It’s a long way from Central Africa to Gloucestershire, but it’s ideas and commitment, not location, that make a utopia. In Anthony Nanson’s Deep Time we are introduced to a number of different communities, some striving for an ideal and others … less good. Now, imagine yourself an anthropologist from another land and come with me on a visit … Or, alternatively, you could visit ‘Crafting Change: Community, Protest, Utopia’ at The Wilson, Cheltenham’s art gallery and museum, and find out more about the beautiful things that some of these communities made.
At the turn of the twentieth century, rural utopian communities were something of a fad – like going to India and finding a guru in the late 1960s. You might be surprised to discover that Gloucestershire had an unusually high density of these radical, utopian communities, which ran the whole ideological gamut from Tolstoyan to Catholic to Socialist in inspiration, to simple groups of like-minded artists.
But why were so many people searching for an alternative lifestyle? In the nineteenth century, there was a feeling among some people that industrialisation had gone too far. Cities were overcrowded, unsanitary, dangerous, and dehumanising – and often didn’t provide the work that those who flocked to them desperately needed. Think Dickens, who was horrified by the social conditions he saw and recorded them in his novels, and you have an idea. On the flip side, the countryside was becoming poorer and depopulated, despite the rising population. Market forces were at work! Many intellectuals wanted to turn and run back to the Middle Ages, which they perceived as caring, human-focused, and ordered. Having studied medieval studies for my MA, I know that this was, uh, a somewhat idealised view – but it offered a potent mythos for the age.
But there were some who actually wanted to change the conditions in which people lived, and thus socialism in Britain was born. One of the most high-profile early socialists was William Morris, whom we know better in these commercial times as a wallpaper designer, but who was known then as an acclaimed poet – and a romantic dreamer. Morris was a committed campaigner, protester, and writer for the socialist cause, but eventually he realised that the revolution wasn’t coming. He also scouted out a Gloucestershire location for a craft community at Blockley – but it didn’t happen, and he set up his works much closer to London. In the end he combined his desire for a practical, achievable utopia with his romantic dreams in a vision of a utopian state called ‘Nowhere’ (a riff on both one meaning of ‘utopia’, which mean either ‘good place’ or ‘no place’ in Greek, and also Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, written a few years earlier) which is explicitly set in London and the Thames Valley that Morris loved. News from Nowhere describes one of the few utopias that people accept as a truly positive place. Morris’s hero, Guest, is transported from 1890s London to an England still a few years in the future from our own time, where the revolution has happened (in the 1950s) and society has stabilised into a mildly anarchist, back-to-the-land idyll of small rural communities, cheerful enjoyment of necessary work, free love, and the practice of craft. In a happy little dig at the contemporary world he makes the Houses of Parliament a dung heap.
Morris’s ideals fitted with the general trend to go ‘back to the land’, and his words directly inspired the designers Ernest Gimson and Sidney and Ernest Barnsley when they moved to the Sapperton area in Gloucestershire in 1893. These men were the epitome of non-revolutionary types. They wanted to start afresh in the countryside and quietly be architects and furniture-makers within their chosen community. And that’s precisely what they did. But any stranger brings change, and these three middle-class men brought new ideas and employment to a relatively poor village. A furniture workshop and a smithy were set up, folk song and dance revived, plays put on – and their friends came flocking, several moving to the area to start the trend of cluttering Gloucestershire with artists, makers, musicians, and poets. Living in Stroud, I see the results of this every day – indeed, it is what drew us to live here in the first place. Gimson dreamed of setting up a full community – a craft Eden – in Gloucestershire, but sadly the First World War and his untimely death in 1919 meant it never came to fruition.
Stroud was the setting for a far more radical community, that at Whiteway. This was a Tolstoyan community, eschewing property, money, and marriage … at least at first. The little group of radicals from London … they’re all from London, aren’t they? – burnt the deeds to the 41 acres they had acquired. At first, they shared provisions and accommodation, but tensions soon arose. Some people were more committed to the work of a communal smallholding than others, and free love wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Despite that, the community grew and is, astonishingly, still in existence today, still run communally, 118 years after it was set up.
In the Upton St Leonards area we find two communities existing side by side – Prinknash Abbey and the Taena Community. Taena started in the Forest of Dean as a pacifist community during the Second World War, but after the war those remaining in the community embraced Catholicism and moved to be near Prinknash. The monks arrived in 1928, a group of Benedictines. Both the abbey and the community had potteries. The Prinknash Pottery survived until 2002, but the Taena Pottery still lives on.
Onwards to Chipping Campden, and perhaps the most Morrisian utopian experiment of all on the very edge of the county. In 1902 the population of Chipping Campden was swelled by around 150 incomers – C.R. Ashbee, his Guild of Handicraft, and their families. Ashbee set up the Guild of Handicraft as a cooperative in the East End of London in 1888, after he’d begun to live at an East End University Settlement House called Toynbee Hall (yep, also still there). Ashbee was a socialist, like Morris, but unlike Morris he wasn’t seeking universal revolution – he decided to concentrate on making his workers’ lives better. So, they came looking for the simple life in the Cotswolds. For a time Chipping Campden was busy with the making of furniture, metalwork, jewellery, and books … but the move wasn’t a commercial success and the Guild folded. Or did it? Well, yes it did, but some people stayed. One of those was George Hart, a silversmith, and his company Hart Silversmiths, is now in its fourth generation. We saw a display of their archive at Compton Verney last year and Anthony was moved to tears by the video of the history of the workshop.
These aren’t all of Gloucestershire’s radical communities. Indeed, the first was many years previously, in 1649, when a community of Diggers, or True Levellers, set up on Slimbridge Common. Gloucestershire continues to be a place where the balance between the establishment and the radical treads a fine line – with Prince Charles on the one hand (well, he’s a little bit radical himself) and the Co-housing in Stroud on the other. Even Cheltenham has a radical side! Come and discover more about it, alongside the Arts and Crafts, at The Wilson, a venue managed by The Cheltenham Trust, in the ‘Crafting Change’ exhibition.
[Kirsty Hartsiotis is the Curator of Decorative Art and Designated Collections at The Wilson, and the co-curator, with Ann-Rachael Harwood, of ‘Crafting Change’. The exhibition is on until 5 June. You can book here or buy a ticket at The Wilson. The picture above is the frontispiece of News from Nowhere by William Morris (Kelmscott Press, 1892) ©The Cheltenham Trust.]