machine-made quality.” Instead, she challenged the assembled to squeeze the labor. “By keeping our labor costs low, our production will remain attractive to the American importer.” She hoped it would stifle the growth of an American Arts & Crafts movement.
Lady Foulin was only modestly successful. The assembled craftsmen did train new employees (at lower wage rates) how to hammer metal and glaze pottery. And the American Arts & Crafts Movement did get off to a slow start. What no one anticipated—including Lady Aprile Foulin—was the Great War, soon to come. World War One did kill-off the American Arts & Crafts Movement—just as it killed the English Arts & Crafts Movement.