Thursday, November 29, 2012

Walter Crane, Art Nouveau and psychedelia

click photo to enlarge
In the south aisle of the church of Holy Trinity in Hull there is a stained glass window designed by Walter Crane (1845-1915). Crane is best known as a very original and accomplished book illustrator though he also painted and designed pottery, textiles and wallpaper. He was the second son of a portrait and miniature painter, and grew up influenced by not only his family, but also Japanese prints, the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the writings and philosophy of John Ruskin. In time he associated himself with William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, and became one of their chief propagandists.

It is this background that helped turn Walter Crane into one of the seminal influences in the development of Art Nouveau, a movement that flowered in continental Europe and the United States but which had its origins in Britain. It sprang from a group of Arts and Crafts designers, illustrators, painters and architects who stepped beyond the medievalising advocated by Morris and injected notes of willfulness, decadence, and extreme curvilinearity into their work. The man responsible for what has been called the first manifestation of Art Nouveau, Arthur Mackmurdo, is not well known today. But, to those interested in the history of art at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth the other pioneers are better remembered - C.R. Ashbee, Arthur Liberty, Aubrey Beardsley - and in the case of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, widely recognised.

I cannot claim to like Crane's work in stained glass at Holy Trinity but I do find it remarkable. Why is this? Well, I find the composition too "busy" with figures that feel artificially "forced" into the restrictions imposed by the tracery. The colours are, to me, kaleidoscopic, but not in a good way, seeming too uncontrolled. The overall "feel" of the window is sensual, voluptuous even: quite out of keeping with most Church of England stained glass, something that makes it appear a bit of an oddity among the more formal pieces. Moreover, the label that always comes to my mind when I see this window is not Art Nouveau but "psychedelic." That's perhaps not surprising. When psychedelia was at its height in the late1960s and early 1970s Art Nouveau (and the Arts and Craft Movement) made a comeback. So, in those years, as well as seeing the psychedelic art on album covers by the likes of The Incredible String Band and Cream, we could also pop along to the Athena poster store and buy Alphonse Mucha prints, or call in at the local shops and buy a range of fabrics and wallpapers newly printed with original Willam Morris prints, such as "Strawberry Thief" or "Chrysanthemum Major". Perhaps it's my age, but it's a memory of those times rather than the origins of Art Nouveau that the heady, swirling lines and dazzling colours of Crane's Hull stained glass sparks in me.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 40mm
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/30
ISO: 500
Exposure Compensation:  -1.67 EV
Image Stabilisation: On