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The Artist

It was no more than a garret. Pitched windows cast mute sunlight. Seasons of grime danced with dust. Marooned by forsaken canvases the artist posed at his easel, far too engrossed to acknowledge visitors. Ardent fingers stroked muddy gouache into a sullen landscape. It was his agent’s suggestion they should throw open the studio so patently the little man should take full responsibility for clients.

Pierre, clad in simpering Sunday best, was steering an elegant woman through the shambles, taking particular care her generous skirts didn’t engage with discarded canvases. The silly man never did recognise when a painting was finished and dry.

‘My mother thought herself something of an artist.’ The client had an elegant voice, symptomatic of her class. ‘An unfortunate obsession.’

Pierre was nodding respectfully. ‘Artists! Such passion?’ And keen to illustrate the virtues of his young protégée poised in front of a glowering masterpiece.

The woman’s flamboyant millinery concealed the look on her face but studying the picture closely she enquired. ‘What is the subject?’

‘Notre Dame. It is early morning; mist is rising from the river.’ Pierre had become well-versed in avant-garde techniques.

‘I see nothing but fog.’ Grey dust swirled as their client marched towards the next canvas.

The artist didn’t stir from his easel, being posed in the far corner. Closing his empty eyes he tossed fronds of tousled dark hair from his fore-head, and brooded. Discarded underfoot, like flotsam on a beach, were the charcoal sketches of blurred memories never destined to become art.

‘And what is the theme of this study?’ The relentless woman had manoeuvred behind the artist in progress.

‘The church of Sacre Coeur at dawn…’ Pierre began confidently.

But the lady interrupted. ‘And has the artist ever availed himself of taking the air at dawn?’

‘The artist prides himself on beginning every study en plein air.’ Vigilant in his praise.

‘Yet another study of Paris in fog?’ She waved a gloved hand dismissively.

The artist applied paint with such passion his easel screamed across the floor. He wouldn’t look up, wouldn’t give the client that pleasure.

After an agonizing pause she continued. ‘I find Paris too indulgent of artists with a fascination for fog.’ The pitch of her voice rose to an unremitting crescendo. ‘They must persist in starving until they comprehend how these bland creations fail to inspire.’

Pierre looked forlornly towards his artist. Spine rigid, head otherwise engaged, he laid down his brush and took up a knife.

Derwentwater winter

Good manners being integral to business Pierre remained impeccably polite. He escorted their client downstairs and out into the street. Only then, concerned for his artist, did he run briskly back up to the garret, more than slightly out of breath.

‘Madam was over-critical, please don’t be dispirited.’

Laying down his knife the young man stepped back from the easel, wiping his paint-swabbed hands on a rag while considering his latest creation.

Pierre shook his head sympathetically. ‘Of course we are bound to attract the curious, those whose interest is not entirely aesthetic.’

‘Oh she never intended making a purchase.’ The artist’s attention remained set on peeling paint from each awkward finger.

A sudden perception engrossed the agent. ‘You’ve met the lady before?’

And turning from his ruined masterpiece the artist brandished a smile. ‘That lady was my mother.’

February 2012

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Love Affairs – Part One

While researching in some old magazines recently I discovered an article called ‘Love Affairs’ which was published in the Goldsmiths Review of 1989, a magazine produced by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and distributed to members.

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The writer, Geoffrey Wilson OBE, was then chief inspector of schools for Kirklees LEA. He wrote the article because ‘the educational prescriptions of the National Curriculum into which the child now has to fit leaves little room to have those deep love affairs which were of significance to all of us in the past.’ His prime concern being, ‘it does not even pay lip service to those deeper and more profound values associated with the spiritual and emotional growth of children which were of paramount importance to those……concerned with the teaching of craft and design in the sixties and seventies.

Wilson continues, ‘some of us remember revelling in the aesthetics of skill; the child with his eyes closed stroking his cheek with a piece of finished wood; or marvelling as he raised a piece of silver or used a graver or spokeshave.’

Wilson had hoped the National Curriculum would be a chance to redress the imbalance of a system which had only contempt for technical subjects. Instead five dissimilar components were amalgamated: Technology; Craft, Design and Technology/ Home Economics/ Information Technology/ Art/ Business Studies. Wilson said if there was one thing he believed after a lifetime in education it was that good learning takes place in the company of experts and to put together these five incompatible bedfellows could only be a recipe for disaster.

He then laid out a list of ten ‘confusions’.

1 Personal worth is confused with personal status and position.

2 Satisfaction is confused with reward.

3 Personal identity is confused with personal possessions.

4 Personal responsibility is confused with conformity.

5 Respect is confused with obedience.

6 Strength and resolve are confused with toughness and ruthlessness.

7 Change is confused with progress.

8 Education is confused with cleverness.

9 Fulfilment is confused with enjoyment.

10 Urgency is confused with importance.

Government, he says, comes down in favour of the measurable, instrumental features which form the second words in each confusion. Who moves the human spirit? Who will dare, other than in protest, to make those imaginative leaps encouraged by the old education system? We are classified by the words we use and management, delivery, assessment, audit, client, market place, discipline, toughness have become the ‘in’ words.

He ended with this story: ‘When Michaelangelo was going to Rome to see the Pope prior to his being employed to build the great dome of St. Peter’s and paint the Sistine Chapel, he took with him a reference which said: The bearer of these presents is Michaelangelo the sculptor….his nature is such that he requires to be drawn out by kindness and encouragement – but if love be shown him and he be treated really well, he will accomplish things that will make the whole world wonder.

The making of beautiful things requires care, compassion, encouragement and love. 

(Photograph of The Lady of the Lake, taken during filming)  

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Creative Hands

My husband is a jeweller and for thirty years we have run a small Cumbrian gallery, complete with manufacturing workshop, where precious jewellery is produced and sold.

Recently an elderly gentleman marched through the gallery door and demanded to see The Jeweller. Our young assistant was reticent, particularly as it was her job to look after the customers without disturbing the workshop.

– He’s very busy. Something urgent has to be finished before lunch.

The man was determined.

– It won’t take up much time, I’d just like to see if he’s a real jeweller.

The jeweller, being duly fetched and not in the best temper introduced himself politely.

– Show me your hands.  The man said. – Only last place I went to the so-called jeweller’s hands were white as snow. He may ‘ave been a craftsman but I could see those hands hadn’t done a day’s labour.

Dumbfounded my husband put out his hands. Thirty years at the bench have taken their toll, the grime of polishing compound set into needle-saw scars, nails blackened from working the metal.

– Aye, you’ll do. The man said. I can see you’re a real craftsman.

With that he proceeded to order a special hand-made ring.

 

          Although we specialise in jewellery it is probably true of any craft that the hands define the maker. If you studied a potter’s hands, or a weaver’s, their ‘battle-scars’ would differ from those of a cabinet-maker or jeweller yet the hands tell a unique story because every craft has its specific methods and tools. A maker performs a wide variety of processes, any of which can leave their mark. Some are transient – most dyes fade in time – some everlasting, generally signifying a failure in that unique hand to eye co-ordination.

Craftspeople use their hands as an extension of their imagination. The object he or she makes may be entirely functional but it is still made to be loved. For many makers the desire to create is as intrinsic as breathing, and as necessary.

When we speak of a piece being hand-crafted we hope it will be enjoyed for the quality of its making but modern craftsmanship is complicated by so many different definitions it’s hard to pin down a simple response. When does a work of craft become an art form? A craftsman is a manufacturer so whatever he or she makes has to represent beauty of purpose, whereas a work of art does not have to have any purpose other than to entertain.

Being ‘hand-made’ is implied as a definition of quality, a nod of respect towards the maker, but it is only in relatively modern times that a ‘craft’ has been presented in the same light as a work of ‘art’. Traditionally craftsman remained obscure, even when their work was highly respected. And many gifted craftspeople would prefer to keep it that way, and let their work speak for them.

During Victorian times the concept of craftsmanship became synonymous with the ideas of John Ruskin. His writings inspired William Morris to form the Arts and Crafts Movement, a reaction against the Industrial Revolution. “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him…..Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them….” (The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin)

In many respects our ‘computer age’ is similarly threatening the status given to objects which are ‘hand-made’. Many people have no concept of the time and skill it takes to make something by hand, no patience for processes which are not instantaneous. Happily there remain customers who still believe in the words of William Morris and his band of gentle revolutionaries, ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

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What happened to craftsmanship?

ImageI attended art college during the seventies and graduated as a designer when there was still enthusiasm for crafts based industries, in England anyway. The idealism of William Morris endured in our education system, the belief that something hand-crafted from good and true materials would always hold more intrinsic value than anything a machine churned out. Thirty years on I feel this view has emasculated. There is a strong sense that anyone who works with their hands, regardless of skill, is somehow inferior.

 

Medway College of Art and Design was founded (in Rochester, Kent) on the beliefs and aspirations of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Teachers were chosen because their abilities were exceptional and every course was anchored in practical learning. For example the student jewellers made jewellery ‘at the bench’ under the tutelage of craftsman from the best workshops in HattonGarden. It wasn’t by chance the department cleaned up most prizes at the annual Goldsmiths Awards in London and was heralded as the best silversmithing and jewellery course available worldwide.

 

Working on the assumption that being taught by experienced professionals encouraged the best possible working practises the college had an outreach programme which permitted children (from the age of eleven) to attend Saturday morning classes. As a child I was fascinated by all things hand created and enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with many different arts and crafts (embroidery, millinery, figure painting, model making, textiles, sculpture) before finding design was my speciality.

 

During the thirty odd years I’ve helped run a small jewellery business I’ve seen the status of real craftsmanship slide to an all time low. Not only do people lack any concept of how long it takes to perfect the necessary skills they don’t seem to value that input. And the media doesn’t help. Television implies renovating a houses or garden can be done almost instantly so why not the making of a ring?  

 

Are we no longer spellbound by a craftsperson’s mastery? Is there no sense of aesthetic pleasure in discovering something of beauty emerge from basic materials such as metal, clay, wood or stone? There is a theory amongst historians that the products created by a society reflect its wellbeing. I have always been inspired by works of fine craftsmanship just as I am by so-called works of art but I feel the erosion of status for hand skills doesn’t bode well for our future.

 

 

 

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