Art, Artisans and Apprentices

9781782977421A consideration of the training of artists before the emergence of academies of art inevitably follows a trajectory from the trade to the profession.  This was once a sequence of events experienced by many painters and sculptors as chronicled by James Ayres in Art, Artisans & Apprentices (Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2014).

In the pre-industrial, pre-consumerist early modern British tradition the creation of both art and artifact was dependent upon much “drudgery”.  For painters, pigments had to be ground by hand, stone and marble were “boasted” for “statuaries”, and the cutting of wood was dependent upon edge-tools being sharpened on oil stones.  Much preliminary work of this kind was put in the hands of apprentices for whom these skills formed an invaluable basis for their chosen metier. In general apprenticeships began at the age of fourteen and lasted for seven years.   At the successful conclusion of this servitude the youth was capable of earning a living – hence the traditional age of majority being twenty-one.

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Figure 27. Thomas Cole (1801-1848): Diagram of Contrasts, 1835. A rather curious colour wheel shows that this Hudson school American landscape painter was moving towards an understanding of colour theory. (Ex. Collection: Barbara Johnson, New Jersey)

For those who later evolved as master painters or sculptors numerous trades formed the basis of their art.  Whilst some may have been articled to individuals who made easel paintings or statuary, many now less familiar skills provided a training of varying degrees of relevance.  Some began as house or sign-painters, others as Arras tailors or stainers.  Some sculptors looked back on a grounding as letter-cutters, ornamental plasterers and carvers of stone, marble and wood.  More surprisingly, a few painters began their careers in the woodworking trades, among them George Romney (1734-1806) and Edward Edwards (1738-1806).

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Figure 45. A scale drawing (1 in:1 ft) of a Dial Board dated 1700 which was to measure 5 ft 4 in (162.5cm) square. This is one of only two illustrations in John Martin’s manuscript manual on painting, gilding, Japanning, varnishing and “graving” (c. 1690-1700). The notes to this drawing indicate that the number nine was in fact represented as IX – much as four was, by this date, generally shown as IV. This is related to the clockmakers innovation, attributed to Joseph Knibb, one of two tone chimes to signify differing Roman numerals (Cescinsky and Gribble, 1922, Vol. II, 301). A note in Soane’s hand, on the fly-leaf of this bound manuscript, states that it was “Bought at the sale of J[ohn] Jackson RA, July 1831”. (Sir John Soane’s Museum, London)
So significant was this progression from trade to art that William Williams (1787) described sign painting as “the nursery and reward” of his art.  He added that in London “the place of show and sale was found in Harp Alley, Shoe Lane where . . . the works of the candidates for public favour and employ” were to be found.  The public exhibition of contemporary works of art made on speculation represents the emergence of consumerism.  Up to this point the client economies of the past had, by definition, been based on the active participation of the patron in the creation of a given work.  In contrast, the purchase of a ready-made product was not patronage but commerce.

In this respect the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768 with its annual exhibitions (from 1769) may be seen as an echo of consumerism and ultimately of industrialisation.  Of course the raison d’etre for the Academy’s exhibitions was the income they generated which was used to support the Royal Academy Schools of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.  Henceforth, those who practiced such disciplines were less likely to have served apprenticeships.

Of those who served their time in a given trade many remained rooted in its “art and mystery”, whilst others ventured into an artisan art in which craft values predominated.  Some works of this kind are included in the current Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain for which James Ayres was an advisor.  This exhibition is a new venture for the Tate.

In many ways “art history” represents such a narrow band of human endeavour that it tends to be more about “art” than it is about history.  However, Art, Artisans & Apprentices with its focus on training is, in effect, a “craft history” and as such is wide in scope.  Consequently, the works of art considered in this book range from the polite to the vernacular.

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Images taken from Art, Artisans and Apprentices (Oxbow Books: Oxford, 2014).