the enlightened craftsman

This is the text of a keynote which I gave at a conference a couple of years ago, at the beautiful Fairfax House in York. It looked at the ways in which 18th century craftspeople navigated the complex social hierarchies of their day, and how intellectual, ‘enlightenment’ attitudes towards making practices were affected by both the material, form and quality of the objects being made, and the then-contemporary understanding of class and gender identity. I’ve been thinking about how this contrasts with the status of the maker today, how we perceive value in the notion of the ‘handmade’ and categorise a particular subset of well-known ‘designer-makers’ - as opposed to just plain ‘makers’ - as leading critical thinkers. I want to return to this in more detail at some point, but for now, let’s take it back three centuries:

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'The Enlightened Craftsman? Mutable and mobile hierarchies of making’

Writing in The Spectator for April 19th, 1711, the essayist and MP Sir Richard Steele made the following observation:

“There are crowds of men, whose great misfortune it is that they were not bound to mechanic arts or trades; it being absolutely necessary for them to be led by some continual task or employment. These are such as we commonly call dull fellows […] What I propose should be, that we imitated those wise nations, wherein every man learns some handicraft work. Would it not employ a beau prettily enough, if, instead of eternally playing with a snuff box, he spent some part of his time in making one? Such a method as this would very much conduce to the public emolument, by making every man living good for something; for there would then be no one member of human society but would have some little pretension for some degree in it.”

Inherent in this passage are the conflicts of status and prestige that characterised – or, more accurately, failed to characterise – the social position of the craftsman in the long eighteenth century. The practice of what Steele dubs, first, ‘mechanic arts’ and then ‘handicraft’, is presented as a rational and useful occupation, tending toward the public good. Indeed, its very inclusion in The Spectator, that canonical text of the early eighteenth-century polite public, tells us that craft can be an enlightened pursuit; if to be enlightened is to be rational and useful, bound up with processes of learning and transaction. And yet, unavoidably, even as Steele lauds the usefulness of craft, he separates it, and its practitioners, from the beau with his snuffbox: the leisured gentleman, with a private income or at least the appearance of one, and no need or desire to engage in the physical making of things. In an earlier edition, for March 10th 1711, he describes a social gathering of 'artisans and mechanics' as 'a pretty picture of low life'. The social distinction is clear.


This seeming disjuncture is the subject of my paper today: between the status of the craftsman, and the intellectual regard in which craft practice was held. I want to examine the ways in which the so-called liberal and mechanic arts were categorised and distinguished from one other in eighteenth-century Britain; and, in turn, how the role and status of the mechanic, or craftsman, was intrinsically connected to the status of the things they made. And, of course, I want to interrogate the very term ‘craftsman’, for even in the commercial sphere, acts of making were not committed by masculine hands alone. A small but important minority of successful artisans were women; and beyond this exclusive circle was a wider network of women who made things on a semi-professional or skilled amateur basis, their work judged within a framework of accomplishment and feminine performance. This is obviously a vast field, encompassing a vast array of craft practices, geographical locations, and levels of commercial and cultural success, and so what I'm advancing here is not so much a unified theory as a series of snapshots, or case studies; which give a flavour of the esteem in which the craftsman was held, and the discourses and circumstances which affected this.


The existence of a notional division between the liberal and mechanic arts is not in doubt. The lengthy subtitle of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia of 1728 makes reference to ‘the several arts, both liberal and mechanical’; while The London Tradesman, Robert Campbell’s 1748 career directory, is presented as a ‘compendious view of all the Trades, Professions, Arts both Liberal and Mechanick, now practiced in the Cities of London and Westminster’. In France, Denis Diderot – the son of a cutler – and Jean le Rond d’Alembert oversaw the production of L’Encyclopédie between 1751 and 1772, intended in the first instance as a translation of Chambers’ work but, upon completion, a much larger undertaking, with a substantial number of articles dedicated to the mechanical arts. The Encyclopédie was, of course, read by a Francophone British elite, despite not being translated into English. Thus was disseminated its highly detailed, technical articles on craft practices from carpentry to brickmaking; which Diderot had prepared by visiting and speaking with practitioners in their workshops.


Equally evident is the status of the mechanic arts relative to their liberal counterparts, and vice versa. The liberal arts had been defined since antiquity as the pursuits or skills becoming a free person, and thus encompassed such intellectual activities as music and mathematics; conversely, the mechanical arts were the province of the unfree, or servile person, and – implicit in the etymology – involved the use of tools, and thus the hands. Thus they were the skills of the labourer, the artisan; an individual whose social capital, if they had any, was bound up in their tools, their production, and the economic gains afforded by these. In theory, at least, the ‘mechanic’, or craftsman, occupied a low rung on the social ladder, regardless of the success with which they practised their craft.


So much for theory. What about the clergyman-turned-potter, or the stonemason who became a baronet – both of whom we will be introduced to in due course? In practice, the social borderland which separated the craftsman from the professional or landed gentleman was a porous and shifting one, and it’s in this territory that we can most fruitfully seek out a more accurate overview of the craftsman’s status within the context of enlightenment thought. I’ve mentioned, already, the role of taxonomic publications, such as the Cyclopedia, in codifying and to some degree elevating the mechanical arts; but at this point I’d also like to bring in the related concept of politeness. Politeness had its origins in the civic thought of Antony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, and in the early eighteenth century it flourished – not least in the pages of The Spectator – as a discourse which united externally polished, easy manners with an internal integrity and moral seriousness. In short, it was a framework for socialisation, and one which emphasised the importance of education and conversation over rank and privilege. Social inequality was not erased by politeness, but it was bracketed out by tacit agreement, so that a peer and a printer might converse together, provided that the printer’s manners and education were up to the standard of the lord’s. Though in practice difficult to accomplish, politeness at least offered a notional route to social status for those not born or bred to it.


Perhaps surprisingly, some craftsmen were ‘born and bred’ to it – that is to say, they were of genteel families with aristocratic connections and relatively privileged upbringings. This was especially the case at the beginning of the period which we might characterise as ‘The Enlightenment’; the half-century between 1670 and 1720. One such notable individual was John Dwight, founder of the Fulham pottery and pioneer of English stoneware production. Dwight’s origins were modest but prosperous - the son of a farmer, born around 1633; and as a young man he studied at the University of Oxford. For a time he acted as assistant to the scientist Robert Boyle, and held a series of administrative ecclesiastical posts, including that of secretary to the Bishop of Chester. Undoubtedly an educated man, and if not a gentleman born, then certainly a gentleman made by virtue of his connections, Dwight nonetheless abandoned this life around 1670, and embarked upon a pottery venture with the support of Boyle and his fellow scientist, Robert Hooke. At Fulham, he experimented with salt-glazing, a means by which earthenware could be made impermeable to liquid; and in so doing he established a viable English competitor to the market for imported German and Netherlandish stonewares. Much of his output was in the form of vases, jugs and dishes for the domestic market; although he also turned his wares towards sculptural ends, implying an elite clientele. These sculptural experiments included allegorical figurines, busts, and the affecting funerary figure of his deceased daughter Lydia; the latter probably made for private consumption.


More elevated again was the goldsmith George Wickes, the founder of a business which would eventually metamorphose into the jewellers Garrard and Co., still in existence today. Wickes, born in 1698, was the son of a prosperous Bury St Edmunds upholsterer with connections to the Suffolk gentry, and his elder sister Anne married the Suffolk baronet Sir Dudley Cullum. Wickes’ own wife, Alder Phelpes, was likewise well-connected, not only with the Phelpes family of London merchants but also the Aldworths of Bristol, merchants and explorers. As Elaine Barr has demonstrated, Wickes relied extensively on this kinship network for clients, not only in the early years of his practice, but in the years after 1735 when he had gained the patronage of Frederick, Prince of Wales, Sir Robert Walpole, and a host of titled heads. Thomas Fane, Earl of Westmorland, was an important client, with a familial connection to Wickes through his wife; likewise Robert Butts, the Bishop of Norwich, was both a client of the goldsmith and a cousin of his mother.


What were the social requirements of a craftsman who dealt with such an elevated clientele? Returning to Campbell's The London Tradesman gives us some insight: of the goldsmith, he writes, 'He ought to be a good designer, and have a good taste […] he ought to be possessed of a solid judgement as well as a mechanical hand and head. His education, with respect to his business, does not require to be very liberal; a plain English education will suffice. […] But as his employment is the most genteel of any in the mechanic way […] I should advise a youth for this business to have an education such as I have described in Chapter XIV (14)'. Turning to Chapter 14 – which, incidentally, is dedicated to the career path of the public notary – we see that Campbell advises an emphasis on British history, English literature and modern languages, the latter being of use in a commercial context. Key elements of a ‘liberal’ education - notably, the study of Latin and Greek - are absent. We can infer from this list that, in Campbell's estimation at least, the craftsman needed to be able to demonstrate a familiarity with the polite world – but he was not expected to be of that world. A level of distinction between even the most celebrated and expensive craftsmen, and their fashionable, aristocratic clients, was to be maintained.


Of course, both Dwight and Wickes were producing work of a quality, and for clients of such distinction, as was far removed as possible from more quotidian forms of craft, such as basketmaking, saddlery or ironmongery. In this respect, they were engaging in the nascent discourse of taste, which would develop throughout the eighteenth century as a means of classifying and assessing cultural commodities; particularly those which were essentially visual in nature. John Brewer has argued that objects of taste – that is to say, objects which were meant to stimulate the imagination –  constituted the category of 'decorative' or 'elegant' arts, and thus were to be considered in a separate category from the 'useful' or – again – the 'mechanical' arts. But this is to oversimplify the relationship between form, function and decoration – it belies the decorative nature of many functional objects which were subject to taste discourse, such as tableware; and it elides the mechanical processes which contributed to the production of even the most frivolous manifestations of conspicuous consumption. The terrain of taste was one on which some craftsmen, depending on the type and quality of their productions, could lay claim to social and cultural status as tastemakers; particularly as the exercise and recognition of taste was one of the defining characteristics of politeness.


Perhaps the clearest example of this ambiguity, if you'll excuse the oxymoron, is the practice of sculpture throughout the eighteenth century. It might seem odd, to treat a discipline like sculpture as a mode of craft, when contemporary commentators and modern scholars alike have regarded it as a subset of fine arts. But let's not forget, in the first instance, that the physical execution of sculpture was a highly mechanical process, requiring a substantial array of tools for carving, measuring and lifting, and a large number of trained apprentices and journeymen. Furthermore, even the most elevated sculptural artists produced functional decorative stoneware, including fire surrounds and corbels. In the first half of the eighteenth century, the brothers Henry and John Cheere exemplified this combination of craft and taste. Sir Henry, as he became in 1761, ran a highly organised studio in the vicinity of Westminster, and was the de facto sculptor in residence at Westminster Abbey, producing numerous funerary monuments as well as coloured marble chimneypieces for private clients. His younger brother ran a successful 'statuary yard' at Hyde Park Corner, specialising in the production of lead and plaster copies of antique figures and portrait busts, to ornament the homes and gardens of the polite. Both sculptors were largely overlooked by the principal art critics of the period, including George Vertue and Horace Walpole, due in part to their working relationships with master stonemasons and their adoption of workshop practices; and yet the brothers - Henry in particular - were celebrated figures among London's cultural elite. Like George Wickes, they were well-connected, and leveraged those connections for patronage, but were by no means gentlemen of independent fortune. The status which was conferred by Henry's membership of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce was something which came only after many decades of endeavour. Later in the century, in York, the architect John Carr followed a similar path, beginning his career as a mason and stonecarver. Carr took advantage of the local patronage of the Marquess of Rockingham to develop a substantial following of northern aristocrats and merchants. His successful practice and its attendant wealth enabled him to serve as a local magistrate; and as Lord Mayor of York in 1770, and again in 1785.


I mentioned the Society of Arts, and I want to return to that in a moment, but let's take a moment to place figures such as Cheere, Carr and Wickes in the wider context of eighteenth-century labour and making. As I've said, these individuals represented the elite within their respective fields, not only in terms of taste and production quality, but also with regard to their connections and the financial rewards gained from their work. Carr, for example, left the astronomical sum of £150,000 at his death in 1807. This was, of course, an experience not shared by the majority of eighteenth-century craftsmen. A surviving contract of employment between William Duesbury the Younger, owner of the Derby porcelain manufactory, and Jean-Jacques Spengler, a Swiss modeller, is indicative of the conditions under which even talented and sought-after craftsmen worked. Drawn up in 1790, the contract stipulates Spengler's wages at 'the sum of two guineas lawful British money for each ordinary week's work', or a salary of over £100 per annum. As Robert D. Hume makes clear in his analysis of eighteenth-century spending power, £100 was a considerable income, and it suggests that Spengler was a prized employee. Nonetheless, the conditions of work laid out in the contract make it clear that, regardless of prestige and income, he could not have been considered a 'gentleman' in the sense of having leisure at his disposal and the autonomy to enjoy it. His working hours were sixty per week in summer, forty in winter. His working room was to be open to Duesbury's inspection at any time; while he was expected to relocate anywhere in the country at Duesbury's pleasure, should his work require it. These conditions were not especially onerous by the employment standards of the day, but they undermined the liberty, the privacy, and the independence of the individual. As Matthew McCormack has argued, independence constituted the basis of masculine virtue and political enfranchisement in this period. In short, to 'count' as a voice in the enlightened world, one needed a degree of personal liberty and financial independence in order to be able to participate in intellectual exchange and polite conversation: a requirement which the state of being employed, and thus beholden to another's needs for subsistence, placed in some jeopardy.


So clearly, the ability to climb the social hierarchy as a craftsman was contingent not only upon the goods one produced, and the connections one enjoyed, but also upon being the master rather than an employee. While individual labourers and journeymen could and did ascend to the dignity and security of running their own workshop – George Wickes being a good example, after his apprenticeship to Samuel Wastell which ran from 1712 to 1720 – it was not until that stage had been attained that the craftsman could lay claim to gentility and independence.


It’s among these craftsmen that we need to look for the members, subscribers and supporters of the burgeoning institutions which promoted crafts and the mechanical arts. The institutionalisation of tastemaking, and of innovation, is an important discursive strand in the relationship between craft and the Enlightenment. Concomitant with politeness, it was perhaps inevitable that the emphasis on conversation and free intellectual exchange, along with the interest in economic, social and scientific taxonomies, should result in the formation of bodies dedicated to understanding, improving and promoting both the elegant and the functional arts. These bodies were an expression of what Holger Hoock has called ‘cultural patriotism’; their emphasis was directed specifically towards British craft, manufacturing and fine art, with a view to improving both their quality and their commercial viability in the face of foreign competition, predominantly from France and Italy. Some, like the Lunar Society in Birmingham, or the Select Society of Edinburgh, were loose associations of intellectual friends – the Lunar Society included the entrepreneurial potter Josiah Wedgwood, and the metalware manufacturer Matthew Boulton; interested in craft among other scientific, commercial and civic pursuits. Others, like the Royal Academy of Arts, were ostensibly formed to promote and maintain hierarchical distinctions between the so-called fine arts and their mechanical or decorative cousins – although in practice, their embrace of George Michael Moser, the Swiss-born enameller, engraver and goldsmith, as the Royal Academy’s first Keeper, suggests a degree of flexibility. Other, later Academicians were likewise standing with one foot in the fine arts of painting and sculpture, and another in the world of craft – the neoclassical sculptor John Flaxman, for example, who in the early, precarious stage of his career modelled reliefs for Wedgwood’s jasperware.

Most significant of these formal institutions and informal learned bodies, from the perspective of craftsmanship, was William Shipley’s Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, established in 1754. Shipley, a Kent-born drawing master, was a man driven by a vision. As he explained in his initial proposals for the Society, he aimed ‘to embolden enterprise, to enlarge science, to refine art, to improve our manufactures and to extend our commerce’. This aim was to be accomplished by the awarding of cash premiums for innovation and achievement across the liberal and mechanical arts. To us, this might sound simple and obvious – that the development of a field will be stimulated by possibility of financial reward and social recognition. But, while medals and prizes in the areas of fine art and the experimental sciences had existed since the 17th century, the notion of rewarding invention and accomplishment in the area of manufactured goods, or functional crafts, was still a new one. As Shipley wrote, ‘unless the knowledge of the learned be communicated to direct the hand of the industrious, the labourer may waste his time and strength in vain’. As such, the Society awarded premiums in six areas: agricultural improvements, manufacturing, chemistry, mechanic and engineering, commerce and trade, and the so-called ‘polite arts’, including sculpture and drawing. In the first three decades of the Society’s existence, these premiums covered everything from new methods of dyeing textiles, to designs for medals, to new weaving patterns, to innovations in stone quarrying. Its membership was as varied as its activities, ranging from dukes and earls to self-made craftsmen like Sir Henry Cheere, and although erratic and occasionally fractious in its public organisation, it undoubtedly elevated the standing of craft and the mechanical arts through its framework of recognition and prizegiving.


All these things which elevated the craftsman - these institutions, conversational frameworks, modes of exchange and enlightened encyclopaedias – were of limited use to the craftswoman. That is to say, these discourses and public bodies were formulated by men, largely for the use and benefit of men. Of course, there were professional women who operated within these frameworks, and could earn a handsome living and considerable status within them. Most often, these women were widows of craftsmen, and would take over an established workshop or business. Figures such as Hester Bateman, Eliza Buteux and Louisa Courtauld become prominent gold- and silversmiths through this route. Bateman, whose career is the best-documented, was the widow of a gold chain maker, and registered her first maker’s mark at Goldsmiths Hall in 1761. The silverware produced by her workshop was of solid quality and elegant design, appealing to the prosperous middling sort rather than those with pretensions to the height of fashion. Given that most female goldsmiths were taking over established workshops, with skilled journeymen in place, it is unlikely that they spent much time at the workbench, but managed the business operations and possibly designed wares – much like those leading craftsmen who had passed the stage of apprentice or journeyman employee, and who enjoyed the dignity of independence.


More unusual, therefore, was Eleanor Coade, the pioneer of Coade artificial stone, which still adorns many public buildings and stately gardens. At the age of 36, Coade abandoned her linen-drapery business to purchase a failing artificial stone workshop at Lambeth from Daniel Pincot, with whom she went into partnership. After two years, she had perfected the composition of Coadestone, a mouldable, clay-and-quartz-based material. At this point, she unceremoniously sacked Pincot and continued as sole proprietor of the workshop; which, like John Cheere’s statuary yard half a century earlier, turned out copies of antique statues, architectural elements, garden urns and the like. She worked with the leading monumental sculptor John Bacon on a series of original designs, as well as creating her own, and gathered a client list which spanned the social spectrum from international royalty to, again, the urban and provincial middling sorts, persuading fashionable architects such as John Nash and Robert Adam to incorporate her products into their projects. A philanthropist, devout Baptist, and the eventual owner of a country villa, she never married. At her death in 1821, she merited an extended obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine; a mark of recognition rarely accorded to a woman.


Coade’s social and financial success was, again, in large part due to the fact that her craft was one with elite appeal; and her involvement in the design and modelling of Coadestone figures, some of which were exhibited publicly, allowed her to encroach upon the territory of polite taste, similarly occupied by leading ceramicists and goldsmiths. In this sense, we can simultaneously view Coade as a professional craftswoman and business owner, and as a prominent instance of feminine performance, engaged in a mode of craft which was sufficiently genteel and decorative to count as an ‘accomplishment’. As Ann Bermingham has argued, the notion of accomplishment was a means by which female artistic endeavour could be framed and instrumentalised as an index of gentility and marriageable status. While Coade, and the small number of female professional painters such as Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman, managed to transcend accomplishment to earn an independent living, the existence of this concept, and of the idea that certain modes of art and craft were more suitable for women than others, shaped and constrained the ways in which their work could be received. More typical, in some respects, was Mary Linwood, whose embroidered reproductions of notable paintings attracted the attention of Queen Charlotte in the 1780s, when Linwood was in her thirties. Linwood was in many respects the archetypal genteel spinster; the daughter of a wine merchant, who with her mother kept a private girls’ boarding school in Leicester, in order to make ends meet. Her embroidery, which is astonishing in its technical proficiency, was exhibited in London for many years; and by her forties she was able to commission a portrait from the fashionable painter John Hoppner. However, as her art was rooted in both handcraft and in copying, she was essentially regarded as a novelty, and a skilled amateur: as Bermingham writes, the accomplished woman was ‘not an artist because she was neither original nor a paid professional […] unlike the artist, a creator and producer of culture, she was a consumer and reproducer of culture.’

This discussion of feminine craft and its amateur, domestic context leads me onto my final discussion: that of the craftsman or craftswoman’s home. Undoubtedly, the possession of a large and genteelly-appointed home, in town or in country, was both a mark of commercial success and a stage on which social elevation could be performed. I’ve mentioned Eleanor Coade’s villa, Belmont House at Lyme Regis, which was a respectable private retreat. Larger and more public were Josiah Wedgwood’s Etruria Hall, and Matthew Boulton’s Soho House, both of which saw meetings of the Lunar Society and acted as showcases for their respective owners’ wealth and manufactures. Wedgwood, who - as we’ve heard - had employed the young John Flaxman to model for his factory, later employed him as a designer-sculptor to produce the ornamental friezes and chimneypieces for the interiors of Etruria Hall, his home becoming a giant, habitable Wedgwood vessel.


Boulton and Wedgwood both, it should be noted, were not the first of their family to engage in their respective trades – Boulton’s father had been a small toymaker; while Wedgwood’s father and elder brother had both been master-potters. Their success was built upon an earlier accumulation of knowledge and resources, coupled with ingenuity and an eye for fashion; and the building of a fine home was the manifestation of this generational progress, socially and technologically. Similarly, the Gillows family of Lancaster furniture makers built up their business over several generations – the first, Robert Gillow, was born in 1704 and served as a ship’s carpenter, taking advantage of trade connections to directly import mahogany from the West Indies for cabinet-making. The firm of Gillows made high-quality furniture which appealed – again – to the genteel but unshowy middling sort. Robert’s son Richard, born in 1733, went into partnership with his father, but gradually moved from solely making furniture into architecture, designing civic and private buildings in Lancashire, including the Lancaster Custom House. In turn, Richard’s younger son, another Richard, also went into the business alongside his brothers, and was by 1822 able to purchase the house and estate of Leighton Hall in Lancashire. From ship’s carpenter to country squire in three generations: an example of generational gentility which was only possible by drawing upon the craft and business skills of forebears.


All of this, I think, gives us some idea of the conditions under which the 18th century craftsperson could be considered ‘enlightened’, and could enjoy the associated social status that came with – or was a prerequisite for – enlightenment. Unsurprisingly, it was a status most easily enjoyed by professionally trained men who hailed from a wealthy trade background, with genteel ambitions and influential connections – or, in a pinch, a humbler background from which technical skills could be learned and improved upon in opportune circumstances. It was necessary to engage in a craft which had pretensions to taste, and which made use of rich materials – gold, porcelain, mahogany – for the process of understanding and responding to fashion opened up the opportunity to set the fashion, and to engage in public discourse around taste, art and politeness. This, in turn, amplified the desirability of being involved in some kind of public institution or discursive network, to be recognised and rewarded for one’s craft on an official level, and even to contribute to the intellectual direction of such a body, alongside peers and private scholars. To take advantage of such an opportunity, of course, required a certain level of education, not only in scholarly subjects, but in manners and in social polish – which brings us back round to the importance of genteel connections. Gender, family networks, social polish and patronage, as well as training, skill, quality and taste: these were the factors which determined your place on the hierarchy, as a craftsperson operating in the context of the 18th century enlightenment.

Danielle Thom