[ the craft of the guitar maker ]


14. Arts & Crafts

"Happiness is only possible to artists and thieves" : William Morris (1834-96)

IN the late 1960s and early 1970s instrument-making was a strange and rather unreal affair. A number of makers cultivated the image of the gentleman craftsperson, untroubled by the slightly grubby business of making money. They were busy getting back to nature in rural workshops sometimes even rejecting the use of electricity as 'not authentic'. So my first contact with the world of lutherie was a seductive and peaceful experience. It reminded me of another age, where time moved more slowly and life could be measured by the gentle drift of the seasons. In some ways it took me back to the quiet little village in Dorset where I spent quite a lot of my childhood. Even today, that village preserves more of a sense of community than most other places I have visited, although so much has changed within living memory.

It was later that I realised that many of the nostalgic ideas that resurfaced in the 60s had occupied much intellectual effort on the part of the Art & Crafts movement some 100 years earlier They were trying to make sense of the relationship between work, the individual and machines: today we might call it 'job satisfaction' or 'lifestyle'. In a way, they had no choice. The increased use of mass-production techniques in Industrial Britain polarised attitudes to the new working practices. The love of technology reached unprecedented heights at the Great Exhibition, which opened on 1 May 1851. It was a celebration of the superiority of British industrial might - a massive public relations activity for British Industry. Just over 100 years later, the United States did almost exactly the same thing when they landed a man on the moon.

Even within the Arts & Crafts movement, attitudes were divided. Some saw mass-production as a dehumanising activity that enslaved people to machines and forced regimented working hours and often shift work. For William Morris and his followers, this led to almost total rejection of mechanisation. Labour was ideally a joyful activity undertaken by a contented workforce. Others, like Frank Lloyd Wright saw labour as hard, dirty and pointless. A machine could take the pain out of hard work, and should be heralded as a major social improvement. This line of thought later gave rise to the 'De Stijl' movement in Holland, best known for the paintings of Mondrian and the primary-coloured chairs of Gerrit Rietveld. These angular and improbable chairs make an extraordinary impact, with their planes of primary colours floating amid the black structure. They were designed round the total use of machine techniques; standard components, cut plywood panels and simple jointing methods. They were the direct predecessors of flatpack, self-assembly furniture. And very many of us, when we move into our first homes, will be grateful that somewhere in the furniture industry someone let the machines do the work.

Much the same debate has continued ever since. Craftspeople are faced with these dilemmas every day of their working lives. To what extent do you create articles that are 'hand-made', and how desirable is it anyway? For example: you decide to make a traditional, hand-made lute. You cannot use power tools, because there was no electricity at the time in question. But what if the planks you buy were sawn at a sawmill? What if the tree was felled using a chainsaw? When I started to make instruments, the way of life was to some extent a statement about social values: it was an alternative to the slick, impersonal world of industrial production. It was inevitable that some of us found difficulty accepting many machine-production techniques.

Somehow these were not issues that troubled makers before the 19th and 20th centuries. During the 1960s an inventory came to light that was taken in 1552 of the business assets of the legendary lute-maker Lucas (Laux) Maler. Some years earlier, he had formed an association for the making of lutes in the city of Bologna. By the time of his death, they owned four houses and three shops. The exact number of workers is not known. On these premises there were found in total over 1,000 new lutes in various states of completion! I was amazed. Few makers had ever considered this scale of production possible without the heavy use of power. By the standards of what I was trying to do, it made no sense. These faceless luthiers of 400 years earlier were a total mystery to me. It troubled me so much, I needed to give them faces and understand them better. It was, in fact, the start of my passion for early instruments, and historical woodworking tools and techniques. On the way I taught myself to be good with hand-tools, just as they were. Then I began to understand, and they became real. They were fast and efficient. They were industrious and very profitable. Their decisions were motivated by business needs, and their work was priced by production time. In some ways it was rather disappointing. I knew in my heart that if you had appeared in 16th century Italy with a Black and Decker, they couldn't have got their hands on it fast enough.

Some Arts & Crafts makers were caught in hopeless paradoxes. They believed in peaceful, rural working practices and yet were dedicated to producing articles 'for the people'. It was impossible. The very production techniques they used made them uncompetitive with mass-production. Many pieces inspired by socialist ideals ended up in private collections or museums. It just wasn't possible to turn the clock back, let alone turn it back to a kind of Pre-Raphaelite past that never had been in the first place. Yet their ideas are still important. As our society becomes increasingly automated, maybe they are even more important. We have entered the age of robotics, whether we like it or not. We take for granted that cars can be built using robots, but what about a robot that can play the piano? It is already possible. Where do people fit in round machines, or is it the other way round?

Machines are alien, literal things. It is something to do with relationships. We enjoy friendship and contact with others. It does not have to be direct: it is possible to have a relationship with a book, because someone wrote it, or with an object because someone made it. So far, it is impossible to have a deep relationship with a machine. I have finally come to a working relationship with mine. I am not bound to them through a lack of traditional alternatives, or through inflexible production practices. I work round jigs that exploit their speed, efficiency and accuracy, but they are dispensable if necessary.

Rather improbably, luthiers have fared better than most in finding their way through the ideology. I went back to nature early in my career. I did not find it an enjoyable experience. So now I work in the middle of one of the largest cities in Europe. I haven't forgotten the high ideals of the Arts & Crafts makers and, as fate would have it, Ruskin Park is just down the road. I still believe just as passionately in the value of the 'handmade', although I interpret the meaning less literally. It is a source of enormous satisfaction that there is still a place for instruments made by people alongside the instruments of mass-production. From the idealistic 60s through the hard-nosed 90s, luthiers continue to survive and prosper. Even in a very tough business environment, craftspeople continue to show that the world of business need be neither anonymous nor corporate, and dealings can be fair without being ruthless. Luthiers in particular have created a blend of traditional and modern techniques that are ' almost unique in the field of modern woodworking. It is wonderful to be part of such a rich and ancient tradition, and to know that we will still be there even in the 21st century.

©1991 Trevor Semple

"Classical Guitar Magazine", March 1992

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