The Red Priest and the Architect

It might perhaps be guessed that Conrad Noel (1869 - 1942), the 'Red Priest' of Thaxted, whose Socialist views once outraged the Tory faithful of his North Essex parish, would be sympathetic to the Art and Craft movement, whose guru was the Socialist poet and designer William Morris. But an inscription, dated April 1906, in a copy of The Country Cottage, presented to him from its co-author, George Llewellyn Morris, confirms it.

Amazingly, I found this inscribed copy of the little book, a hymn to the virtues of both the humble thatched labourer’s cottage and its much more sophisticated Arts and Crafts imitations in brick, plaster and tile, profusely depicted in photographs, in 2006 among the trashy novels in the ten pence box outside a well known bookshop in Saffron Walden. The book had been given to Noel four years before he became Vicar of Thaxted, and it had somehow found its way from here to that bookshop, just 12 miles away, in the intervening years.

The only facts that can be discovered about George Llewellyn Morris are that he was an architect who co-wrote the book in question with someone called Esther Wood, and that he had been born in 1869. That he probably shared a few of the political views of Noel is apparent from some of the observations in it regarding the iniquity of slum housing in the large cities and the necessity of promoting the virtues of Garden Villages and Garden Cities, the first of which was still being built at Letchworth, just 35 miles away from Thaxted, when the book was published.

However, Morris was also critical of some of the affectations of the Arts and Craft movement, particularly regarding the blatant emphasis on revealing the process by which some features of a building were created. According to him, the leaders of the movement ( perhaps he has Lutyens in mind) had gone from rejecting artifice to ‘ a forced naturalness’.

'…which in its anxiety to conceal nothing of the constructive method, never lets us forget for a moment how (badly very often) the thing is done. It has even become a point of artistic honour to insist that all wrought metal shall show the hammer marks, and that every piece of wood construction shall show the joints. Peculiar virtue has been attached to seams and raw edges; baldness and crudity have been read as signs of grace …'

An excellent point, which modern day admirers of the Arts and Craft movement should do well to acknowledge. We don’t know if the Christian Socialist Noel shared these views, but we do know that he re-introduced to his new parish High Church prac tices that had originated in the medieval period, when it was assumed ( possibly wrongly)that craftsmen did not conceal hammer marks and crude joints. Noel also brought to Thaxted Morris dancing and other quasi-Pagan rituals.

It would be interesting to know when and where the fan of Arts and Crafts first met the champion of folk dancing and the Russian Revolution. Knowing how their interests were intertwined might shed light on the wider implications of early Socialism in England. [RMH]

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