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Late Arts and Crafts man

01 May 2015

William Whyte on a sculptor whose work is in many churches

Craftsman: Alec Miller with some of the Stations of the Cross that he carved for the Rosary Chapel of the Santa Catalina School, Monterey, California. From the book reviewed below

Craftsman: Alec Miller with some of the Stations of the Cross that he carved for the Rosary Chapel of the Santa Catalina School, Monterey, Californi...

Alec Miller: Carver, guildsman, sculptor
Graham Peel
Graham Peel £14 plus £3 p&p*

THE Arts and Crafts Movement is famous - and fashionable. William Morris prints and William De Morgan tiles are still sought after. Rush-woven chairs and oak refectory tables grace the homes of discerning middle-class consumers. The ideals of the movement - simplicity, honesty, a delight in the skill of handcraftsmanship - continue to be appreciated.

Yet the history of the arts and crafts is unbalanced. There has been an almost exclusive emphasis on the founders and first generation. Not a month goes by without more work on Morris or his collaborators. Their successors, by contrast, remain remarkably neglected.

One such figure is Alec Miller: a stonemason and leading figure in the 20th-century Arts and Crafts Movement. He was a notable speaker and writer, a friend and biographer of the influential Victorian designer C. R. Ashbee, and - above all - a gifted sculptor and carver. He does not rate a place in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or so much as a mention in Wikipedia. But his work can be found in churches throughout the country, reflecting the continued importance of the arts crafts well after the first generation had passed on.

Graham Peel's biography is an attempt to revive the memory of Miller. It draws on a remarkable range of research, and was clearly a labour of love. It explores his life, his faith, and - above all - his work, which was mixed, but never less than sincere. Some pieces are exquisite - and the portrait of his dead son is simply heart-breaking in its honesty.

Miller was unlucky in becoming unfashionable before his career had ended. He remained unlucky, as the revival of interest in the early arts and crafts passed him and his contemporaries by. Fortune, however, has smiled on him now with a biography as sincere and appealing as his very best work. 

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John's College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford

*Copies can be obtained from the author: peel94@btinternet.com or Glenville, Berrington Road, Tenbury Wells, Worcs.WR15 8EL.

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