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The English Tradition

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
naivete 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 mediaevalism 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 archaeology, and the public
resolutely turns its back on what is tawdry and silly.


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