A major new research project and partnership will offer insights into the histories and legacies of open-air British woodcraft groups. The studies explore the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, the Woodcraft Folk and other associated pacifist and co-educational groups founded in the early twentieth century. The woodcraft movement was founded on radical principles and offered a distinctive cultural alternative to scouting alongside broader ambitions for new experiments in living.
Dr Annebella Pollen has received individual AHRC Research Fellowship funding to undertake research into the movement's art, craft, design and dress. In an intersecting project, she joins with a wide range of collaborators on a nationwide Heritage Lottery Funded community history partnership.
Progressive, open-air British woodcraft groups had their origins in the turn-of-the-century ideas of American artist and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946), who promoted the outdoor life and Native American camp skills as a means of creating an adventurous educational experience for boys. These ideas were subsequently adapted by Baden-Powell and incorporated into his scouting movement. Woodcraft groups were largely formed in opposition to the Boy Scouts in its early years, particularly to its perceived militarism.
As alternative youth movements, these co-educational and pacifist groups promoted camping, hiking, ritual and handicraft as means for radical social and economic reform. The ambitious visions of these dynamic organisations attracted thousands of members in their founding years and the support of significant writers, artists, scientists, sociologists and campaigners, including H.G. Wells, D. H. Lawrence, Julian Huxley, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Mary Neal, Rabindranath Tagore, Augustus John and Patrick Geddes.
Although woodcraft experiments did not result in the establishment of new worlds, the organisations nevertheless developed a comprehensive vision for designing change. As woodcraft groups approach significant anniversaries, it is timely to reflect on their legacies and effects. These can be felt not only in their surviving adaptations and in the twenty-first-century renaissance of interest in bushcraft survival skills for a post-oil world, but also in a range of current protest tactics, economic and educational reform agendas, new age practices and folk revivals. By examining the origins and precursors of these phenomena, this research will provide fresh understanding of the present as well as the past.
This research will be the first to contextualise and interpret the unique, large-scale art and design outputs of such organisations, with a particular focus on the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift (1920-1951) but also including the related and continuing groups, Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, est. 1916, and the larger Woodcraft Folk, est. 1925.
Picturesqueness in Everything will examine the role of art, craft, design and dress as radical strategies of resistance and reform, through analysis of the substantial, largely unexhibited and unpublished private and public collections of woodcraft art and design, and through a national exhibition and a series of publications and public events.
By mapping previously untraced intersections between woodcraft organisations, founded in the interwar years, and other contemporaneous cultural movements including avant-garde artists and occultists, dress reformers and folklorists, this project will establish the significance of a largely forgotten aspect of British social and cultural history, adding to existing knowledge and offering new interpretations of a period rich with utopian ambitions.
In keeping with Seton's call for 'picturesqueness in everything', woodcraft groups considered the production of art, design, craft, ceremony and spectacle as central to their romantic, political and spiritual mission, not least in the case of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, whose founder was a commercial artist and whose group attracted many creative practitioners (including, for example, celebrated photographer Angus McBean). Kibbo Kift's striking hybrid aesthetic combined Anglo-Saxon, Nordic, Egyptian and Native American motifs with occult symbolism and modernist graphics, and was visible across the tents, banners and totems, theatrical, ritual and camping costumes, printed literature and illustrated logbooks of the movement.
These accomplished artefacts survive in quantity but remain largely unknown, despite the fact that they make visible the group's artistic and intellectual influences, and spiritual and educational agendas for social and cultural regeneration. Through the outcomes developed and disseminated during this fellowship, the extent and importance of these materials will be shown for the first time.
This project is supported by project partners: Museum of London, London School of Economic and Political Science Library, British Library National Life Stories Oral History Archives, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Kibbo Kift Foundation, Woodcraft Folk and the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry.
Annebella's book The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians, is published by Donlon Books in September 2015.
Production costs for the book have been generously supported by an award from the Lee Miller and Roland Penrose Elephant Trust.
Annebella's exhibition Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred opened at Whitechapel Gallery, London on 10 October 2015 and ran until 13 March 2016. http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/about/press/intellectual-barbarians-kibbo-kift-kindred/
In 2015-16, Annebella Pollen is co-steering 90 Years of the Woodcraft Folk, a project supported by £80,000 of Heritage Lottery Funds. Through a series of community heritage activities including the creation of oral history recordings, a living history pageant, a pictorial history book, film and a travelling exhibition, this project will engage and enthuse the general public, as well as Woodcraft Folk’s 10,000 young members and 3000 adult volunteers in the history of this unique and important organisation and its campaigns for social justice since 1925. Through the creation of new historical records and new historical interpretations, new and updated heritage resources will be widely available to a broad range of audiences and researchers.
Along with the Woodcraft Folk, joint steering project partners include Andy Flinn of University College London, Gillian Lonergan of The Cooperative College Archive and Rochdale Pioneers Museum and the Youth Movement Archive at LSE library. Other supporting project partners include the Cooperative Movement Archive at Bishopsgate Institute, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament UK , People’s History Museum and the Feminist Library.