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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