B. J. Talbert and the Arts & Crafts Movement

Posted on | March 5, 2012 | 2 Comments

Since the awakening of the “Victorian” revival in the 1960′s and the subsequent interest in the Arts & Crafts movement that has followed in its wake, much has been written and “rediscovered” about the influential work of the great British design reformers.  Retrospectives of the period can often give a new enthusiast of these revivals the impression that William Morris was somehow the singular source of it all.  Now while the “improved” results of late 19th century design reformation certainly owe a great debt to Morris and his imprint, there were many of his contemporaries that were stirring the pot of design reform with equal vigor and affecting popular taste both at home and abroad as well.  One of these was the Scottish born Bruce James Talbert (1838-1881).

Talbert’s training began early on as a woodcarver, but he later transitioned over to architecture. He worked in several different offices in Glasgow, and won some public acclaim there as a designer. In 1862 Talbert moved to Manchester and began designing furniture for Doveston Bird & Hull, and later at Art Manufactures in Coventry where he worked up drawings for George Gilbert Scott’s High Victorian Albert Memorial. He soon made the move to fashionable London, where he began to build his reputation as a furniture designer and decorator.  He won a silver medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1867, and fueled by his growing success he published his Gothic Forms Applied to Furniture, Metal Work, and Decoration for Domestic Purposes that same year.  The eventual popularity of Talbert’s work internationally is evidenced by this Boston reprint of Gothic Forms from 1873…

Illustrated among the 3o original plates in Gothic Forms was this exhibition cabinet shown in Paris, demonstrating Talbert’s principles of “solid, honest construction” (in this case, of native English oak with shallow inlays).  As is the case with many of his furniture designs, his appreciation for his earlier craft as a woodcarver can often be seen.

Talbert was becoming one of the “earliest professional furniture designers to become known internationally” (The Oxford Companion to the Decorative Arts).  Even before he opened his London studio he became a much sought after industrial designer and was producing an imaginative variety of designs for furniture, textiles, metalwork, stained glass, and wallpaper for some of Britain’s finest manufacturers.

His second book, Examples of Ancient & Modern Furniture, Metal Work, Tapestries, Etc. published in 1876, again became a tastemaker’s guide and would again be reprinted in the States, (this version again by James Osgood in Boston).

In Examples Talbert displays more of his virtuosity in designing for the domestic interior, incorporating Tudor, Jacobean, Georgian as well as the Japanese influence so popular during the Aesthetic Movement (thanks in part to Talbert himself).

The above “Detail for Wall Papering with Frieze and Dado” was a tripartite set of patterns “designed for Messrs, Jeffrey & Warner”.  His wallpaper colorings, (like the constructional polychromy of his furniture), were wonderfully harmonious, sophisticated and could “melt” seamlessly into a room’s color scheme without demanding center stage.  An example of his color harmony can be seen in this particular suite of Talbert’s wallpapers, (newly reproduced by Bradbury & Bradbury), which is now being featured as part of the current Cult of Beauty exhibit at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Its undulating vines and boughs combine in soft sage greens, russet and sprinklings of metallic gold throughout for a natural and delicate balance.

The colors are said to have been taken by Talbert from Japanese block prints, that were so much the rage in London at the time, and offered some of the subtle tertiary hues the tasteful Aesthetics (like Talbert) recommended for wall colors.  His colorings and patterns for wallpaper were so popular that Talbert “knock offs” filled the books of wallpaper manufacturers through the 1870s and 80s.

Sadly Bruce Talbert’s prolific output may have ultimately contributed to his undoing.  Overwork and the constant demands of manufacture apparently lead to the alcoholism that claimed him at the height of his career in 1881, at only 43 years of age.

Although a Victorian with his early design roots nurtured in the soil of Gothicism, Talbert was considered by those who have studied his work to be one of the real progenitors of the Arts & Crafts movement.  His guiding principles of simplicity, honesty of workmanship and design, his palette inspired by the natural world, along with a pursuit of timeless beauty were all being championed by designers and architects 30 years after his death and have found a renewed interest today by those being initiated into the Arts & Crafts revival.


2 Responses to “B. J. Talbert and the Arts & Crafts Movement”

  1. Carole Dent
    March 6th, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

    I caught the Cult of Beauty exhibition at the V & A in London last year and was very taken with Talbert’s work there, wondering at the time why more had not been made of his genius.

  2. steve
    March 6th, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

    Hi Carol, yes my wife and I saw the exhibit in London last summer also and then visited the British Gallery after and wished there was more about Talbert. Sad that the design world lost him so early. It makes one wonder what he may have accomplished had he lived a few more decades!


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