By  on March 25, 2005

LONDON — Victorian England may have been dominated by smokestacks, coal mines, steel mills — and one very prudish queen — but by 1880 there was romance in the air in the form of Britain’s Arts and Crafts Movement.

The movement, led by John Ruskin and William Morris, was a rebellion against all things uniform and machine-made, and a celebration of the individual craftsman and his special skills. It also embodied the belief that everyone, regardless of social class, should be able to buy beautiful designs for the home.

This was the first — and arguably only — British design movement to have such widespread influence. It reached as far as California and Japan, laid the foundations for the Bauhaus and Weimar schools of art and revived crafts such as lettering and calligraphy, enameling, mural decoration, woodworking and pottery.

“It was the high point of British design,” said Karen Livingstone, curator of International Arts and Crafts, an exhibition of furniture, textiles, jewelry, clothing and objects for the home, at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

“It was the only time when the rest of the world was looking to Britain for leadership in design,” said Livingstone, who spent three years organizing the show, which runs until July 24.

The British segment of the presentation features everything from a wooden oak cabinet painted with pastoral scenes from the English countryside, to wool and linen wall hangings embroidered with birds and flowers, to a William De Morgan earthenware vase covered with swirls and golden fish.

There is also a Charles Rennie Mackintosh writing desk made from ebonized mahogany and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and stained glass. Mackintosh, who became an architect and designer, was one of the most famous students of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art, which was famous for its innovative embroidery techniques.

While the British pieces are whimsical, colorful and highly decorative, the American-made Arts and Crafts objects are spare, sober and more practical looking. There is a dark, globe-shaped Frank Lloyd Wright urn, a sturdy oak and leather armchair by George Washington Maher and a solid oak book cabinet with copper details by America’s Arts and Crafts granddaddy, Gustav Stickley.

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