The craftsman, ancient and modern
IN THE NATIONAL MUSEUMS we have vast collections of work of all ages and countries. This work is valuable to us in many ways, but not least in showing how the old craftsman thought out the problems which were set him—problems in many cases new. We gain a useful experience if we try to put ourselves in the old worker’s place, and think out the problem from his point of view. He generally had to work with less efficient tools than those available to us. He had no gas to solder with, for example. He often had to make his own files and solder. He had to melt his own silver or gold and cast it into an ingot of suitable shape for the work. He often carried the whole work through alone. For he was capable of doing the raising, the repousse work and chasing, the fitting and the solder-ing, the enamelling or niello work and the gilding. All these things reacted on the design. For he had his say in that also, and we can see how his personal equation asserted itself in this. One craftsman was fond of trying twisted wire patterns, another of enamelling, another of niello or repousse; and he makes you see that he is interested in it. The modern practice whereby the gold- or silver-smith confines himself to a single branch of the craft does un-doubtedly result in wonderful technical skilfulness, and in cheapness of production. But its influence is definitely against the production of work which “ holds together “ aesthetically. For that quality is hardly to be obtained when the work passes through so many hands, and each craftsman, perhaps naturally, endeavours to make his part of the work “ tell “ most. The subordination of some parts is essential in a work of art. So it comes to this. The great bulk of the work turned out in future will continue to come from workshops carried on as at present—one job passing through many hands.
For the majority of the people who buy do not worry about the aesthetic quality of the work at all. But there will always be a demand for work executed throughout by one man—a man who can both design and carry the work through.
We in our day, like the old craftsman in his, must think out the problems in our own way. We know, far better than he, what has already been done. Our books and museums tell us that. But to copy an old work, or to collect details from this and that and to put them together as a new design is not enough. For we must remember that if the people who care for artistic work and good craftsman-ship are to be interested in our work, it can only be if they can see in it that we were really interested in it ourselves. If we think the thing out for ourselves, if we suppress, strengthen or modify details of our design because we feel that it will be “ pulled together “ by our so doing, we are putting into it thoughts which will interest those who care for artistic work. If we have a care for fine craftsman-ship, others also will appreciate our work. But to hold the balance between fine design and fine craftsmanship, so that the latter, though present, shall not take precedence over the former—that is the true aim; and we are happy when we strive for it. Eccentricity in design certainly catches the eye: but it is almost impossible to live with it. Over-insistence on technique, aggressive craftsmanship, over-acting, quite naturally elbow out aesthetic feeling. One idea must take precedence, and if that happens to be technique, the other goes.
If we look at Nature she will give us many hints as to design. We must look not only at plant forms, but also at butterflies, beetles, lobsters and crabs. At bones also—the forms at the underside of a human skull, for example. We should model the forms to really understand how they go. We should consider all the modelled or carved work that we meet with; and try to understand why the sculptor or carver turned this form so, and that in the other direc-tion. The study of the work of a sculptor like Alfred Gilbert is a true education. The details of his Piccadilly fountain, for example, will well repay a thorough consideration. They have a wonderful flow of form and line.


The objects which we design may be broadly divided into two classes.
(1) Objects intended primarily to look beautiful, their usefulness being but a secondary consideration, or no consideration at all. In this class come the mediaeval nefand standing cup, and the modern table-centre.
And (2) objects intended for use. These may be as beautiful as the others, but certain limitations must be observed in their design and construction. They are intended primarily for use, so nothing must be allowed to interfere with that.
The lip of a cup which is to be used must be of such a form as to allow of it. The spout of a jug must be a practical one, and the handle of a form which would allow you to lift and empty the vessel. The base of a lampstand must be sufficiently wide and heavy to ensure the safety of the lamp. A door-knocker should be so designed that it would be possible to grasp the knocker—and that it should be heavy enough.
The first point, then, to remember in designing anything whatever is that the object made shall efficiently fulfil its purpose. If it is primarily intended for decorative purposes and its practicability as a usable object is of minor importance—then you are free from the limitations of usefulness—its principal purpose is that of looking beautiful. But if the object is primarily intended for use, no beautiful proportion, no amount of decoration will compensate for a design which is a failure.
For though a prize cup may be used a few times for drinking from, that is not its principal purpose. It is primarily intended as a thing to be looked at, as a pleasant souvenir of a successful effort. But this cup (left) is not pleasant to look at—it is so bad in proportion. Its height is divided into two equal portions: a mistake. And its forms are not good. Like so many current designs, its shape was primarily determined by the ease by which it might be spun. It is certainly a usable cup, but its more important purpose has been overlooked; it is unpleasant to look at. The illustration on the right shows an unusable lip.


Having then settled the purpose which your design is intended to fulfil, the next things to consider are proportion and mass. Until these are settled it is of little use to go into details. You must consider the proportion between part and part. It is not well to divide a design horizontally or vertically into two or three apparently equal parts. One part should take precedence. It should be greater in height or width or bulk than the other part or parts. The fact that they are so subordinated to the principal mass very greatly assists in giving that feeling of unity which is so necessary to any work of art. It is true that the principal mass need not be very much greater than its subordinates, but in some way it must be more important—either in form or colour.
The feeling of unity just mentioned as being an essential feature in a work of art may be explained in the following manner. If a number of lines or other forms (left) are strewn about in an irregular manner the impression given is that of a number of objects. If, however, the lines or forms are arranged in some regular order—to make some pattern (right)—the mind is able to grasp them all at once as a unity—a star, a border. The forms need not be all alike for this purpose. What is necessary is just that there shall be some formal order in the grouping. An untidy room worries one not just because various articles are out of place, but rather because, in the aesthetic sense, there is no unity in it. Books are strewn about at various angles on tables and chairs, the table-cloth is awry, letters and papers are here, there and everywhere, the furniture is moved into awkward places, and so on. You have but to put the books, furniture and the other things into some formal order (not necessarily into their proper places), and the sense of untidiness will vanish. You have obtained order and unity once more. You will find that this sense of unity is essential in a work of art. Your attention must not be distracted by lines, forms or colours which do not help towards its attainment..

It is difficult to say why this sense of unity gives so much satisfaction. Without doubt it is a lesser intellectual strain to think of the work as a unity than to remember a number of different parts. Just so it requires more effort to describe the various characteristics of some flower, the name of which is unknown to us, than to point to it. The concept of the work as a unity of definitely recognizable form is less difficult to us than an attempt to grip mentally a number of different facts about it—so we prefer the former.
A number of more or less naturalistic details put together will not make a design. The details must be bound together in some formal manner. You feel the need for some architectural feeling—principal and secondary masses; a feeling for symmetry; horizontal and vertical lines to give steadiness to the composition, and to afford a contrast to the more playful curved parts.
The details of the ornament should be kept to about the same scale throughout the work, no part looking as though it really belonged to a larger (or smaller) work. No feature in the ornament should be allowed to overpower all the others. Geometrical forms have an unpleasant habit of doing this sometimes. Thus, a diamond or oval shape in a panel may easily become too prominent; or a long line of simple curvature may show up more than you wish. To quiet curved lines you may CBOSS them by others; or you may employ straight lines to contrast with and steady them.

A feeling for growth is most valuable. It helps you to trace long lines through the composition, tying up the various parts of the design by leading the eye on from one to the other, just as your eye may travel from the ground, up the roots of a tree (Fig. 20.7), up the stem, up the branches and right round the outline without any very sudden break. And in the leaf (right) it is easy for the eye to travel in the direction of the dotted line, jumping across the notches without a check. So in a design it is restful, it gives a feeling of satisfaction, a sense of unity, if your eye may travel from part to part of the work without any very sudden jerk. The working of this rule may be traced in objects of art of quite another kind. If you look at a picture by an artist who had a feeling for line—Raphael, or our own Burne-Jones—you will see how no part could be taken away from the composition without injuring it, for the lines which bind all the picture together, making a unity of it, would be broken. If you should be able to remove a portion of any design without injuring it, you may be sure that the design is not sufficiently thought out and bound together.

The leaf on the left may be compared with the other. It shows lines which do not “ follow on “ or “ compose “ well.

No part of the design should be entirely cut off from the remainder by a very strong line. The lines of composition should be so arranged that the eye is led past the dividing line, that the different parts overlap a little, as it were, tying themselves up with the lines on the other side of the division.

In the illustration on the right, the tails of the mermaids are carried down below the base of the bowl to pick up the line of the stem. If they had finished against the bowl all the upper part of the design would have been apparently cut off from the stem. top


Constructional lines should always be acknowledged. Thus, ornament from the panels should not overflow any of the edges or corners of a box, ignoring the constructional value of these features.
The ornament should either decorate the panels of the box, or the edges, or go in bands round it. The same pattern should not sprawl over parts of a side and an end, say, in an informal manner, leaving other parts plain.
Straight horizontal or vertical lines have a wonderfully steadying effect on a design. It does not seem to matter how playful and curved the other lines may be if you have a number of these steadying lines. They must be repeated with sufficient strength to pull the whole work together. The instability and want of restfulness of much continental art and of works designed in the style of “ 1’art nouveau “ were due very largely to the absence from the work of these strong horizontal and vertical lines. If a design looks fussy or flippant it is a fairly safe rule to try the effect of some of these steadying lines upon it.

Modelling a design

It is an excellent plan to model a design to full size in clay, wax or plasticine. You can th,’n see exactly how things will come, and you can try experiments. S^e if it will help to make any of the shadows deeper, or the mouldings stronger. See that the whole work does not look too flat or shadowless. See that the lines flow gracefully, that the ornament is right in scale, that each part has sufficient room. If you work thus you may make a work of art. Do not settle everything on paper first.
Let your ornament be appropriate. Fishes on a fire-screen look out of place—in the drawing-room at any rate.
Do not cover the whole work with ornament. Leave plenty of plain spaces to contrast with it. You may then make the ornament as rich as you please.

A moulding is a device by means of which a line of light and shadow may be drawn across the work, or an angle filled with interesting light and shade. Thus the angle ABC (right) has to be dealt with. You may choose to fill it with the straight line AC, and the effect in front will be that of a flat, grey shadow. This shadow will be made darker at the top and lighter below if you curve the surface in as in the dotted line. But you may wish to have a line of light instead of shade at the top. To obtain this you bulge the moulding out as in Fig. 20.12; and if you also like a little streak of light at the bottom you tilt the surface out again there. Or you may prefer to reverse the order and have the light at the bottom, as in Fig. 20.13. You may, if you will, break the mouldings up into many parts, large or small. The various members look better if they are varied in size and curvature.

The light and shadows on curves which are sections of ellipses (Fig. 20.\4) look much more graceful than those on curves whose sections are based on the circle (Fig. 20.15).
Perhaps it is hardly necessary to point out that you should never design anything without taking into account the amount of money available for the work. The cost must enter into your calculations as an essential factor in the majority of cases.

Importance of precious stones

The importance of precious stones and enamels can hardly be over-estimated. Let us try to think what their purpose may be aesthetically. We will first glance at the materials we have to use—their colours and textures. On our richest garments we place metals of various colours. White or grey—platinum, silver, steel, etc.
Yellow—gold, brass, etc. Black—niello. Red—copper. Various browns and greys obtained by oxidization. Textures vary from a dull matt to a highly polished surface. And surfaces are of any form, tilted to or from the light. We have also ivory, coral, pearls, opaque and translucent enamels and stones. Apart from expense and other considerations, these materials differ in aesthetic “ quality “ and “ preciousness.” A highly polished piece of metal looks more precious than a similar piece of metal with a matt surface. A coloured, brilliant stone, is more important than a dull-coloured or a dull-surfaced one; just as a piece of brick has less of this quality of preciousness than a polished flint, so the hardness, brilliance and smooth surface of the diamond set it above them all.
We are now in a position to ask: What is the essential purpose of, the real reason for, the use of jewels as such—of enamels as such?top
They represent the most precious looking, the richest in colour, the brightest and clearest in texture of all the materials with which we have to deal—something to which all other work and material may lead up. It is not because they are costly; it is not so much, at bottom, because they are rare; but because they form the culminating point in the scale which leads from the duller and poorer materials up to the richest and most precious looking things that
we can find. This may seem obvious, I know. But it is at times necessary to remind ourselves of first principles. We may not, as a rule, embroider satin curtains with wool, a poorer-looking material on a richer ground; but I have seen it done. We don’t, as a rule, set uncut diamonds or rubies in our jewellery, costly though they may be: but I have seen it done. We don’t, if we are wise, use a coloured marble border to a white marble tablet. But it has been
done. Just as metal is richer than cloth, repousse work than plain metal, so an enamel or fine stone is more precious-looking than them all. We know how lonely an unset jewel looks, how hopeless an enamel panel looks without a frame. They are both superlatives without a context, and—unhappy are they.
If we try the effect of placing a row of coloured stones round a large diamond, and again a row of diamonds round a large emerald or sapphire, we shall see how in the latter case there is a much greater feeling of unity than in the former. The coloured stones in the former distract the attention from the diamond—which, though it may hold its own by right of place, yet has to fight for precedence against their colour. The emerald or sapphire, on the other hand,
takes precedence both by colour, size and position, as it should do.
The whole work should be kept in tone, and lead up to the principal jewel, the latter taking precedence both in colour and in brilliance, while the whole of its surroundings are kept without discordant notes.

San Marco

This principle was clearly grasped by those medieval craftsmen who decorated the Cathedral of St. Mark at Venice. In this great church there is neither stained glass nor picture,
white marble nor black. But the floor and the walls are everywhere covered with slabs of coloured marble, arranged in patterns, and glowing with colour; while over all is a roof of dull gold mosaic, with splashes of colour all about, so that the whole church glows with gold and colour. You look towards the altar and see priests in bright raiment, brighter than the walls, one step higher in our scale. And you see there “ the fair linen cloth “—the one touch of white, with bright golden vessels upon it. And high over the altar, the centre and culminating point of that which has spread the fame of this great cathedral far and wide throughout the world, is the great Pala d’Oro, the golden altar-back with its million’s worth of gold and jewels. Everything leads up to it. And you feel the glow of colour in your eyes, the scent of incense in your nostrils, of music in your ears, and through it all ring the clear tones of little boys’ voices. And that is St. Mark’s. Its fame is not due to the mosaics or the marble, but to the artists who kept the whole work in tone, and let all the decoration lead up to the one central point of interest, and through that to the song of praise. There is hardly a discordant note. You would like to see mediaeval dresses and armour worn there, for modern garb is dull in comparison. But the church is great enough to hold its own, and to teach to those who would learn, the great principles of colour and of unity.
The Cathedral of St. Mark at Venice is perhaps the finest example in existence of an aesthetic arrangement of material on the grand scale, which passes by regular degrees from the lower qualities of marble, mosaic and metal to the supreme glory of its central jewel—the Pala d’Oro.

San Vitale

But there are also in Italy a few buildings of the highest order in which there seems to be no gradual building-up of the music towards its climax, such as we have in St. Mark’s.
But rather do we find a building which, seen in its urban setting, is of such a quality that we must judge it not as a setting for the principal jewel, but as being the actual jewel itself. Such a work is the sixth-century Byzantine Church of San Vitale at Ravenna. It has what is probably the most beautiful interior in Europe. It seems to have innumerable arches and columns, all glowing with delicately-graded colours, passing from the light warm-toned brickwork of
which the church is built, and the unpolished marble floor, with its many-tinted natural patterns, by the shining marble of the columns and walls, which glow with waving bands of white, green and blue; warmed by the subdued light which filters through windows of translucent onyx and alabaster: passing up the colour-scale to the mosaics on the walls and roof with their balanced masses of colour and of gold. There is a unity in the whole scheme, one in which every touch of colour—misty white, green, blue, orange or violet—combines with its neighbours to form a delicate, glowing harmony, as in a fine opal. And one feels that the unknown artists who built and decorated the church have to their credit an achievement which is second to none in the whole world.
If you turn to almost any other church—to some of the French cathedrals, for example—you find large masses of quite inharmon-ious colour thrown about anywhere and everywhere. Large pieces of white marble, with black marble for contrast, which are sufficient to destroy any attempt at tone or colour. If colour is wanted, they must go.


Now principles which you have learnt in large things you may apply in small. And in jewellery or metalwork so arrange your colours and ornament that they may lead up to the principal feature, and remain in subordination to it. Our scale then runs from plain metal, through repousse work (with its lights and darks), up to enamels and stones with their hardness, brilliance and colour.
In England we have the unfortunate habit of thinking of work as weighing so many ounces of silver or of gold. We do not think enough of its aesthetic quality. In many cases it would be well if more than one metal were employed on a single piece of work, but this is impossible if it is to be hall-marked. The inlays, stratified fabrics, and niello discussed above give to the craftsman methods of decorating plain surfaces at present practically unknown here, but they may be pressed into service by anyone who values colour and harmony more than a hall-mark.