What Was the Arts and Crafts Movement?

Three Gables
Biddenham, Bedfordshire

Listed: 2012
Grade: II
NHLE entry: Listing details for Three Gables 

The Arts and Crafts movement was one of the few international trends to have originated in the British Isles, and the private house lay at its heart. The movement is not just a style. At the turn of the 20th century, the use of vernacular - local - materials and traditions was popularised by architects who 'made' houses working with local craftsmen to create traditional works of art.

In addition to buildings created by architects of international repute, those of some local designers are now protected by the National Heritage List for England because of their detailing and the careful planning that went into their construction. An example is C E Mallows' Three Gables house in Biddenham, Bedfordshire, built in 1900.

An exceptional example of the Arts and Crafts style, Three Gables shows how the movement made a distinctive contribution to the look of late Victorian and Edwardian towns and suburbs. More widely, the movement advocated social reform and took an anti-industrialist stance in contemporary architecture, applying medieval or romantic vernacular design ideals.

Finely crafted and thoughtfully designed

Three Gables is finely crafted and thoughtfully designed. C E Mallows was renowned for the skill and charm of his draughtsmanship, which won him many architectural competitions. He had a particularly close association with Three Gables as he not only designed it for his future father-in-law but came to live there himself. 

The house has a striking façade formed, unsurprisingly, of three gables. Although at first glance these appear symmetrical, they have actually been given a subtly irregular treatment - the right gable terminates in a kneeler while the left one sweeps further down to ground-floor level. This distinctive shape implies that it was perhaps a specific requirement of the owners. The design draws its strength from the play of diagonals, horizontals and verticals and from relatively modest details like the banded bricks and downpipes.

The interior, too, has been designed to a high standard, demonstrating the fine craftsmanship and use of quality materials that was typical of Arts and Crafts houses. It's almost certain that the joinery was the product of the Pyghtle Works, the nationally renowned firm based in Bedford. Inside, the strikingly handsome staircase and the panelled drawing room, with a window-seat alcove and homely inglenook fireplace, are characteristic Arts and Crafts features.

A lasting appeal

Three Gables isn't showy. Arts and Crafts designs were intended to invoke the independence, solid virtues and traditional life of yeoman farmers, even when, as sometimes happened elsewhere, the designer's patron was a stockbroker.

You can read more about Three Gables in Hermann Muthesius's seminal book, The English House (1904-5), which spread the ideals of English domestic architecture of this period throughout Europe. The house was also chosen by Gertrude Jekyll and Lawrence Weaver, in their book Gardens for Small Country Houses (1912), to illustrate how important it was to integrate house and garden.