The English Tradition of Woodworking

THE sense of a consecutive tradition has so completely faded out of English art that it has become difficult to realise the meaning of tradition, or the possibility of its ever again reviving; and this state of things is not improved by the fact that it is due to uncertainty of purpose, and not to any burning fever of individualism. Tradition in art is a matter of environment, of intellectual atmosphere. As the result of many generations of work along one continuous line, there has accumulated a certain amount of ability in design and manual dexterity, certain ideas are in the air, certain ways of doing things come to be recognised as the right ways. To all this endowment an artist born in any of the living ages of art succeeded as a matter of course, and it is the absence of this inherited knowledge that places the modern craftsman under exceptional disabilities.

There is evidence to prove the existence in England of hereditary crafts in which the son succeeded the father for generations, and to show that the guilds were rather the guardians of high traditional skill than mere trades unions; but there is surer proof of a common thread of tradition in certain qualities all along the line, which gave to English work a character peculiar to itself. Instances of genuine Gothic furniture are rare; in England at any rate it was usually simple and solid, sufficient to answer the needs of an age without any highly developed sense of the luxuries of life. It is not till the Renaissance that much material can be found for a history of English furniture. Much of the motif of this work came from Italy and the Netherlands; indeed cabinet work was imported largely from the latter country. It was just here, however, that tradition stepped in, and gave to our sixteenth and seventeenth century furniture a distinctly national character. The delicate mouldings, the skilful turnings, the quiet inlays of ebony, ivory, cherry wood, and walnut, above all the breadth and sobriety of its design, point to a tradition of craftsmanship strong enough to assimilate all the ideas which it borrowed from other ages and other countries. Contrast, for instance, a piece of Tottenham Court Road marquetry with the mother-of-pearl and ebony inlay on an English cabinet at south Kensington. So far as mere skill in cutting goes there may be no great difference between the two, but the latter is charming, and the former tedious in the last degree; and the reason is that in the seventeenth century the craftsman loved his work, and was master of it. He started with an idea in his head, and used his material with meaning, and so his inlay is as fanciful as the seaweed, and yet entirely subordinated to the harmony of the whole design. Perhaps some of the best furniture work ever done in England was done between 1600 and 1660. I refer, of course, to the good examples, to work which depended for its effect on refined design and delicate detail, not to the bulbous legs and coarse carving of ordinary Elizabethan, though even this had a naïveté and spontaneity entirely lacking in modern reproductions.

After the Restoration, signs of French influence appear in English furniture, but the tradition of structural fitness and dignity of design was preserved through the great architectural age of Wren and Gibbs, and lasted till the latter half of the eighteenth century. If that century was not particularly inspired, it at least understood consummate workmanship. The average of technical skill in the handicrafts was far in advance of the ordinary trade work of the present day. Some curious evidences of the activity prevailing in what are called the minor arts may be found in The Laboratory and School of Arts, a small octavo volume published in 1738. The work of this period furnishes a standing instance of the value of tradition. By the beginning of the eighteenth century a school of carvers had grown up in England who could carve, with absolute precision and without mechanical aids, all such ornament as egg and tongue work, or the acanthus, and other conventional foliage used for the decoration of the mouldings of doors, mantelpieces, and the like. Grinling Gibbons is usually named as the founder of this school, but Gibbons was himself trained by such men as Wren and Gibbs, and for the source from which this work derives the real stamp of style one must go back to the austere genius of Inigo Jones. The importance of the architect, in influencing craftsmen in all such matters as this, cannot be overrated. He has, or ought to have, sufficient knowledge of the crafts to settle for the craftsman the all-important points of scale and proportion to the rest of the design; and this is just one of those points in which contemporary architecture, both as regards the education of the architect and current practice, is exceedingly apt to fail. Sir William Chambers and the brothers Adam were the last of the architects before the cataclysm of the nineteenth century who made designs for furniture with any degree of skill.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century occur the familiar names of Chippendale, Heppelwhite, and Sheraton, and if these excellent cabinetmakers did a tenth of the work with which the dealers credit them, they must each have had the hundred hands of Gyas. The rosewood furniture inlaid with arabesques in thin flat brass, and made by Gillow at the end of the last century, is perhaps the last genuine effort in English furniture, though the tradition of good work and simple design died very hard in old-fashioned country places. The mischief began with the ridiculous mediævalism of Horace Walpole, which substituted amateur fancy for craftsmanship, and led in the following century to the complete extinction of any tradition whatever. The heavy attempts at furniture in the Greek style which accompanied the architecture of Wilkins and Soane were as artificial as this literary Gothic, and the two resulted in the chaos of art which found its expression in the great Exhibition of 1851.

Three great qualities stamped the English tradition in furniture so long as it was a living force—steadfastness of purpose, reserve in design, and thorough workmanship. Take any good period of English furniture, and one finds certain well-recognised types consistently adhered to throughout the country. There is no difficulty in grasping their general characteristics, whereas the very genius of classification could furnish no clue to the labyrinth of nineteenth-century design. The men of these earlier times made no laborious search for quaintness, no disordered attempt to combine the peculiarities of a dozen different ages. One general type was adhered to because it was the legacy of generations, and there was no reason for departing from such an excellent model. The designers and the workmen had only to perfect what was already good; they made no experiments in ornament, but used it with nice judgment, and full knowledge of its effect. The result was that, instead of being forced and unreasonable, their work was thoroughly happy; one cannot think of it as better done than it is.

The quality of reserve and sobriety is even more important. As compared with the later developments of the Renaissance on the Continent, English furniture was always distinguished by its simplicity and self-restraint. Yet it is this very quality which is most conspicuously absent from modern work. As a people we rather pride ourselves on the resolute suppression of any florid display of feeling, but art in this country is so completely divorced from everyday existence, that it never seems to occur to an Englishman to import some of this fine insular quality into his daily surroundings.

It has been reserved for this generation to part company with the tradition of finished workmanship. Good work of course can be done, but it is exceedingly difficult to find the workman, and the average is bad. We have nothing to take the place of the admirable craftsmanship of the last century, which included not only great manual skill, but also an assured knowledge of the purpose of any given piece of furniture, of the form best suited for it, and the exact strength of material necessary, a knowledge which came of long familiarity with the difficulties of design and execution, which never hesitated in its technique, which attained a rightness of method so complete as to seem inevitable. Craftsmanship of this order hardly exists nowadays. It is the result of tradition, of the labour of many generations of cunning workmen.

Lastly, as the complement of these lapses on the part of the craftsman, there has been a gradual decadence in the taste of the public. Science and mechanical ingenuity have gone far to destroy the art of the handicrafts. Art is a matter of the imagination, and of the skill of one’s hands—but the pace nowadays is too much for it. Certainly from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century a well-educated English gentleman had some knowledge of the arts, and especially of architecture; the Earl of Burlington even designed important buildings, though not with remarkable success; but at any rate educated people had some insight into the arts, whether inherited or acquired. Nowadays good education and breeding are no guarantee for anything of the sort, unless it is some miscellaneous knowledge of pictures. Few people, outside the artists, and not too many of them, give any serious attention to architecture and sculpture, and consequently an art such as furniture, which is based almost entirely upon these, is hardly recognised by the public as an art at all. How much the artist and his public react upon each other is shown by the plain fact that up to the last few years they have steadily marched down hill together, and it is not very certain that they have yet begun to turn the corner. That our English tradition was once a living thing is shown by the beautiful furniture, purely English in design and execution, still to be seen in great houses and museums, but it is not likely that such a tradition will spring up again till the artists try to make the unity of the arts a real thing, and the craftsman grows callous to fashion and archæology, and the public resolutely turns its back on what is tawdry and silly.

Reginald Blomfield.

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