Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts

There are certain terms that all antique dealers are expected to know and understand, even buyers are meant to know what they mean. The most famous of these are Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts.

Art Nouveau means ‘new art’ and was a new way for artists, painters and writers to express themselves by harking back to Medieval times, viewed as a more romantic era. The most prevalent theme is nature with the tulip and rose being common motifs. Lines are clean and sumptuous with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, (1868 – 1928) one of the period’s most famous designers, taking lines to a new height by criss-crossing them and producing stylish ladderbacks; simplicity with style. The rose, used in some of his work, is associated with him and is also used in contemporary jewellery influenced by the ‘Mackintosh style’.

English and Continental Art Nouveau was softer than Mackintosh’s. The lines were gentler, more curvaceous, and pewter and silver thrived. On the Continent, WMF was the main manufacturer and is as sought after as Liberty retailers. Another name to look for is Ruskin, whose gentle green pottery plaques dominated the market, decorating mirrors and vases, worn as brooches and adding colour to the softness of the silver metals. His eggshell thin china is also very desirable.

In terms of dates, we’re looking at late 19th, early 20th century (c1890-1914), the First World War bringing it to a premature end. In many ways the dates are unimportant: Art Nouveau is an all-encompassing term and its designs are instantly recognisable.

Some dealers and buyers find the Art Nouveau movement too ‘feminine’ or romantic. Those dealers tend to avoid it altogether or go for the more masculine Arts & Crafts movement. It was developed by William Morris around 1887 as essentially an anti-industrial art movement. Instead of gentle flowers, the Arts & Crafts movement used cruder shapes, harsh but still stylised tulips, heavy carving and strong shapes beaten into copper.

The two movements are compatible and often intertwine – you might choose to sell both. Arts & Crafts is a very practical style, the furniture is often very sturdy and inexpensive. In some ways you could compare Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau as His and Hers movements.

From a collector’s standpoint, the best thing about these two movements is that they never go out of fashion, they look as dated as they had always been but never go out of style. They cover a variety of objects from china, furniture, glass, painting and jewellery. You can also count on them to be built to last – this and other factors make Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau items to be very worthwhile investments.