Arts and Crafts Movement in Canada

The Arts and Crafts movement in Canada consisted of architects, teachers, and craftspeople who worked with progressive patrons to integrate beautiful handcraftsmanship into everyday living. The movement was most active in the 1890s through to World War I and was most fully expressed in house designs. The movement had both progressive and conservative connotations - progressive in terms of relaxed, informal plans for house designs, which integrated built-in craft elements; and conservative in terms of connecting Canada with British values. Most of the leading Canadian practitioners were familiar with British precedents, having been born in the United Kingdom. Thus one can properly speak of the Arts and Crafts in Canada as having both a stylistic character and a political dimension. The Canadian Arts and Crafts movement was also restricted to big cities; there is no rural Canadian Arts and Crafts.

The Canadian movement differed from its UK antecedents in two marked respects: first, there were fewer trained craftspeople in Canada than in the UK, and thus Canadian architects could not readily specify the same variety and quality of handcraftsmanship that was possible in the UK. Second, in Canada there was no equivalent of the "country house" phenomenon seen widely in the UK, where wealthy patrons willingly paid for Arts and Crafts mansions, designed from top to toe and hand-crafted throughout, and sited in beautifully landscaped grounds.

Between 1900 and 1910, however, particularly in Toronto and Montréal, a large number of Arts and Crafts companies existed and Arts and Crafts interiors became common. On the West Coast, in Vancouver and Victoria, some architects found patrons who commissioned large, rambling Arts and Crafts houses whose scale, detailing, and landscaped grounds rivalled those in the UK.

Canadian Arts and Crafts features were typically restricted to details such as stained glass and fittings. These were often directly influenced by William Morris, the noted British Arts and Crafts designer, writer, and advocate for social change through design. Morris's work was avidly collected in Canada, and many homes and places of worship were graced by his work, as demonstrated by a 1993 Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition entitled "The Earthly Paradise: The Work of Morris and His Circle from Canadian Collections."

Wychwood Park, a quiet, wooded enclave still within brisk walking distance of downtown Toronto, exemplifies Arts and Crafts ideals and style. Hoping to found an artists' colony, landscape artist Marmaduke Matthews bought a ten-acre parcel of land in 1873, near present-day Davenport Road and Bathurst Street. The property was developed much later, between 1907 and 1911, following designs by architects Eden Smith and Sons. Eventually, Wychwood became an enclave of some 60 houses. It is perhaps the single best example in Canada of a Canadian Arts and Crafts-inspired neighbourhood. Smith's own home was built here in 1907, along with houses for other notable artists such as George Reid. Clustered along a meandering circular walkway with a natural ravine-like setting and stream (Taddle Creek), the large houses stand well back from the lot-line. Even today Wychwood - which in 1985 became the first residential area to receive heritage designation under the Ontario Heritage Act - remains an attractive and stylistically unified community, governed by an executive council that oversees its private roads and parkland. The Pond was restored in 1998. Smith is known for designing low-cost housing for the Toronto Housing Company in 1913, and several public libraries also in the Arts and Crafts manner, including the Wychwood, Beaches and High Park branches, all of which opened in 1916.

In Montréal, the Scottish-born architect Percy Erskine Nobbs was the main exponent of the Arts and Crafts. The founder of 20th-century architectural education at McGill University in Montréal, before immigrating to Canada Nobbs trained with Arts and Crafts architect Robert Lorimer, and knew many of the leading figures of the English Arts and Crafts movement. Nobbs's work is not easy to categorize; he utilized several different styles in his work, including the English Renaissance. But at least some of his work seems to have been influenced by Arts and Crafts precepts. In 1914, Nobbs designed a large freestanding house for his own family; it was erected on Belvedere Road in Westmount. The four-storey brick house featured prominent steep slated roof and gable-end flairs that critic Norbert Schoenauer linked to homes designed by one of England's most original Arts and Crafts architects, C.F.A. Voysey. Some rooms inside the house, notably the library, while not as extravagantly original as Voysey's houses, feature built-in furniture that recalls Arts and Crafts influence.

Nobbs was instrumental in helping his friend and protégé, Cecil Scott Burgess (1870-1971), bring an Arts and Crafts sensibility to the fledgling University of Alberta. Burgess was an Arts and Crafts enthusiast born in India and trained in the UK, who taught at McGill between 1909 and 1911. Having obtained the commission to design the University of Alberta campus, Nobbs recommended Burgess as the superintending architect. Burgess flourished in Edmonton and in 1913 was appointed professor of architecture. He designed many of the university's early buildings. His Arts and Crafts interests were given expression in designs for the university's crest, some furniture, and other ceremonial regalia - even items such as a teapot with the university crest. Few architects in Canada have been given such a generous scope for design, something that the Arts and Crafts practitioners longed for but rarely received in this country.

On the West Coast the Arts and Crafts found its fullest flowering - likely because the mild climate enabled architects to incorporate landscape architecture into their designs so completely. Most notable among these was Samuel Maclure. A noted watercolour artist as well as an architect, Maclure designed so many homes in the Greater Victoria area between 1910 and 1929 that he distinctly influenced the architectural character of that city. He preferred Tudor half-timbering, which also recalls Craftsman designs. In the case of the gigantic Hatley Castle (now part of Royal Roads University in Victoria), the architect worked with Brett and Hall, a professional landscape architectural firm from Boston.

Because architecture and the crafts were practised by men exclusively at the turn of the century, most of the Canadian Arts and Crafts practitioners were men. However, at least two well-organized groups of women actively promoted the Arts and Crafts in Canada. In Toronto, in 1896, local artist Mary Dingham spearheaded the founding of the Woman's Art Association of Canada (WAAC), a national association of both amateur and professional women artists. One of their main achievements was to have contributed in 1897 a painted dinner service of eight courses with 24 settings, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot's landing in Newfoundland. In Montréal, in 1905, Alice Peck and May Phillips founded the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, inspired by British and American women in the Arts and Crafts movement. The guild was dedicated to serving craftspeople and to seeing that crafts were recognized as art.

A late example of the Arts and Crafts took place in the Toronto area during the Depression. In 1932, H. Spencer Clark and Rosa Clark founded the Guild of All Arts as an artists' collective. The Clarks commissioned a building for the guild on a splendid site overlooking the Scarborough Bluffs, then quite distant from Toronto but now within the Greater Toronto Area, and artists took up residence. World War II forced the temporary closure of the guild, and the Clarks could not get the guild back on its pre-war footing. They eventually built an inn on the site and started collecting architectural remnants from buildings then being demolished in downtown Toronto. The site has become a sculpture and architectural garden.

The Arts and Crafts style has again become popular, both in expensive houses and in mid-market accessories. This trend is accentuated by research and illustrations that make reproductions of original Arts and Crafts interiors and crafts more available than ever before. Today's designers inspired by the Arts and Crafts tend to mix and match styles and forms rather than, as was the case for the original style, seeking unity in the style.

See also Architecture.