27 NOVEMBER 1959, Page 52


Craft Ebbing

By KATHARINE WHITEHORN SOME time ago a client of the firm of Hardy's, renowned North- umberland makers of fishing equipment, sent them an old and battered fly' and asked to have it exactly replaced.

The antique in- sect was dissected, the materials originally used assembled, and a brand-new fly made. But it was sent furiously back : the new fly was nothing like the old one, was useless, would never catch fish. So the firm then stood on it, dirtied it, and generally manhandled it until it was as messy and indistinct as the prototype; and the customer professed himself entirely satisfied.

This is a story from a book called Makers of Distinction, by Thomas Girtin (Harvill, 18s.), and since, by talking about it here, I am* doing it out of a review on a more respectable page, let me say at once that it is an admirable book, exhaustively researched and entertainingly written. The story poses, as does the book, the whole question of what craftsmanship is for. To make something that is perfect of its kind? To satisfy a demanding if eccentric client? Or to make something that, whatever else you can say about it, is at once distinguishable from anything machine-made? Too often the craft boys assume it's the last of these three : Mr. Girtin's book is mainly about a time when the first two were all- important.

This is the world of Edward VII (though all the firms are still in business), a world where a gentleman waited six months for his boots to mature at Lobb's, and nearly two years for a gun to be exactly balanced to his hand and eye at Purdey's; where he would order a dozen extra Cording raincoats for his staff, and two dozen hand-made shirts at Edouard and Butler for him- self—and as like as not send them back for every laundering. His hat would be fitted to the exact bumps on his head by Lock's—which must surely be the original of P. G. Wodehouse's Bodmin 'His Majesty doesn't ask if a Bodmin hat will fit; he knows it will fit. He just ankles round to Bod- min's and says: "Bodmin, we want a topper."' In this world it was unthinkable to pa'y a tailor (or any other tradesman) until years had elapsed from the time of delivery; equally unthinkable to buy anything that had not been laboriously and exquisitely made to the gentleman's own requirements.

The craftsmen served interminable apprentice- ships, they worked long hours in cramped work- shops for grindingly little pay, they were unpen- sioned, dedicated, serene. The exact processes of the trade took years to learn : the hand- straightening of a malacca cane, the matching of skins for a glove, the proofing of a gun barrel; the coodling of a hat, the clicking of shoe-leather, the tweedling of the parts of an umbrella; the prevention of dry rot in the co,achwork of a Hooper-built Rolls-Royce.

In every description, there comes across the same sense of intense discipline. Discipline to the wishes, measurements and peculiarities of the customer: if a peer wanted his coat of arms stamped on his hunting chocolate, if Lord Rag- lan wanted some remarkable sleeves on his coat, it was done. One American gentleman ordered, and got, a pair of thigh-length white buckskin boots with brilliants on them : 'it was charitably supposed that he was going to wear them in some Mardi Gras parade'; another had his boots so eccentrically made that when he was,unidentifi- ably killed in a car crash his shoemaker (who had never actually met him) looked at his legs in the mortuary and said : 'Why, that's Mr. Car- michael! I'd know him anywhere.'

But the discipline was above all to the material: cloth must get 'body' in a damp cellar, tobacco had to be blended in a certain way; 'rubberised cloth wouldn't stretch, the pile of a silk hat had to be brushed just so. At every stage you get the feel- ing that the work was laborious because that was the only way to achieve perfection : the natural ' consequence of a gentleman being exacting with his tradesman, the master craftsman being exact- ing with his journeyman, the journeyman being exacting with his apprentice.

You might think that after reading such a book it would be a refreshing experience to

go to a couple of places where individual craft is being deliberately fostered: the Crafts Centre, now showing their Christmas display, and Heal's Craftsman's Market. But no. The more your mind is filled with the idea of precise and exquisite workmanship, the more of a let-down these places are. It is not that there are not beautiful things to h.: seen; there are (and there is a certain amount of real artist's work, like Michael O'Connell's textiles). But the prevailing style of the place is d certain calculated roughness; and over and over again if you pick out something with really pre- cise lines, you find that the precise part has been factory made—like the engraved glass which the Crafts Centre have chosen for their handout picture. The tool marks are deliberately left on wood, the vases are never quite round, the cup handles are made lumpy on purpose. If it didn't look 'hand-made' people wouldn't pay craft prices for it.

There is a snob value in a hand-made object on which Veblen said the last word long ago in his Theory, of the Leisure Class—and l would quote it, if I had ten pages to spare. His point, briefly, Was that quite often a machine-made object is more perfect than a hand-made one, and it is the ways in which the hand-made object is worse than the machine product which excite financial respect. Which seems borne out by an old- shoe- maker Thomas Girtin quotes; talking about mass- produced shoes, he says: 'Beautiful work some of them put out, too. I've had some of it in here —leather almost as good; good fitting, •good lookin' shoe. But it hasn't got that hand look.'

The only point of having a 'hand' look, it seems to me, is where handwork really is better than machine work—which it is, for example, in tailor- ing, since no two people are quite the same shape. The tailors, who thrive, realistically machine-sew a straight seam (it makes it more even) and hand- stitch a curved seam (where hand-stitching has a better 'give'). The bespoke umbrella-makers, who reject light-weight metal shafts as un- traditional, are understandably on the point of extinction.

But to some of these fringe potters and makers of incompletely beaten copper earrings, the 'hand' look seems to be the only thing that matters. They are doing exactly the opposite of what the great craftsmen have always done, from Cellini to Lock's the hatter : they emphasise the imperfec- tions which the great craftsmen were always trying to subdue; they are undisciplined, because they

have rejected the discipline of perfection. How big the difference is can be seen in another exhibition not a goblet's throw from the Crafts Centre: the Vikings exhibition shows handwork that would look altogether too machine-made for twentieth- century craft. As the old Saxon proverb has it : When is a craft not a craft? When it's a Gifte.

We need not go about in mourning for the passing of handicraft—or even for Mr. Girtin's serene old; men. Delight in the use of skill has

not died out—it simply exists where the hand- weave and basket-work boys, forever barking up

a dead- tree, would never think to look for it : among radio mechanics and precision instrument makers and even welders. And in places where hand finishing is something more than a fad, it is in no danger: the Jensen silver workers, putting hand finishing on to machine-based work; the glass-blowers, industrial carpenters, cabinet makers and so on combine machine and hand work to produce some of the loveliest objects ever made. Craft means skill; and handcraft for its own sake is as much an enemy of good crafts-

manship as bad mass-production. It would be a hard thing if human beings, having taught robots to speak like Shakespeare, could only prove their voices human by learning to stutter.