Art and Workmanship


W. R. Lethaby



We have been in the habit of writing so lyrically of art and of the temperament of the artist that the average man who lives in the street, sometimes a very mean street, is likely to think of it as remote and luxurious, not "for the likes of him." There is the danger in habitual excess of language that the plain man is likely to be frightened by it. It may be feared that much current exposition of the place and purpose of art only widens the gap between it and common lives.

A proper function of criticism should be to foster our national arts and not to frighten timid people off with high-pitched definitions and far-fetched metaphors mixed with a flood of (as Morris said) "sham technical twaddle." It is a pity to make a mystery of what should most easily be understood. There is nothing occult about the thought that all things may be made well or made ill. A work of art is a well-made thing, that is all. It may be a well-made statue or a well-made chair, or a well-made book. Art is not a special sauce applied to ordinary cooking; it is the cooking itself if it is good. Most simply and generally art may be thought of as THE WELL-DOING OF WHAT NEEDS DOING. If the thing is not worth doing it can hardly be a work of art, however well it may be done. A thing worth doing which is ill done is hardly a thing at all.

Fortunately, people are artists who know it not—bootmakers (the few left), gardeners and basketmakers, and all players of games. We do not allow shoddy in cricket or football, but reserve it for serious things like houses and books, furniture and funerals.

If it is necessary that everything must be translated into words, our art critics might occupy quite a useful place if they would be good enough to realise that behind the picture shows of the moment is the vast and important art of the country, the arts of the builder, furniture maker, printer and the rest, which are matters of national well-being.

It is doubtful if we have it in us to form a leading school of painting at the present time; indeed, we seem to be occupied in trying to catch up with Europe at the wrong moment. It cannot be doubted, however, that we might lead in the domestic arts. And this is shown by the great interest which foreign observers take in the English arts and crafts movement. The Germans, indeed, who know the history of this development in England better than we do ourselves, realising its importance from an economic point of view, have gone so far as to constitute a special branch of political economy which shall deal with the subject. One university, I believe, has established a professor's chair in the economics of arts and crafts. English study of fine lettering has in Germany been put into types which English printers are hastening to buy.

During the last thirty years many English designers have set themselves to learn the crafts as artists; that is, so that they may have complete mastery of both design and workmanship. I may remark here that a characteristic of a work of art is that the design inter-penetrates workmanship as in a painting, so that one may hardly know where one ends and the other begins. The master-workman, further, must have complete control from first to last to shape and finish as he will. We have now many highly trained men among us who might make books as notable as those of the finest presses if there were a steady demand for fine modern work. If I were asked for some simple test by which we might hope to know a work of art when we saw one I should suggest something like this: EVERY WORK OF ART SHOWS THAT IT WAS MADE BY A HUMAN BEING FOR A HUMAN BEING. Art is the humanity put into workmanship, the rest is slavery. The difference between a man-made work and a commercially-made work is like the difference between a gem and paste. We may not be able to tell the difference at first, but, when we find out, the intrinsic worth of the one is self-evident. Still it is highly important that commercial work shall be properly done after its own kind.

Although a machine-made thing can never be a work of art in the proper sense, there is no reason why it should not be good in a secondary order—shapely, smooth, strong, well-fitting, useful; in fact, like a machine itself. Machine-work should show quite frankly that it is the child of the machine; it is the pretence and subterfuge of most machine-made things which make them disgusting.

In the reaction from the dull monotony of early Victorian days it must be admitted that many workers fell into the affectation of over-designing their things. Rightly understood, "design" is not an agony of contortion but an effort to arrive at what will be obviously fit and true. The best design is one which, cost apart, should become a commonplace. A fine piece of furniture or a fine book-binding should be shaped as inevitably as a fiddle.

Usually the best method of designing has been to improve on an existing model by bettering it a point at a time; a perfect table or chair or book has to be very well bred.

Another phase of the reaction from the modern type has been an excessive regard for old things, so that original workers have not had a fair chance of maintaining the full traditions of their arts. The social results of "collecting old furniture," for instance, of course were not foreseen, but they certainly inflicted great injury on an essentially noble craft. At the present moment people who would like to do things in the best way would be well advised to have what they require made by capable men in modern forms. Now that we know all about it there is something pawnshoppy about gatherings from auctions, and the highly misdirected skill of the imitator has often made it next to impossible for even the expert to tell the difference between an original work and a copy.

Of course the scarcity, value and historical interest of old pictures, and books printed by Caxton, made it inevitable that they should be sought for and bought at great prices, but undoubtedly such collecting of antiques has had a most injurious effect on all kinds of modern production.

Of many problems this one of bringing back art to workmanship is not the least serious, or the most hopeful. It is a tremendous thing that whereas a century or so ago the great mass of the people exercised arts, such as boot-making, book-binding, chair-making, smithing, and the rest, now a great wedge has been driven in between the craftsman of every kind and his customers by the method of large production by machinery. "We cannot go back"—true; and it is as true that we cannot stay where we are.

Once more let me try to make it clear that by art, instructed thinkers don't only mean pictures or quaint and curious things, or necessarily costly ones, certainly not luxurious ones. They mean worthy and complete workmanship by competent workmen. 




First printed in Number I of "The Imprint," Jan. 1913. 




THE IDEAL BOOK by William Morris
THE VALUE OF PRECEDENT by Charles Harrison Townsend