The Art That is Life: Georg Jensen and the Viability of the Artist-Craftsman

Summation of the text by Isabelle Anscombe in the book "Georg Jensen Jewelry"


The time before and during Georg Jensen's rise to fame, a number of other artists-craftsmen had struggled with with the problem of creating a sustainable income off of their creations. By the time Georg Jensen opened his shop in 1904, the struggle between the individual craftsman and the factory had just started to take its final approach in favor of the factory. The Arts and Crafts movement, which had started in the second half of the 1800's, was still alive in spirit, although, was financially unsuccessful and yet at the same time, artisans were unable to keep up with demand. The movement's emphasis on handmade pieces of exceptional craftsmanship were admirable, and at the time of its inception, the machine made pieces had still been of very poor quality.

William Morris had been one of the first manufacturers of this new style of decoration, setting up his company, Morris & Company (originally Morris Marshall, Faulkner & Company) in 1861 which he set up to decorate his new matrimonial home and financed personally. To Morris, the focus on the craftsman, as well as the education and training of the lower and middle class that was inherent in the movement, sat well with his socialist political ideals, although this was never truly realized through the company he founded.

Also present at the time was C. R. Ashbee, perhaps one of the most prominent craftsmen of the Arts and Crafts period. Ashbee was the product of a middle class family, and had studied at Cambridge University were he had read the treatises of Ruskin, and studied under the  socialist writer, Edward Carpenter. Carpenter held strong beliefs towards the working class, and like Morris, felt best about raising the lower classes through continued education, and it was morally wrong to live off of the efforts of the working class. His philosophy of The Simple Life, and his practice at manual labor inspired the young Ashbee to follow in his footsteps.

He began by first giving a series of lectures on Ruskin at Toynbee hall, where he resided and trained. His students eventually began the redesign of the dining room, and from there Ashbee began to set up a new school, the Guild of Handicraft, although Morris himself seemed dour on the subject. The Guild itself was established in 1888 at Toynbee Hall, and in the same year held the first exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which was an offshoot of the Art Workers' Guild, and featured the works of one of the two professional members of the Guild of Handicraft.

From the very beginning, the guild was a follow through on the idealistic beliefs that Ashbee and the Arts and Crafts movement, and featured things such as profit sharing, democratic voting, and other socialistic themes. In a matter of 3 years, the guild relocated to Essex House, where they held regular events, such as Wednesday Suppers and where Ashbee resided until his marriage to Janet Forbes in 1898.

Ashbee, peculiarly enough, did not hire establish craftsmen, wanting instead to break away from established modes of thought and stylistic motifs, and instead hired on former office clerks and workers from the local street markets, to which he taught new skills to and encouraged free thought and different perspectives on design. The designs were intricate and  well executed, and the jewelry, in addition to featuring delicate wirework, often incorporated semiprecious stones and innovative designs, all of which created a decade of high demand and in 1889, the guild opened a shop near the fashionable Bond Street of West End in London.

Ashbee's work was often inspired by Renaissance pieces, with beautiful curves, colorful with the introduction of the aforementioned stones, and featured highly rendered natural motifs, such as florals, especially dianthus, birds, such as the peacock, and insects, such as bees, butterflies, and on.

In 1896, Ashbee began giving lectures in the US, visiting the local Arts and Crafts workshops and centers throughout the country including New York and Philadelphia. On this tour, he visited Gorham Manufacturing, to which he was displeased, however Comfort Tiffany's glassworks appealed to him.  His visits had also helped to spread the word of the Arts and Crafts movement to places like Chicago and Boston where metalwork shops began to open. In 1897, he was commissioned to work with Ballie Scott, whom designed furniture for Liberty and Company, to decorate and furnish the reception and dining room of the Palace of the Grand Duke of Hesse in Darmstadt, which gave much publicity to both Ashbee and the Arts and Crafts movement, and in turn, opened it to the world at large. Unfortunately, the German companies, who had taken a different approach and proceeded to work within the ideals of machine manufactury over handicrafts, would take on the designs the  movement produced and reproduced them at a much cheaper cost, dooming the guilds later on.

By the 1890's, there were an number of publications pertaining to the decorative arts and the movement proliferating in England and from there, the rest of Europe. The Studio, one of the most notable publications was started in 1893, and most certainly had proliferated to Denmark by the time Georg Jensen embarked upon his journey towards becoming a world renowned silversmith, as well as being able to view the examples of English craftwork at the 1899 Modern English Applied Art exhibition at the Danish Museum of Art and Design, where the works of Ashbee were most prevalent, but also the works of Morris & Company, as well as several other artists.

It is most likely here where he adopted his own idiom, drawing heavily on the stylized forms of Ashbee, taking on his preference for semiprecious stones, and hand finishing silver, and the naturalist idiom. Georg Jensen, however,  it should be noted, had synthesized from these other artists, as all of use do, to create something different. His decorations were more realistic and solid than other artists, and yet, somewhat simplified and restrained.

On the matter of materials, briefly, the latter half of the 19th century had also seen to be a reaction against the overly decorated styles with their bright, glittering jewels of the previous period, which was now considered bad taste. In addition, A new source of diamonds in South Africa had increased the supply, and therefore, depressed prices of the jewels comparably to lesser priced semiprecious stones. Cabochon cuts were also becoming more favorable, as well as being more suitable towards semiprecious stones, all of which contributed to the success of Jensen's sensibilities and preferences.

It wasn't just jewels and jewelry that had changed during this period, but also women's clothing in general. More liberal attitudes had given rise to a simpler type of dress for women, abandoning the Victorian corsets and which complimented the influx of Japanese and Indian jewelry.

The tying together of women's suffrage and Arts and Crafts is not to unbelievable considering Ashbee's jewelry was worn by a number of influential members such as Christabel Pankhurst, whose brooch had featured amethysts, emeralds and pearls: the colors worn by suffragettes. Janet Forbes, Ashbee's wife, had been quite involved in the movement, and the wives of many other designers had contributed to their husband's desire to focus on textiles and women's fashion. William Morris would also be inspired to design “reform” clothing based on pre-Raphaelite designs, and Frank Lloyd Wright would design for his wife as well as his clientele. Gustav Klimt is also known for his designs in textiles (sewn and created by his significant other, Emilie Floge) and illustrated them in his paintings.

Eventually, these successes, however led to a desire to further connect and realize their ideals, and with that, Ashbee decided to move his operations to Chipping Campden in 1902 where there was an unused textile mill, and went about trying to enact the Simple Life. Part of this desire was pushed due to what Ashbee would say”What  seek to show is that this Arts and Crafts movement... is not what the public has thought it to be, or is seeking to make it: a nursery for luxuries, a hothouse for the production of mere trivialities and useless things for the rich.” Unfortunately, by moving to Chipping Campden, the supply routes were made more difficult with the absence of railroad lines and as the whole of the community had been dependent upon the business, it was hard to expand or constrict the workforce with the ups and downs of the workload. Also, by this time manufacturies had fully adopted the new style, but armed with drastically lower costing production methods. This meant for a minor difference in quality, and a much larger price difference gave an economical edge against the hand-craftsmen. By 1907, the idealistic Simple Life community could no longer be competitive and liquidated, unable to balance art and a sustainable lifestyle. Unfortunately, unlike many other independently wealthy leaders in the movement, the dissolution of Chipping Campden forced Ashbee back to his architectural firm. Though he didn't regret his efforts towards creating the realization of the the Arts and Crafts dream, he did not pursue an active role in design again. He later wrote a treatise appealing to governmental protection of the craftsman, and at a further date stated, “The real thing is the life; it doesn't matter if their metalwork is second rate. Give them their liberty of production and they'll do it better. It's quite a simple proposition.”

William Morris's company, on the other hand, was more profit driven, although in retrospect, the firm also had less social impact despite Morris's rather outspoken political personality. Instead it was most successful in the preservation of old crafts and techniques that were endangered of dying out. The products themselves were often sold to the wealthier class, which disagreed with Morris's own ideals, and partially this was to his own acknowledgment that the existing system had to be altered if his ideals for the worker were to be compensated and fulfilled in a way that worked in a sustainable fashion within the economy. Liberty & Company, would continue to do business, however their motives were purely about following trends and profitability, and although they were a known retailer of Arts and Crafts products, the primarily epitomized what the Arts and Crafts movement had become, as the ideals became both unattainable and the artistic styles became wildly popular. It was Liberty & Company that had caught on to the wave of Japanese inspired decorative pieces in the earlier portion of the movement, which in themselves, focused on many of the simplistic, artist-centric ideals shared by Arts and Crafts, they also worked with independent designers to produce manufactured products, primarily of note the Tudric and Cymric lines which had medieval and Celtic motifs respectively. Unlike the other companies, the designers responsible for these lines were wholly designers, not actually responsible for the  actual production of the pieces they designed, and heralded the direction of manufactury's future with their easily reproducible designs and less focus on the actual craftsman's skill.

Arts and Crafts sister movement, Art Nouveau, was also picking up in France, and by perhaps oversight, British Arts and Crafts were not present at the 1900 Paris exhibition where Georg Jensen had also attended, though perhaps this was one of the locations were he was exposed to Art Nouveau and in particular the styles of Lalique, whom he had great interest in.

Art Nouveau, translated roughly into “new art” was yet another movement which was about breaking ties with existing styles and views on the styles and to raise the decorative arts to the appreciation that fine art held. Politically, Art Nouveau held an undercurrent of disrupting the current system of age old institutions and fine art academies to democratize the arts and free them to all. It mirrored the desire for the new political systems introduced to in the beginning of  the 19th century. The Secessionist movement in Vienna had also mirrored the Arts and Crafts movement in its revival of the folk arts and other revivalist movements sprung about in other countries around the same time. With Art Nouveau, there was a similar interest in reverting back to older, simpler times, though it took its inspiration from naturalistic themes including flowers, plants and other botanical elements. It also borrowed from earlier Asiatic elements which were popular in the chinoiserie with its simpler designs and themes. Georg Jensen was also not the only person to have been inspired by these French influences. Mogens Ballin, Georg Jensen's former employer, had also spent considerable time in the France among the Pont Aven group of artists who were delighting in their new experimental freedoms, and it was perhaps here that Mogens Ballin formulated his desire to create in his shop something for everyone: a dream Georg Jensen would follow in his footsteps with.

Going back to Lalique for a moment, he was probably one of the most influential artists in France during the Art Nouveau movement. At 16 he began training at the jeweler Louis Aucoc before a brief stint in London studying at the Sydenham Art College before returning to Paris to work resume his work with jewelers such as Cartier and Boucheron among others. He decision to set up his own shop allowed him the freedom to explore an alternative to the gem laden golden pieces of previous generations. Instead he studied and experimented with enamel and glass and with other materials created sculptural works of his own style. Immediately, people began to take notice of his talents and he was invited to exhibit at La Maison de l'Art Nouveau and shortly after was designing pieces for actress Sarah Bernhardt before exhibiting again at the Paris Exposition Universelle where he one the Grand Prix in 1900. By 1902, he was employing 30 people at his new workshop and expanded again in 1905 on Place Vendrome.  The emotions the pieces evoked were of most importance to Lalique and his materials used were done as such to best evoke the nature of the piece he designed. Highly realistic and laden with symbolism his works stood far above those of other contemporary artist. Unfortunately, with the  death of his wife in 1909, so went his desire to created pieces of artistic jewelry. Instead, he redirected his efforts into machined glass and all the potential it held within. It was perhaps Louis Comfort Tiffany whom founded the famous Tiffany and Co. whom helped to bring the Japanese influence to the United States in 1876, and later after becoming artistic director for his father's firm (1902), the company showed at the Louisiana Purchase International Exhibition in 1904 with a full line of pieces featuring semiprecious stones and natural elements very similar to the works of Lalique.

All of these influences combined to help Georg Jensen form his own unique style, and when he opened in 1904, it was once again the Germans who had supplied to most competition, where, although similar styles and influences had worked through the designers, still did not put the emphasis on craftsmanship as was present in other nations. Luckily this was also one of the first international markets for Georg Jensen, and later on it would be his the place for his son, Jorgen, to receive his training and where he would adopt a style that was more geometric and which was more suited to the tastes of the German markets as well as in line with future decorative movements.


See the beginning of this series, "Georg Jensen Jewelry"