Thursday 10 August 2023
In the early 2000s the author of this book sensed an untold story within Haslemere’s vernacular buildings. She began to investigate the story of five local ‘Peasant Artists’ (actually moneyed and educated social activists), creating a blog (http://peasant-arts.blogspot.com) that was to grow into an important resource. This new publication, supported by a DAS grant, marks the culmination of her research.
The book introduces two couples, the Blounts and the Kings, together with Joseph King’s cousin, Greville MacDonald. In 1894 Maude King’s love of the handloom led her to start instructing local women and girls in its use and grant them a kind of spiritual emancipation through craft.
The group’s overarching purpose was rural regeneration through polemic, folk art and the Simple Life, interwoven with reformed Christianity. This last aspect might cause unease today, nourishing sentiments such as that ‘folk art as a category is largely middle-class wish fulfilment’. These are not explored in depth. However, the many contemporary quotes lend objectivity.
Tangible remains of the Peasant Artists are now largely limited to the homes and workshops built from the pocket of Joseph King and a collection of European peasant art they donated to Haslemere Educational Museum. The movement’s decline was latterly blamed by MacDonald on its refusal to recognise art without religion. Or perhaps it was the intentional naivety of its products. Both had alienated it from the usual exhibitors at the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society.
It is good to note the lists of references after every chapter, but sad not to see an index. The print deserves more free room, and some rigorous proofreading. However, Catherine Eyre has given us a record of a parallel path to that of the mainstream Arts & Crafts movement, never before the subject of a book. At 172 pages plus nearly 80 illustrations and a map, this goes far to balance the account.
Rustic Renaissance: The Haslemere Peasant Arts Movement
Catherine Eyre, Haslemere Educational Museum, 2022, hb £12.20 inc. p&p from HEM
Condensed from a review by Neil Hyman in DAS Newsletter No. 128