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April 27, 2012 / Louisa Yates

Arts and Crafts and Florence and the Machine and…

…now, dear reader, to the sort of post that this blog was designed for: half-baked, idly wondering, curious.

Florence and the Machine is the stage name of British singer Florence Welch and her collection of musicians. Currently, the promotion for her recent album Ceremonials is all art-deco, skyscrapers and cities (as you’ll see if you click on the link to her website)Her first album, however, is usually compared to the pre-Raphaelites. As I’m going to explore today, however, red hair and an inclination to lie in water does not a Millais make – nevertheless, the promotional material certainly re-imagined aesthetics from an earlier age. Lungs was a whirl of Arts and Crafts.

Arts and Crafts, to give a very brief account, was developed by artist, publisher, designer and all-round creative William Morris (1834-1896). As any reader of Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society (1958) knows, Morris was inspired by John Ruskin and Augustus Pugin. Broadly Socialist in nature, and opposed in all forms to industrial capitalism,* the resistance of the Arts and Crafts style took the form of flowing lines, appeals to nature, simplified design and a slightly unfinished quality: overall, what might be called a rustic aesthetic. Flowers, birds, and fruit all feature heavily on pots, paintings, and textiles. This is an imperfect summary but there’s plenty out there on the movement. A visit to the V&A museum is highly recommended.

What’s particularly interesting to me, but needs to be explored in a longer post some other time, is that Arts and Crafts is very similar to neo-Victorianism. It was a movement that harked back to an earlier period – Arts and Crafts was firmly rooted in the neo-Gothic revival (which in itself was huge, just huge, encompassing whole schools of thought in literature, art, architecture, theology, politics, etc). Of course Arts and Crafts, like neo-Victoriana, didn’t just engage with the past aesthetically, but politically – the beautiful pots and jugs were not just beautiful (which they are) but a symbol of the resistance to Victorian industrialisation that could be brought about via re-enacting a Medieval period in which the craftsman was held in high esteem and objects were handmade. Whether papering one’s house in (expensive) Morris wallpaper was truly akin to storming the barricades is unclear, but the impulse was certainly there.

So, is Florence deliberately exhorting the masses to reject capitalism and a manufactured way of life? Let’s see:

Leather, flowing fabric, visible stitching, vines, fruit, birds. Most importantly, look at the fabric that comprises the background. If not directly William Morris it is most certainly supposed to evoke his designs:

William Morris, 'Chrysthanthamum'

The flowing, simple, natural and repetitive patterns of Morris’s designs were replicated here, at this performance. Unlike the album art, I don’t think the stage backdrop is a specific Morris design. What is is however – and what is more interesting to me – is a contemporary design that is clearly re-employing a Victorian design in order to say something about the here and now. Note, also, the presence again of that draped sleeve, as well as more flowers on the microphone stand:

Florence performing

The flowers are sunflower-esque, emphasising that Florence’s aesthetic is a mish-mash of styles. The yellow sunflower was symbolic of decadence and dandyism, and surfaced again in Art Nouveau (closely related to Arts and Crafts). Like pre-Raphaelism and Arts and Crafts, however, Art Nouveau also ‘looked back’ for inspiration. It’s the ‘looking back’ that is in itself an aesthetic position.

Remember that Arts and Crafts appealed to the neo-Gothic characterisation of the Medieval craftsman? Check out the men in this shot, taken from the video to Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up):

It’s not a point-perfect re-enactment of medieval times, sure, but pig’s head, page-boy-esque stylings, minstrels in the background? That’s enough to be getting on with! The figure of the ‘page’ is a particularly easy way of making a contemporary reference to heraldry, the designs of which influenced Arts and Crafts practitioners:

Gothic Tile, designed by A. Pugin, 1847 (V&A)

What really intrigues me about this video still is that is alludes to the transition between neo-Gothic and Arts and Crafts. Look to the right of the picture, between then final couple, on the table there. See those jugs? They’re not neo-Gothic but they most certainly represent neo-Gothic’s closest movement, Arts and Crafts:

Charles Ashbee Decanter (1904-5). From V&A

The looping handles and elongated features are indicative of the ‘handmade’ quality that Arts and Crafts wanted to capture. Both the decanter and the teapot feature visible joins – we can see where the handle meets the body, for example. Not only are the joins visible, but they are a decorative feature.

William Benson Teapot (V&A)

I couldn’t find a very clear shot of the head-dress that Florence is wearing, but in the banquet scene and the one below, the most obvious comparison would be to the famous pre-Raphaelite Ophelia (indeed, the Rabbit Heart video features a scene in which Florence, dressed as she is below, is lowered into the river).

But remember I said Morris was influenced by Ruskin? And, if you image search for paintings of both ‘Lady of Shalott’ and ‘Ophelia’ (John William Waterhouse and John Everett Millias, and Holman Hunt are names you should look for), you’ll see that the headcoverings of all the women are minimal. So we have to look elsewhere for inspiration:

A Cornet of Acorns and Leaves - John Ruskin

The loops and whirls of the design are strongly reminiscent of the embroidery designs of May Morris:

May Morris, Embroidery Design, 1885

Yes, Florence is standing near water in a long gown. Yes, she is standing near weeds. Yes, she has red hair. But does that really mean we have to reach for the Rossetti? Rushes, ferns, and water are all Arts and Crafts as well, you know…

Walter Crane, Swan, Rush and Iris (textile)

What conclusions can I draw from this post? Well, it’s clear that the artwork and promotion for Florence’s debut album invoked tropes, styles and motifs from three main artistic movements: pre-Raphaelite, neo-Gothic, and most interestingly for me, Arts and Crafts. The close interaction of these styles – William Morris fabrics on the album cover, a devotion to the curves and visible construction of the movement, the allusions to neo-Gothic and Arts and Crafts in the same shot, for example – suggests that these choices are deliberate.

Who really knows why? I propose that actually, the motivations behind this choice are less interesting than the fact that it happens at all. It’s enough to know that the ‘looking back’ that we find in this post can be constructed from a swatch of fabric here, a jug on a table there, a pig’s head front and centre. This, to me anyway, is a clear sign of how powerful these Victorian movements were. Even though we think we’ve forgotten them, they’ve wormed their way into our collective consciousness.

Plus, they’re beautiful objects with a socialist twist. The UK could do with a lot more of that right now, say I!

_______________________

*Wikipedia – yes, I know – states that the ‘Arts and Crafts style was partly a reaction against the style of many of the items shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851, which were ornate, artificial and ignored the qualities of the materials used’. There’s that Great Exhibition again!

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