First Parish & the Arts and Crafts Movement

By Donna Curtin

Arts & Crafts authority David Berman, owner of Trustworth Studio, presented an illuminating lecture on the movement and its influence on the design of First Parish Church to a rapt audience in early September. To understand the church’s architecture and interior decoration, Berman looked back to the origins of Arts & Crafts in Victorian Britain.

The English Arts & Crafts movement, kindled in the closing decades of the 19th century, was more than an architectural style or a design aesthetic, according to Berman; it was a social movement that gave homage to a mythical golden age of truth, beauty and love, and valued above all that which was crafted by human hands. William Morris, one of the movement’s most influential proponents, detested the overly elaborate machine-made commodities being churned out in the industrializing nation, and sought a handmade counterpoint in artisanal medieval tradition. His intricate and exquisitely crafted designs for furnishings, wallpapers, and textiles attracted a wealthy clientele, which made him exceedingly successful, but paradoxically underscored the widening gulf between the elite classes and those that worked with their hands, to Morris’s distress.

Troubled by the inequities of their age, Morris and other young makers of craft, including artist Edward Burne-Jones and illustrator Walter Crane, were drawn to socialism as a means to affect a better world. Their concerns about the new industrial age also emerged in their artistry, as in the case of Byrne-Jones’ lushly beautiful series of paintings, The Legend of Briar Rose, where an enchanted sleeping maiden is an allegory of lost beauty. Walter Crane also illustrated the Sleeping Beauty legend several times, including for a set of painted panels decorating a cabinet. He incorporated a hopeful sign: an emptied hourglass by the maiden’s sleeping form symbolized the potential reawakening of beauty in the world, through the renewal of craft tradition.
Arts & Crafts adherents believed workmanship could amend the harshness of the mechanized world by creating beauty in the everyday. The movement also emphasized a reliance on local materials and local craftsmen, particularly evident in architecture. In Gloucestershire, Alice Jordan Foster (sister of Eben Jordan) commissioned architect William Richard Lethaby to design an Arts & Crafts church in 1902. The Brockhampton Church was built on site with traditional thatch roofing and carved interior woodwork with designs of local flowers.

Arts & Crafts reached American shores in the late 19th century, and its influence was significant in the Boston area. In 1887, the wealthy Yerxa family of Cambridge retained the architectural firm of Hartwell & Richardson to design a newly fashionable Arts & Crafts home. The resulting Shingle Style residence was a stunner; the intricate Celtic design interior included carved and embossed woodwork, stenciled canvas wall covering, frieze decoration with gilded composition panels, stained-glass windows, and wrought-iron gas-and-electric light fixtures. For over a century after its construction, these hand-crafted original features remained in nearly untouched condition; sadly, they were compromised in a recent remodeling.

The intrinsically high quality of Arts & Crafts construction makes surviving examples all the more significant. In 1899, as the Boston Arts & Crafts Society hosted a special exhibition to highlight the movement, a new Romanesque meetinghouse designed by Hartwell, Richardson & Driver for First Parish Church was completed in Plymouth. Like the masterful Yerxa house, First Parish’s interior – the only intact original interior of a Hartwell Richardson church – features extraordinary craftsmanship and a rich design vocabulary.

Decoding its symbology, Berman noted the sanctuary’s massive trusses and acanthus-carved king-posts representing the vault of heaven, or possibly evoking the inverted hull of a ship as a nod to the Pilgrims’ arrival. The century-old golden oak pews, still sturdy and tightly joined, are carved at the ends with scallop shells, the symbol of spiritual pilgrimage. Elaborately carved organ screens are bordered with grape vines, emblem of the true religion. Celtic knot-work carved into the curved oaken lectern suggests the linkage of heavenly and earthly realms.

The sanctuary’s green, gold, and red paint scheme reflects the naturalistic Arts & Crafts palette. Striking decorative borders are stenciled onto the rough plaster walls, and hand-worked with gold leaf and/or gold paint infill, some of which has deteriorated or suffered damage. Original chandeliers appear to have been made for electricity rather than gas; tipped electric carbon bulbs would have shown off the pierced decoration of the metalwork.

The Arts & Crafts movement flowered through 1914, when the death toll of the Great War severed the tradition and the idealism that had nurtured it. First Parish Church is a valuable surviving example of the skillful craftsmanship created under the spell of this powerful movement. Though Arts & Crafts is no more, the tradition of workmanship hasn’t ended entirely. Berman ended his lecture with a picture of a locally made needlework scene of Alice in Wonderland, drawn and embroidered by Plymouth resident Elizabeth Creeden, and based on the stitchery of May Morris, William Morris’s daughter.

 

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