Harry Peach was a man of vision, conviction and action.
Harry Hardy Peach was born in Toronto, Canada in 1874. His family settled in Oadby, Leicester when he was three years old. His father, who came from a Nottinghamshire drapery family, decided to return to his Midlands roots. Peach went to Wyggeston Boys Grammar School and then to Oakham Public School in Rutland. After a brief period working as an estate agent with his father he set up as a bookseller at 37 Belvoir Street, Leicester specialising in manuscripts and early printed books. His love of literature and appreciation of good quality printing lasted throughout his life. He also realised that good quality printing was an effective tool both for his business and other interests.
He and his first wife, Marina – known as May, were involved in politics and social reform. They were members of the Independent Labour Party; May Peach was a committed suffragette and campaigner for improved health care for working class women. Peach was involved in organising an exhibition on the sweated trades during Ramsey McDonald’s 1906 election campaign in Leicester. This imaginatively presented exhibition, which illustrated the grim conditions of work through actual demonstrations as well as photographs and factual information, was Peach’s first experience of the impact of the medium. May Peach died in 1913; Peach, who had five children, remarried in 1915 to Mabel Walton.
Benjamin Fletcher, head of Leicester School of Art from 1900, became a close friend. He introduced Peach to the writings of William Morris and William Lethaby which brought home to him the links between politics and design reform. When Peach was forced to give up bookselling in 1906 because of his deteriorating eyesight, it was Fletcher who worked with him to establish the first Dryad enterprise – cane furniture. This was followed in 1912 by Dryad Metal Works and in 1918 by Dryad Handicrafts. During the First World War Peach had become involved in the Design and Industries Association, known as the DIA, in its attempt to raise the standard of design of everyday goods. He also extended his approach to design reform by campaigning on environmental issues. As always his focus was Leicester and the surrounding countryside but the impact of the work was much wider.
According to his biographer, Pat Kirkham:
'Harry Peach was all for progress: what he was against was the wanton destruction of what he regarded as the cultural heritage of the British people.'
He wanted to get things done, to make the world a better place, initially through politics and then through design reform. He was a businessman and an activist who involved himself in numerous local and national issues including politics, design, education and the environment. He came to appreciate how these different strands were interconnected and how small successes could generate larger-scale improvements for society.
Peach and the Arts & Crafts Movement
Peach first became interested in the Arts & Crafts Movement from about 1901. He was inspired by the writings of Lethaby and the two men became close friends when they finally met in 1914. His early enthusiasm for German design – he had spent a summer in Freiberg as a boy and spoke the language – was soon shared by others. An exhibition of German Decorative Art at Munich in 1908 was a critical success. Many British commentators felt that Germany had adapted the ideas of the English Arts & Crafts Movement for mass production to ensure their commercial success.
Peach and Fletcher organised exhibitions of German printing and Viennese leatherwork in Leicester in 1914. The following year they were also involved in setting up the Design and Industries Association (DIA) together with Lethaby, the designers, Ambrose Heal and Harold Stabler, and the architect Cecil Brewer. The DIA put together a display of mass-produced objects at the 1916 Arts and Crafts Exhibition. It included stoneware jars by Crosse and Blackwell, Wedgwood pottery, and colourful machine-printed cottons produced by the Bolton firm of Charles Sixsmith for export to West Africa. Their aim was, ‘to improve the quality and fitness of goods on sale to the general public’. Early DIA pamphlets were printed in Leicester by the firm of Charles Stevens under the Peach’s direction. He and Fletcher were the driving forces behind an influential DIA exhibition, ‘Design and Workmanship in Printing’ held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1915. They used examples of Leicester work including a ‘before and after’ case study of printing for Stead and Simpson. The firm, which was owned by Peach’s friend, Percy Gee, worked with art students to adopt a system of well-lettered window tickets, a standardized design for shoe boxes, and improved shop windows and interiors. Improving one shop front was realistic and achievable but Peach hoped that each small improvement would inspire another one.
Environmental campaigns in Leicester
The work of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Movement highlighted a number of environmental issues connected with the visual degeneration of towns and countryside. Morris supported pressure groups such as the Commons Preservation Society founded in 1865 and the Kyrle Society founded ten years later.
A Leicester branch of the Kyrle Society was set up in 1880 to improve the urban environment including the planting of public gardens and trees. Many of Peach’s friends were involved including Sydney Gimson, president of the Kyrle from 1913 to ‘15, Benjamin Fletcher, and William Pick. Peach became a fervent campaigner on environmental issues, taking up the issue of ‘town tidying’ and promoting Leicester, with its reputation for good lettering and printing, as a model for what could be achieved. He worked with existing societies such as the Leicestershire Footpaths Association, the Literary and Philosophical Society and the Rotary Club as well as the Kyrle and used his numerous and influential contacts to raise awareness. In 1924 the work of Peach and his associates in Leicester was applauded in an article in The Spectator:
‘Fine, intelligently designed shops and factories are being built, the smoke evil has been checked, the city’s historical or beautiful ancient buildings are being acquired by the public, and a real standard of taste is being set up in all sorts of arts and crafts.’
The inhabitants were also credited with ‘a really extraordinary thirst for good education and good lettering’.
Peach encouraged the DIA to become involved in environmental issues. In 1928 they were one of numerous organisations and pressure groups that Peach brought together for a conference in Leicester. This conference was the inspiration for the nationwide ‘Save the Countryside’ exhibition and campaign which concentrated on the disfigurement of the landscape by litter and thoughtless advertising. Peach persuaded a number of major firms including Shell to limit their advertising and ran a successful campaign to persuade the Leicester trams to install litter boxes for tickets. He inspired a variety of organisations including the Women’s Institute, the Ramblers Association and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England to back his campaign and, by looking for realistic projects, made people believe that his ideas were achievable.
During the First World War, the Dryad Works provided a Leicester hospital with off-cuts of cane for basket-making by wounded soldiers. There was a growing demand for cane and other craft materials for use in occupational therapy and in schools. Peach set up another offshoot of his business, Dryad Handicrafts, to supply this demand. He was convinced of the importance of craftwork in education but only if standards were high.
He wanted to encourage the teaching of handicrafts in schools and elsewhere and to try and raise standards of amateur work by selling good quality materials and tools selected by professional makers. Under Peach’s direction, Dryad Handicrafts developed a network of resources including a range of well-designed and informative leaflets written by practising makers and teachers.
The firm also produced pattern sheets, information folders, cards and charts available through mail order catalogues. Demonstrations and summer schools were held at Dryad and some staff also ran classes for Women’s Institutes, schools and colleges throughout the country. Dryad Handicrafts’ showroom was at 42 St Nicholas Street Leicester. Crafts from all over the world including Czech glass, colourful kitchenware from Germany and Poole Pottery were on sale. Some items were displayed on dressers and sideboards designed by Ernest Gimson. A second showroom in London was opened in 1928. By 1936, when Peach died, Dryad Handicrafts was the largest supplier of handicrafts in the world.
The Dryad Collection
With the advance of industrialisation and urban living building and craft traditions were changing and disappearing throughout Britain. Traditional techniques and the use of local materials were central to the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement so architects and designers were particularly keen to record country crafts. As an architectural student Gimson watched traditional craftsmen at work. In Devon, for example, he spoke to a thatcher, drew his tools and noted the techniques of the craft. He also bought examples of traditional country pottery, leatherwork and turned chairs to use in his home. The garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll, also recorded the homes and possessions of country people. Old West Surrey, the first of two volumes of these records illustrated with her photographs, was published in 1904.
In Haslemere, Surrey, two couples, Joseph and Maude King and Maude's sister, Ethel, and her husband, Geoffrey Blount, set up the Haslemere Peasant Art Society in 1897. This group of craft workshops and weaving houses which became known as Halsemere Peasant Industries was their attempt to use traditional crafts to combat the growing materialism of society. They built up a collection of European craft items to provide inspiration working with the Rev. Gerald Stanley Davies, master of Charterhouse School, Godalming. It began very much as a collection of curiosities but also a way of preserving the material products of a simpler life. Their interest was reflected in a series of special features on peasant art produced by The Studio magazine in 1901. The same enthusiasm was reflected museums and exhibitions throughout Europe with traditional craft objects and room settings in the Paris expositions of 1867, 1878, 1889 and 1900 and the establishment of ethnographic museums and open air museums. Peasant-inspired embroidery patterns and fancy dress were popular from the 1880s. It even had an impact on couture fashion through the work of designers such as the Frenchman, Paul Poiret.
Harry Peach began collecting examples of cane work in about 1907 shortly after Dryad was set up, picking up baskets and other pieces in Britain and abroad. He wanted to provide examples of good quality craftwork to act as inspiration and to set standards for makers, teachers and students. It was an educational resource; every item in the collection was chosen to illustrate some detail of construction, use of materials or decoration. He and his circle of friends and associates collected craftwork from all over the world. One of his contacts was Joseph King; they bought items for each others' collections. Another contact, Dr Charles Hose, was a leading authority on Borneo who brought back items for the Dryad collection. Peach also bought items from missionary exhibitions and other shows. The collection expanded tremendously in the 1920s mirroring the growth of Dryad Handicrafts. Peach travelled abroad regularly and began adding weaves and braids to the collection. His interests were mirrored by a growing network of experts, new journals and folk museums as more scholarly approach to ethnographic studies developed in the 1920s.
Alongside the craft and ethnographic pieces were examples of good quality contemporary design. These included printed fabric lengths designed by Josef Hoffman for the Wiener Werkstatte, studio pottery by Bernard Leach and Charles Vyse, Poole Pottery, and small items of woodwork including pieces by Eric Sharpe and Gordon Russell Ltd. The collection also includes good examples of work by students from Mansfield Elementary School , Leicester School of Art, and Birmingham School of Art among others.
Items were displayed in the Dryad showrooms as they were acquired for the collection. The rarest and most valuable items were kept for exhibition only, others went into the loan collection.
The Handicrafts collection continued to be used by Dryad until 1969 when it was presented to the Schools Service of Leicester Museum.
You can see some of Dryad Collection held by Leicester Arts and Museums Service in our Virtual Museum.