If you’re a regular reader of the Edgbaston Park Hotel and Conference Centre blog, you’ll have heard the phrase ‘Arts and Crafts’ many times.
Garth House, a Grade II-listed building, is currently being restored and refurbished as part of the hotel. It’s a true example of the movement: built in 1904 and designed by Arts and Crafts pioneer William Bidlake. The refurbishment will honour that aesthetic, and restore Garth House to all its former understated charm.
But what does Arts and Crafts style actually mean?
The Arts and Crafts homes built in Edgbaston and nearby date from the early twentieth century. Like Garth House, Winterbourne House and Garden is now in the care of the University of Birmingham, and also exemplifies the movement. These were homes for the wealthy: established local families, or successful new businessmen. Instead of late-Victorian grandeur, declaring their status in opulent touches, these houses represent a desire to return to a more artisanal, authentic style. Rejecting an industrial era where all was made by machines, these houses were built in simple brick, using local materials. Roof tiles and window frames were unfussy and practical. Symmetry was not a requirement. More space was dedicated to windows, to form a closer connection with the outdoors.
There was trickery at work here, too: the authenticity of these houses is not always quite as it seems. Winterbourne’s wavy roof line, for example, was added intentionally by architect JL Ball to make the house appear older, weathered by time.
Perhaps the most enduring proponent of Arts and Crafts style is William Morris.
Although he died in 1896, eight years before Garth House was built, the aesthetic of his design workshop remained central to the revival of British textile arts long into the new century. His textile designs are immediately recognisable, with their complex repeating patterns of botanicals, birds and animals. A clear mediaeval influence is visible; Morris was close friends with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a school of artists so named for their rejection of contemporary art in favour of works echoing the Middle Ages.
These designs brought back simple techniques and ordinary materials, used by craftsmen: wool coloured with organic dyes not chemicals; tapestrywork in soft furnishings and wall displays; painted ceramics and moulded plasterwork. Morris believed that the rise of machine-based construction had an actively damaging effect on our humanity. In fact, he insisted on no item leaving his workshop until he himself had mastered the techniques involved.
Arts and Crafts gardens have their influential pioneer, too: Gertrude Jekyll.
She designed over 400 gardens during her career, and her 1899 book Wood and Garden was a key influence on the garden at Winterbourne, designed by Margaret Nettlefold. While a Victorian garden was beautiful, it was rigid. Jekyll favoured a more natural look, with a wide range of plants and a picturesque quality. There should be surprises hidden by unexpected pathways and clever planting; beauty in multi-coloured borders.
Again, the ‘natural’ quality belies a more studied approach. At first glance an Arts and Crafts garden might appear meandering; every plant, however, is carefully chosen to achieve the desired effect when combined with its neighbours. The garden is considered as a whole, each area interacting with the others – and all in sympathy with the house, to ensure that the view from every room is ideal.
These elements have all been in the forefront of the mind of Alison Haigh of SBDP interior design when planning the new interiors of Garth House. With every room designed individually, that sense of the authentic and personal is retained, in bespoke items of furniture, textures and colours.
Return soon to see more from the interior of Garth House. And if you’d like to enjoy a genuine Arts and Crafts experience before then, visit Winterbourne House and Garden to see how an Edwardian family lived.