22 Apr 2021

Charles Robert Ashbee (1863–1942) was an architect, writer and designer of Arts & Crafts Furniture.

A philanthropist and social reformer, he founded the Guild of Handicraft School, an Arts and Crafts commune in line with the co-operative socialism of William Morris. As well as a skilled metalworker, Ashbee was also an accomplished cabinetmaker, working with Baillie Scott among others.

Jewellery, communes and Arts & Crafts Furniture

Ashbee was born into a progressive household. While at King’s College, Cambridge, he became strongly influenced by William Morris and John Ruskin. Following a tenure with the architect George Frederick Bodley, he decided to found a co-operative combining art with education and, in 1888, the Guild and School of Handicraft was opened. The concept was simple: To set high standards of craftsmanship, combining the independence of the traditional craftsman with the ethics of the trade shop.

Initially sited in the East End of London, the Guild expanded rapidly. It specialised in jewellery, enamel, furniture design and metalwork – which often features in Ashbee’s antique cabinets and writing desks.

antique chests with Grand designs

Producing such designs as miniature antique chests with solid silver handles, the Guild gained a following of wealthy patrons, eventually opening a retail outlet in Mayfair. One of Ashbee’s most important commissions was a suite of furniture made for the Grand Duke of Hessen, Darmstadt, to designs by M.H. Baillie Scott.

By 1902, the School was suffering heavy competition in London, and Ashbee decided to move to Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. But the Arts & Crafts furniture market was by this time saturated, and the Guild folded in 1907. Ashbee turned to architectural design, building and furnishing properties in the UK and abroad. He eventually settled in Jerusalem, where he stayed until his death.

Those in Lancashire wanting to see antique marquetry furniture by C.R Ashbee can visit the Cheltenham museum, where one of his antique desks is on display. Its Arts & Crafts tulip motifs are considered to be works of art. The V & A also has a large collection of works by C.R. Ashbee and the Guild.

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