Charles Robert Ashbee Biography

Early Years and Education of C.R. Ashbee

C.R. Ashbee, a British architect, designer, renowned silversmith, and jeweler, was born in Isleworth in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition. He was the son of a wealthy chemicals manufacturer who exhibited his goods at the exhibition. Ashbee was educated at Felsted School in Essex and at King’s College, Cambridge, where he read history. He started his architectural career articled to T. Chatfield Clarke before entering the office of James Brooks. While living at the University settlement at Toynbee Hall, London, founded by C.S. Barnett, Ashbee, the only architect in residence, was deeply influenced by John Ruskin's lectures and drawing classes in 1873.

The Foundation of the School of Handicraft and Guild of Handicraft

During a reading class on Ruskin that he initiated, Ashbee envisioned a scope for theory and peers, which quickly evolved into an art class where he taught drawing and decoration. In 1887, with his peers, he formed a group that began the School of Handicraft. This led to the establishment of The Guild of Handicraft in 1888, where Ashbee played a central role. The Guild, known for its collection of metalwork and jewelry designed by Ashbee, gained a reputation for custom-made furniture, serving notable clients like the Grand Duke of Hesse.

Ashbee’s Work and The Guild’s Relocation

The workshop at Essex House, a Georgian mansion on Mile End Road in London, was notable for Ashbee's establishment of a printing press used by Morris at Kelmscott House. In 1890, Essex House was leased for retail business. Subsequently, in 1902, the Guild of Handicraft relocated to Gloucestershire, where Ashbee engaged local communities in Guild work. Despite the Guild going into liquidation in 1907, many of its workers, including Ashbee, continued to work independently.

Architectural Endeavors and Ashbee’s Influence

Ashbee's minor setback in the Guild led him to revisit his architectural training. He endeavored to escape historicism, and his designs, including his house ‘Magpie and Stump’ built in 1895 in London, showcased a blend of historical and modern styles. Ashbee was deeply committed to the cause of architecture, socialism, and crafts after Morris, with experiences at Essex House shaping his understanding of the working class within the Arts and Crafts Movement. He believed in the mastery of craft through trial and error and the importance of style and character in design.

Ashbee’s Design Philosophy and Contributions

Ashbee's designs included pianos, bedsteads, wallpapers, clocks, cast-iron ware, and pottery, as well as metalwork, silverware, and furniture for industry. His stylistic influences varied, sometimes using medieval features or stylistic motifs, yet he distinguished himself from the Art Nouveau style. His works, particularly in silverware, were delicate, controlled, and understated, earning him the reputation of being 'never a man of half measures'.

Researched and written by Tony Geering & Kristy Campbell.

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