November 18, 2013 § 3 Comments

When I left my part-time job as art technician in July, I was given some book vouchers for a local bookshop as a leaving present. For a long time I had been wanting to buy Tanya Harrod’s The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century and felt this was the perfect opportunity to acquire it. And it’s been a very interesting read so far – I am up to the 1950s/60s – and frustrating at the same time.


Hanging over the book is a dead weight that exerts its pressure in a downward movement, keeping ‘craft’ very much in its place. And that is how I feel all the time I am reading the book – craft as second best, craft being marginalised, craft completely absent. As I read, the questions I keep asking myself are: was this right? Is this right? Could it be/have been different? What is the place for craft today?

Glenn Adamson, in his book The Invention of Craft, says that craft was invented at the time of the industrial revolution as a counter-point to industry. Tanya Harrod makes this point, too. Craft was left behind by design for industry and mass production. At the turn of the twentieth century, crafts people scorned those makers that made the move towards the machine made, like Gordon Russell.

Gordon Russell furniture

Cabinet by Gordon Russell

But the machine was taking off and craft was nowhere to be seen. It just doesn’t seem to have been taken seriously. How did anyone making a living at it? In the 40s and 50s, it appears to have been predominantly the preserve of middle-class people with means – Bernard Leach, who had no business sense; Katherine Pleydell Bouverie, who had no need to sell anything and didn’t try very hard; neither, apparently, did Norah Braden, who virtually stopped making after the war.

Katherine Pleydell Bouverie

Bowl by Katherine Pleydell Bouverie

So, as the counter-point to mass produced wares, does that leave craft in a position of catering to those who have more money than they know what to do with? Mass produced for the masses, handmade for the rich and well-to-do? And if the answer is ‘yes’ – I don’t know that it is – would that be OK? William Morris wanted beautiful, well-crafted objects in everyone’s homes but it turned out that you need a certain income to be able to afford that quality. This has been one of the major criticisms of him.

I’m interested to see where the rest of the book goes. Currently, I’m reading about 1960s counter culture of which craft was a significant part. People/makers attempted to make a living outside of the system making jewellery, tie-dyed clothes, ‘lumpy pottery’ (apparently). It didn’t matter what you made or how you made it – ‘…crankiest, wobbliest pots, the lumpiest cloth and the dottiest pictures are all effective in…that they register protest‘ (Patrick Heron). I wonder whether this is where the populist idea of craft came from. Harrod says, ‘…this kind of ‘craft’ sounds like the ideal stock for lower quality ‘craft shops’ which began to spring up…’

Where does craft go in the 80s and 90s, when capitalism was at its height?

§ 3 Responses to 18.11.13

  • Janet Paske says:

    Really enjoying your precis of these books. What DOES happen next? I shall have to come back to see.

  • I do find it interesting that even though the country is in recession at the moment, craft has made such a resurgence. Maybe it’s the “make do and mend” mentality or could people really be starting to appreciate the craftsman over the mass produced?
    What really annoys me at the moment are the number of mass produced ceramics that are “pretending” to be handmade!
    Thanks for giving me food for thought as always.

  • Jonathan says:

    No Logo by Naomi Klein talks about a resurgence of frustration in the 90’s with corporate factory-made products and consumerism.

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