Composition of Time and Place


Eric Gill




The world is not yet clothed in garments which befit it; in architecture, furniture, clothes, we are still using and wearing things which have no real relation to the spirit which moves our life. We are wearing and using them simply because we are accustomed to them. The intellectual excitement which moves individual designers does not affect the mass of people. The majority still think Gothic architecture to be appropriate to churches, tho’ Gothic architecture is simply a method of building appropriate to stone and is not really more Christian than Hindu. We still make tables and chairs, even when we make them by machinery, with the same ornamental turnings & cornices & so forth as when furniture-making was the job o f a responsible handicraftsman. We still wear collars and ties, whether we be kings, clerks or furnace men, though there is no necessity for a collar or a tie in any of these trades. All this is merely intellectual sloth; nobody can be bothered to live according to reason; there is even a strong national feeling of distaste for any attempt to do so. Doubtless a distrust of human reason is reasonable, but few adventures are more honourable than an attempt to live by it.

Now the chief and, though we betray our personal predilection by saying so, the most monstrous characteristic of our time is that the methods of manufacture which we employ and of which we are proud are such as make it impossible for the ordinary workman to be an artist, that is to say a responsible workman, a man responsible not merely for doing what he is told but responsible also for the intellectual quality of what his deeds effect. That the ordinary workman should or could be an artist, could be a man whom we could trust with any sort of responsibility for the work he does, or proud of anything but that kind of craftsmanship which means skill and attention as a machine operator (and that responsibility is a purely moral one) is an idea now widely held to be ridiculous; and the widespreadness of this opinion proves my point as well as I could wish. When I say no ordinary workman is an artist, no one will say I am lying; on the contrary, everyone will say; Of course not.

Such is the state of affairs, and its consequences should be obvious. That they are not is the cause of the muddle in which manufacture is at present to be found. For in a world in which all workmen but a few survivals from pre-industrial times, a number so small as to be now quite negligible, are as irresponsible as hammers and chisels & tools of transport, it should be obvious that certain kinds of work which w ere the products proper to men for whom work was the natural expression of their intellectual convictions, needs & sympathies, as it was of those who bought it, are no longer either natural or desirable. If you are going to employ men to build a wall, and if those men are to be treated simply as tools, it is imbecility to make such a design for your wall as depends upon your having masons who are artists. The 19th century architects’ practice of designing ornamental walls and drawing out full size on paper every detail of ornament is now at last seen to be ridiculous even by architects; it is now understood that ornament is a kind of exuberance and that you cannot be exuberant by proxy; nineteenth century attempts at so being are desolate, and a world which desires pleasure more than anything else finds itself surrounded by things that please no one but fools.

It is now clearly understood that modern building must not rely upon ornament, it must rely simply upon grandeur, that is integrity and size. There are things which can be measured; with these alone can the modern architect, employing the modern workman, concern himself. Of beauty there need be no lack, for the beautiful is that which pleases being seen, and those things are pleasing when seen which are as nearly perfect as m ay be in their adaptation to function. Such is the beauty of bones, of beetles, of well-built railway arches, of factory chimneys (when they have the sense to leave out the ornamental frills at the top), of the new concrete bridge across the Rhine at Cologne, of plain brick walls.

There is nothing specifically human about such things or in such beauty. They are not redolent of man's delight in himself or of his love of God. But that is neither here nor there. We have elected to order manufacture upon inhuman lines; why should we ask for humanity in the product? Whether the present system will or can endure is simply irrelevant to this essay. The manifold injustices and miseries which seem to be its accompaniment may or may not be inevitable, & in any case are not here our concern; the conditions under which things are made, the material conditions, the technical conditions, are alone relevant. We are simply concerned to discover what kind of things can be made under a system of manufacture which, whatever its ethical sanction or lack of sanction, is certainly the system we have, the system of which we are proud and the system few desire to alter.

It is necessary to say a few more words about the word ‘artist’. We affirm that the word Art means skill, that a work of art is a work of skill, and an artist one who is skilful at making things. It would appear therefore that all things made are works of art, for skill is required in the making of anything. And in spite of industrialism this remains true. But, as we have said, the ordinary workman has been reduced to the level of a mere tool used by someone else. However much skill he may have in his fingers and conscientiousness in his mind, he can no longer be regarded as an artist, because his skill is not that of a man making things; he is simply a tool used by a designer and the designer is alone the artist.

Another thing that must be made clear is that we are not at all oblivious of the real distinction between what the ordinary person nowadays calls art, and the other things. Picture-painting, sculpture, music, are indeed art par excellence, but that they alone are now called art is not because they alone are or can be art, but because they alone to-day are the work of men not only skilful, and not tools in the hands of another, but workmen responsible for the things they make.

Even those higher flights of human skill, about which the critics make so much trouble, those paintings, sculptures, & compositions of music in which human emotion seems to play so large a part that it seems as though emotion were the substance of such works, even these are things demanding skill in their making, and we prefer to call them ‘Fine Art’ to distinguish them, rather than to deny the name of Art to things whose primary purpose is to supply merely physical conveniences.

The ordinary workman, then, is not an artist; he is a tool in the hands of another. He is a morally sensitive tool, but now, in spite of the continued survival of the old fashioned workman (tho’ such survivals are necessarily becoming rarer in the ranks of ordinary workmen), he is not intellectually sensitive. It is clear, therefore, that no demand must be made upon him which calls for anything but good will. As in architecture it is now recognised that even plain masonry must be left from the saw — a chiselled surface has no longer any value — so in all other works & especially in those of factory production, wherein labour is subdivided as much as possible & the product standardised, everything in the nature of ornament must be omitted and nothing must be put in which is not strictly a logical necessity. Houses, clothes, furniture and all appliances and convenient gadgets must be so made; and this is not because we hate ornament & the ornamental, but because we can no longer procure such things; we have not got a system of manufacture which naturally produces them, and, most important of all, if we insist on the ornamental we are not making the best of our system of manufacture, we are not getting the things which that system makes best.

The process by which a railway locomotive has become the beautiful thing it now is, by which the less ostentatious motor-cars have become objects of delight to those who see them, by which plain spoons and forks achieve that quality of neatness which gives nearly as much satisfaction as the best Queen Anne silver, this process must be welcomed in all other departments of manufacture. And if the human race is really convinced that it cannot forgo ornament and the ornamental it must, for the making of such things, have recourse to those workmen who remain outside the industrial system, painters, sculptors and poets of all kinds, in whatever material they work, whether words or wool, & be prepared to pay highly; for such things cannot be cheap when artists and poets are not ordinary workmen but highly intellectual and self-conscious people. And ornamental typography is to be avoided no less than ornamental architecture in an industrial civilisation.

Let us take it for granted, then, that the ordinary workman is no longer an artist; and further that no operation is to be regarded as one for which the workman is intellectually responsible; such intelligence as he has is to be directed solely to the welldoing of what he is told to do. We may leave it to the directors of industry to see to it that labour be properly subdivided & rationalised in accordance with the dictates of economy; we may leave it to politicians & moralists to see to it that the physical conditions of the workers are hygienic & morally justifiable. We, neither directors of labour nor politicians, are solely concerned with the kind of the things made. It is no longer permissible to design things with no reference but to our own pleasure, leaving it to engineers to design machines capable of making them; our business is now to design things which are suitable for machines to make. And this is not to say that we accept the limitations of machines as they are to-day, but that we accept the limitations of machinery as such. Moreover, and this is even more important, we are not saying that the machine is the arbiter in design: the mind is always that. The shape of A cannot be changed at the bidding of any machine that is or could be made. But, taking the shape o f A to be that which the judgement of the mind lays down, we have to conform it to the nature of the machine, and not attempt to impose upon mechanical production either those ornamental exuberances which are natural and proper enough to human beings working with their hands or those peculiarities of detail which are proper to the pen, the chisel, and the graver.

But while it is clear that the determining principle of an industrial world (what the theologians call its soul) is such as we have described — the perfection of mechanical manufacture, the obliteration of all intellectual responsibility in the workman, the relegation of all humane interests to nonworking hours & the consequent effort to reduce working hours to a minimum — it is equally clear that the outward appearance of our world shows at present very little of the principle which inspires it. The merest glance at the Fleet Street of 1931 shows how little we have yet put on the garb of an industrialism shorn of pre-industrial enthusiasms. We can still endure, tho’ with an increasing sense of their ridiculousness, the imitation gothic Law Courts, the quasi-classical West End branch of the Bank of England and all the gimcrack stucco buildings of the nineteenth century. Even the new building of the newspaper called The Daily Telegraph, for all its air of modernity, is only an architectural essay in stone stuck on the front of an iron framework; and the sculptures & ornaments which adorn it show how far we are yet from a complete expression of our belief in mechanical perfection and its functional beauty. It is certain, moreover, that we shall never achieve a complete expression, - for, quite apart from our notorious readiness to compromise, the essential inhumanity of industrial methods acts as a tonic to the forces which oppose it. However nearly complete the victory of mechanised industry may be, it can never obliterate the fact of human responsibility, & there will always be many who will choose to be masters of their own work & in their own workshops rather than masters of other men working under sub-human conditions, that is to say conditions which deny them intellectual responsibility.

There are, then, two worlds & these twain can never be one flesh. They are not complementary to one another; they are, in the liveliest sense of the words, mortal enemies. On the one hand is the world of mechanised industry claiming to be able to give happiness to men and all the delights of human life — provided we are content to have them in our spare time and do not demand such things in the work by which we earn our livings; a world regulated by the factory whistle and the mechanical time-keeper; a world wherein no man makes the whole of anything, wherein the product is standardised and the man simply a tool, a tooth on a wheel. On the other is the languishing but indestructible world of the small shopkeeper, the small workshop, the studio and the consulting room — a world in which the notion of spare time hardly exists, for the thing is hardly know n and very little desired; a world wherein the work is the life & love accompanies it.



This is an extract from the first chapter of An Essay on Typography, originally published by Sheed and Ward, London, 1931.




THE IDEAL BOOK by William Morris