The Heritage Crafts Association’s annual conference, ‘A Place for Craft’, took place at the V&A during the inaugural London Craft Week and kicked off with an inspiring talk by HCA patron Sir Christopher Frayling. “A love affair with materials” was one of two quotes that Frayling borrowed from Grayson Perry, who also described craft as “too much of a noun and not enough of a verb” – too true.
Another memorable quote appropriated by Frayling to illustrate his points in more graphic terms was Mae West’s: “Anything that is worth doing, is worth doing slowly”. Even before this wittily displaced line, he had his audience’s full attention. Not least because Frayling’s discourse ranged so engagingly from the historical roots of crafts, their definition as something tangible to ‘take away’, through to their place, or rather increasing and alarming absence in education today. He reviewed the work of William Morris and other late 19th Century pioneers highlighting the arena in which crafts first became visible to the wider public, as an antidote to the mass market productions spawned by the industrial revolution. He also talked of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius and his manifesto for the arts and architecture.
We were taken further back, to 1795, when Sir William Curtis, a Member of Parliament and Lord Mayor at the time, is credited with introducing the concept of the three Rs in one of his speeches. Frayling’s research questioned the generally held assumption that these essential skills, the alleged basis of a well-rounded education still popular today, were really intended to be reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic (or reckoning). He suggested instead that, since reading and writing are essentially two aspects of the same thing – literacy, the second skill was in fact meant to be ‘roughting not ‘riting. Wroughting: to put together, to create, to shape using tools – what we might today, with a nod to Perry’s quote, describe as ‘to craft’.
Frayling spoke with passion about the current state of play, the divisions and inter-relation of heritage and fine art crafts and the way in which the digital landscape has further compounded an increasing disconnect from working with our hands. We are in danger of quite literally losing touch. The act of making by way of manual creation, with the aid of tools where necessary, brings immense benefits: the tactile pleasure (and admittedly sometimes pain), the physical, emotional and soulful energy that is applied, the sense of community that can so often be derived from such activity, not to mention the satisfaction of seeing, touching and using the end product. Crafting is at its essence ‘thinking through hands’. Though this was not referenced directly, it can also be hugely therapeutic, supporting and aiding wellbeing and recovery in the physical and mental spheres.
A lively slide show brought added texture and colour to Frayling’s talk with images taken from early sources such as Owen Jones’ immensely popular ‘design bible’, The Grammar of Ornament, through to recent works by a wide range of craftspeople as well as current product designers such as Tom Dixon, Ron Arad and Ross Lovegrove.
By the 1970s the focus on craft pieces as useful objects had fully evolved to include the totally useless, creations governed by fashion and transcience, often blurring the lines between art, craft and more recently science. In recent years we have also seen a surge in further experimentation including recycling, upcycling and the integration of found objects. All this activity, combined with a renewed interest in all things artisanal, is undoubtedly one of the key drivers behind London’s first successful Craft Week.
The HCA’s conference was an opportunity to hear a number of other speakers. Mark Hogarth shared interesting provenance and marketing tips from Harris Tweed Hebrides relating to the celebrated ‘Harris Tweed’ brand; Richard Eaton discussed Denby pottery’s role in harmoniously integrating craft with the manufacturing process and Veronica Main, a straw plaiter and Significant Collections Curator from Luton gave an impassioned talk, as did Felicity Irons from Rush Matters. What businesses like Harris Tweed Hebrides and Rush Matters share is a dedication to traditional and artisanal production methods combined with a 21st Century design ethos and a clear respect for environment and community. Their output, along with many others, is at the top end of desirability – high quality, sustainable, handmade but not completely out of reach – the kind of luxury that one might afford because it is has a value beyond its price tag.
The other speakers reinforced Frayling’s key takeaways relating to funding and education: without the old skills, acquired through practice and passed down through generations, heritage crafts will slowly die out. Who will teach the tried and tested methods and pave the way for the next generation of designer makers? Learning a craft can be messy, hugely time consuming and expensive. Without bursaries to fund apprentices, awards schemes to acknowledge excellence and create new opportunities, as well as a network of artisans willing and able to pass on their skills, often on a one to one basis, we would lose touch with so much more than a beautiful and serviceable end product – a real life skill, one of the original three R’s may be lost along the way, not just in name but in its totality.
We can all make a small gesture to stem the tide by supporting the HCA’s work – annual membership is a mere £20 – if you engage in or with crafts, whether as a professional maker, an amateur or a fan, you could perhaps stretch to joining this small but hugely important organisation. In the words of its President, Prince Charles: “Traditional craft techniques and materials combine sustainability, utility and beauty and at the same time, are important parts of our living, cultural heritage.”
To help keep the third R alive visit the Heritage Crafts Association. Don’t forget to dip into their directory and be tempted by the wealth of one-off products and next time you need something, for yourself or as a gift, don’t just think about handmade, make it or buy it from someone who can!
Text: © Emma Boden, 2015
Photos: © see captions: Heritage Crafts Association, Creative Commons, Harris Tweed Authority, Felicity Irons/Rush Matters