Defining Craftsmanship,  and Fighting Fog

Canal painters, roses & castles, craftmanship

Let’s discuss the quality of craftsmanship said a correspondent - what defines a master craftsman?

Surely it’s just the quality of the work produced, the balance between utility, workmanship and the purely aesthetic choices made during the creation of the object - the look of it, the feel of it? Our subject was canal painting, as ever, how to objectively judge the quality of the work being produced today. The ‘today’ bit is the problem, the present situation of an historic folk art form in modern conditions. In the working canal past the business adjudged itself by the ordinary commercial process of the price arguing with the quality acceptable to the customer. But the customer wasn’t a single individual worrying about personal taste. The customer was a complete functioning society, a bunch of discerning, complaining, bargaining, gossiping boat people, carrying the inherited knowledge of what was ‘right’ for the job, practically and aesthetically. There was time too, an apparently unending working life to try things out, time to accept or reject innovations at leisure. If the boat doesn’t look quite right this time we’ll take it to a different boatyard in two years time and have it done better. Polesworth dock may be a bit more expensive but the paintwork will always look wonderful.

But then everything changed. Waterways were no longer for work - canals were for fun, for larking about on leisure boats in shorts and bobble hats. The history and the culture of the boat population was an add-on, an interesting adjective to the water that carried the new holiday makers to the next pub and pump-out. And the roses and castles were a quaint paint-on too, an affectionate token of respect to the lovely old sun tanned bargees of the nostalgic past. At the time it seemed like a slow change, an evolution even, from transport barges to holiday boats, but with some hindsight we can see it for its suddenness in the 1950s and 60s, a smack in the face for two centuries of heritage. A long established working transport system with its own population of skilled tradesmen was down-graded to a grown-up playground within a generation. The traditional art of the boats, that special unique culture of the boatpeople, was quite suddenly stolen by the holiday boat business and became a staple ingredient of a souvenir industry. The paintwork was supplied by new people for new customers for new reasons. Right, how do you judge that sort of work by old-fashioned criteria? With difficulty.

That paragraph is obviously a jaundiced bitter generalisation by someone getting old, but happily the broader waterway preservation movement has always had its enthusiast fringe, obsessive individuals determined not to lose the essential kernels of the waterways culture. In the field of the traditional arts and crafts this concern for core values led by degrees to the formation of the Waterways Guild, an organisation of enthusiasts and friends that seeks to help the traditions survive intact into the future. It has bravely stepped into the dangerous ground of setting standards, to encourage newcomers towards good practise and to define the quality towards which they should aspire. Get good enough and the member can eventually be designated as a ‘master craftsman’, and will gain both respect and business thereby, and perhaps help history too. Hence the opening discussion about the nature of craftsmanship.

The situation today is radically different to anything that’s gone before. The modern master craftsman has to match good practical ability with far more theoretical understanding than was ever required in the traditional past. To be traditional the work must be within the conventions and rules of that tradition, and to work within them the artist has to recognise and understand them first. Yes, it is a restraint on free-expression in the modern free-wheeling sense, but that’s the deal - study the rules and work within them and help to conserve the tradition, or ignore and break them and spoil it. The conscientious modern craftsman has to be self disciplined and the trade must be self policing for today’s customers no longer have the inherited understanding that controlled the business in the past. We are conserving a tradition rather than simply partaking, and proper conservation demands much stricter standards than simple commercial practise, leading rather than following.

Phew! Do we have to? Most of us I suspect simply aspire to being good journeymen—doing the job in a workmanlike manner, earning a living giving simple pleasure whilst not ignoring or demeaning the generations of boatmen and boatbuilders who created it. How’s this for a motto then?—doing it well without mucking up the memory.

Top - 2 examples of classic work by the master painter Bill Hodgeson
Below - craftmanship in Tony's workshop.

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, April 2003

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