Christopher Stocks


Peyton Skipwith | B.B,Esquire

Keep your eyes peeled as you walk down Southampton Row, and in the gap between two hotels you might find Cosmo Place, a narrow cut-through which whisks you away from the tourists and the traffic to the relative calm and quiet of Queen Square. Arguably the least-known and best-hidden of all Bloomsbury’s squares, it was begun around 1708 and at first was open on its north side, which (hard as it might be to believe today) looked out across fields to the wooded hills of Hampstead and Highgate.

For a while it was a fashionable address, but over the last century most of its original houses were replaced by the medical institutions and body-shops that have formed red-brick clots round Great Ormond Street Hospital. On the west side of the square, though, a few old houses survive, and one of the finest (and sootiest) of them, at No.6, has since 1914 been the home of the Art Workers’ Guild.

The Guild was founded in 1884 by a group of like-minded architects and designers to encourage dialogue between artists, architects and craftsmen. It was at the height of what was not yet known as the Arts and Crafts Movement, whose greatest exponent was the artist, designer, socialist and shopkeeper William Morris.

Morris, like Karl Marx, believed that the modern world of industrial capitalism had alienated people from their work. Unlike Marx, though, he looked to an idealised past rather than an idealised future, believing that working with one’s hands was the key to a fulfilling life, and that the craftsmen’s guilds of the Middle Ages offered a healthier model for the world of work than the factories and mass-production of his day.

Though Morris wasn’t actually involved in the launch of the Art Workers’ Guild, his example was certainly the Guild’s main inspiration, even if some of its early members took a dim view of his politics – a tension that came to the fore In 1888. Morris was invited to join the Guild, but his application was subsequently voted down, and he only became a member thanks to a bit of highly undemocratic jiggery-pokery behind the scenes. Still, he went on to stand as Master of the Guild in 1892, and a lovely photograph of him by Emery Walker now hangs in the ground-floor rooms.

I’m visiting today to meet another former Master, Peyton Skipwith, who delights in one of those rare and wonderful names that’s a pleasure simply to say, or even to roll round one’s mouth, like jelly. The author of a series of books on British artists and illustrators, including a recent celebration of Edward Bawden’s London, he describes himself as ‘a retired art dealer’, which actually explains both his books and his connection to the Art Workers’ Guild.

For forty years Peyton worked for one of London’s leading commercial galleries, the Fine Art Societyon Bond Street. ‘As a gallery it always had strong links with the Art Workers’ Guild,’ he explains as we drink mugs of tea in the Guild’s first-floor library, where several of his books are on show. ‘Many of the Fine Art Society’s artists over the years have also been Guild members, such as the sculptor George Frampton – who carved the statue of Edith Cavell opposite the National Portrait Gallery – and the painters George Clausen and William Strang.’

Peyton is the first to admit that, as a writer and art dealer rather than a designer or craftsman, he’s not a typical Guild member. On the other hand, in his time at the Fine Art Society, he and his colleagues did a great deal to kick-start the current renaissance in craftsmanship and applied art. He dates the origins of this renaissance further back than I’d expected, and offers an intriguing explanation as to why it took off.

‘I think the crafts really started getting going again back in the late 1960s,’ he says, ‘and it was partly as a reaction to the dominance of American abstract expressionism. In 1969 we held an exhibition called The Earthly Paradise, which featured Victorian painters in tempera, which was completely counter to the trends of the time. Yet it was a surprise success – young painters like Peter Blake and David Hockney were coming in, I guess because they were so interested in these almost-lost craft skills.

‘I suppose the Fine Art Society really pioneered the idea, in the early 1970s, of combining painting, sculpture and decorative art together – that is, of showing “the arts” together, rather than just “art” on its own. With shows like The Aesthetic Movement and the Cult of Japan in 1972 and The Arts and Crafts Movement in 1973 we were all rediscovering artists who had been almost forgotten about since the 1930s. It was an exciting time.’

Peyton’s books (all of them worth seeking out) developed out of writing the catalogues for exhibitions at the Fine Art Society. It was here that he first met and started working with the designer Brian Webb, with whom he produced several beautiful little books for the Antique Collectors’ Club, as well as Edward Bawden’s London. His personal favourite, though, was their monograph on the illustrator Claude Lovat Fraser – ‘if only because no one else had done a book on him,’ chuckles Peyton, whose outwardly tweedy appearance is belied by a certain twinkle in his eye.

As an honorary member of the Art Workers’ Guild he’s naturally delighted that it’s once again a thriving institution – current members include the illustrator Rob Ryan, jeweller Rosie Wolfenden, Kirsty McDougall from Dashing Tweeds and the wallpaper designer Marthe Armitage. ‘It’s great that craft has become respected again,’ Peyton says, ‘though these days craft has become a fine art in itself, with prices to match. When the Guild was set up craftsmen were much more part of everyday life, and I suppose I regret that change slightly.’

Peyton has already thought of his perfect B.B,Esquire day, though I’m saddened to hear that his wife died just three weeks ago, and he apologises (needlessly, needless to say) if he’s appeared to be rather distracted. ‘But I guess my perfect day would start much like today, with me taking my grandchildren to school. After that I’d walk into the West End across Primrose Hill and through Regent’s Park, as I did for forty years at work.

‘Then I might have a look at a few sales,’ – by which I take it he means sales of the auction-house rather than the John Lewis variety – ‘followed by lunch at Andrew Edmunds, or maybe Ciao Bella in Bloomsbury. I’d probably spend the afternoon in the London Library or at a show at the V&A or the Fine Art Society. But my perfect evening would be dinner at home with friends in Hampstead.’ That sounds a pretty perfect day to me too.