4. Ideas

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A J Penty had published The Restoration of the Gild System which influenced the formation of The Guild at Ditchling. Penty advocated Christianity as the common faith for Guilds, rather than the unity of a shared belief in socialism, as proposed in the late nineteenth century by William Morris. Penty also proposed small workshops as the basis of production and a return to agrarian society. By 1907 Eric Gill, a founder member of The Guild of St. Joseph & St. Dominic, was writing in condemnation of the Arts and Crafts movement because it was concerned with producing luxury goods for the upper classes and was divorced from ‘common life’ .1 The Guild at Ditchling hoped to produce goods that met local needs rather than objects that would be treasured for posterity.

The departure point for any discussion of the philosophy of The Guild is generally considered be the ideas of Eric Gill. He it was who was the first to move to Ditchling and who was throughout his life, a keen polemicist and philosopher.

One major influence on Gill was the Arts and Crafts movement. This began primarily as a search for authentic and meaningful styles for the 19th century and as a reaction to the eclectic revival of historic styles of the Victorian era and to “soulless” machine-made production aided by the Industrial Revolution. John Ruskin was an early philosopher of the movement whose most famous protagonist became William Morris. Gill’s immersion in the movement can be dated to 1905 when he moved to Hammersmith and found himself in a circle that included Morris’s printer, Emery Walker and Morris’s daughter, May. At this time he started to move beyond his core craft of letter cutting to different art forms. It was also at this time that he met Hilary Pepler.

In this movement, Gill found much which he found inspiring, in particular the idea of reuniting the artist and the craftsman, the source of inspiration with the agent of production. Nevertheless, Gill found the Arts and Crafts world less than completely convincing and in 1907 he left Hammersmith for Ditchling, in 1909 he publishing a significant article entitled ‘The Failure of the Arts and Crafts Movement’. His concern was that in order for craftsmen to get an economic return, they had to produce goods for the well-healed. This did not appeal to him and he set out to look for different ideas and structures.

Ditchling appealed as a rural retreat from the world and during this period he converted Roman Catholicism. As the son of a non-conformist minister, religion was an established part of his life, and it would seem he saw greater spiritual possibilities within the Catholic faith. Certainly, in addressing his sexual appetites, he took his theological understanding into areas that were far from orthodox. It has been suggested that his understanding owes something to catholic mysticism, where the relationship between Christ and the church is seen as being comparable to that of bride and groom. Notwithstanding his singular views, his Catholic faith became a central part of his identity and would be key to the development of his ideas.

It is worth recalling that following the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1832, the Victorian era saw a revival of interest in pre-Reformation religious practice and belief, reflected in such intellectual developments such as Gothic Revival in Architecture and the Oxford Movement in the church of England. The notion that the Catholic Church had valid claims to being closer to the early church led to a great many conversions in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. This appeal would have been keenly felt by an artist such as Gill for whom the recovery of simplicity in life and art was a important ambition.

In 1914, further ideas were brought into play when Gill met Fr Vincent Mcnabb, a Dominican advocate of Distributism (also known as “Back to the Land”) a third-way economic philosophy formulated by such Roman Catholic thinkers as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc to apply the principles of Catholic Social Teaching articulated by the Roman Catholic Church, especially in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum.

According to distributism, the ownership of the means of production should be spread as widely as possible among the general populace, rather than being centralized under the control of the state (socialism) or wealthy private individuals (capitalism).

A summary of distributism is found in Chesterton’s statement: “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.” Distributism holds that, while socialism allows no individuals to own productive property (it all being under state, community, or workers’ control), and capitalism allows only a few to own it, distributism itself seeks to ensure that productive property is owned by worker individually. As Hilaire Belloc stated, the distributive state (that is, the state which has implemented distributism) contains “an agglomeration of families of varying wealth, but by far the greater number of owners of the means of production.” This broader distribution does not extend to all property, but only to productive property; that is, that property which produces wealth, namely, the things needed for man to survive.

Distributist thinking concentrated on the formation of these economic principles, seeing only a minimal role for the state and having little to say about systems of governance or the political action necessary to implement its ideas on a national scale. While Distributism has often been described as a third way of economic order between socialism and capitalism, some have seen it more as an aspiration, which has been successfully realised in the short term by commitment to the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, these being built into financially independent local co-operatives, such as the Guild itself.

These various strands of thought and belief all came together in the decision to form the Guild in 1920. It was to be an example of distributism in practice, a community of devout Catholic men creating fine goods with their own hands at minimal expense in beautiful surroundings. Its appeal to many skilled craftsmen is not to be wondered at. The First World War had seen the end of Edwardian optimism and, for many, had given rise to the bleak and fractured mindset reflected elsewhere in Modernism. Some though responded by looking for a simpler, more humane way of life and this is where the Ditchling experiment had a great deal of appeal.

One factor that needs to be emphasised is the all-encompassing nature of the Guild’s way of life. In included not merely commitment to craft principles but also to the economic and religious ideals and to the principle of agricultural self-sufficiency. All in all it was a demanding existence for the Guildsmen, and one that could only be lived out with a great sense of purpose.