Rural crafts and tradition in Britain
Considering a post-war travelling exhibition of rural handicrafts
Considering a post-war travelling exhibition of rural handicrafts
In this guest blog, Jennifer Lewis introduces a travelling exhibition of British rural crafts which featured the work of her grandfather, David Lewis.
The year is 1947. World War II is finally over. A travelling exhibition crosses the world. Sponsored by the British Council, the exhibition is timely and ambitious, its purpose being to represent some of the best of Britain’s rural culture to former colonies in the Southern Hemisphere. Projects like this were part of the cultural diplomacy work of the Council.
I became interested in the exhibition because it included ten objects crafted by my grandfather, and because it travelled around Australia and New Zealand, countries I've come to know well.
David Lewis (1892-1961) was a rural labourer who, apart for some months in the Army, lived his entire life in a farming community in West Wales. He was also a well-known craftsman, respected because he made traditional and beautiful things. One of his carved love-spoons won first prize in the National Eisteddfod in 1937.
The exhibition was curated by Muriel Rose, the British Council officer for crafts and industrial art. The Rural Industries Bureau, the National Federation of Women’s Institute and Highland Home Industries assisted with sourcing items. This co-operation ensured geographical diversity and the inclusion of regional objects.
The exhibition itinerary was impressive. It launched in Auckland, New Zealand, then toured both North and South Islands before 'crossing the ditch' to Sydney where it launched again before touring some of the larger rural centres in New South Wales. It went on to the Australian Capital Territory and the States of Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia.
Overall, four hundred and twenty objects packed into forty-two shipping cases arrived in Auckland in March 1947 and departed from Perth in January 1950. That’s a very long journey for a travelling exhibition.
I live in Australia. Imagine my excitement when I tracked down the exhibition catalogue in the Adelaide Art Gallery! With 63 pages, it's packed with information about the project. It lists 134 exhibitors, describes all the objects, presents 12 full-page photographs, and even gives details of the small travelling library. It includes an introductory note and a preface.
The catalogue's introductory note is very clear on two points. First, that the exhibition contains only examples of handicrafts that were still being practiced in the British countryside. Second, that it was confined to the work of traditional craftsmen and women, who, with very few exceptions, would not think of themselves as artists or designers but those whose work, nevertheless, so greatly enriches the daily life of those who live with and use their product.
The preface was written by H J Massingham (1885-1952) at the time a well-known writer, poet and champion of the countryside and rural trades. Massingham was known to hold the view that handicrafts should demonstrate the merging of beauty and utility. In his preface, he comes very close to writing that craftspeople could achieve beauty from utility without deliberately intending it or even thinking about it.
Massingham visited the exhibition before it was shipped abroad, taking the time to view and appreciate the objects. He looked at some axe handles made of wood (ash) and asks, 'Why do your fingers itch to grasp them?' About the grain scoops made by my grandfather, he commented, 'You understand at once what a high degree of pleasure and absorption in his job the craftsman must have felt'.
The exhibition featured the work of 134 exhibitors from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Of the 420 artifacts were chosen, some were small like the custom-made horseshoes, some were large like the Welsh coracle. Coracles are easy to admire. Their origin goes back to Roman times yet they're still to be found in West Wales and Ireland. They're a one person boat, traditionally made with strips of willow and animal skin and generally used for fishing.
The exhibition was popular, interesting and appreciated in both New Zealand and Australia.
Stuart MacLennan, Director of the National Art Gallery of New Zealand wrote, 'The collections represented, primarily, good workmanship and the unconscious beauty that results from the use of natural materials worked with a sympathetic skill and understanding in the production of useful objects. We saw wood, metal, clay, wool, and leather used in the making of agricultural implements, utensils, baskets, pottery, fabric, and harness.' (Design Review, Journal of the Architectural Centre, Wellington, April 1947)
Using the Australian database, Trove, we can track newspaper reports of the exhibition making its way right across Australia. Overwhelmingly, reports and reactions were appreciative.
In Sydney, the National Gallery's Art Critic commented 'Every implement seems inspired by a tradition which transforms it into an object of great beauty'. The critic was impressed by the abundance of displays 'from a coracle used by fishermen since ancient times to brooms straight from the witches sabbath'.
After seeing the grain scoops and ladles (David Lewis's work), the critic comments, 'they speak of a culture in everyday life which would take centuries to emulate here. They are the work of a master craftsman'. (Sydney Morning Herald 20 April 1948)
In Taree, New South Wales, 'Everything in it gives expression to an artistic beauty, while at the same time it was meant to be used in the daily life of the people'. (The Northern Champion Taree 12 June 1948)
Blacksmiths, basket weavers, metal shapers, harness makers, wood turners, wood carvers, hand knitters, hand quilters, weavers, potters, coracle makers – each of these crafts (and more) were represented in the exhibition.
David Lewis contributed ten hand-carved wooden utensils that he'd made from local timber using simple tools (cutting axe, short handled axe, sharp knife).
I first heard about my grandfather's craft work through my father. He told me that when he was young, his father would sometimes work away and had taken to woodcarving in the evenings. He said that his father often used sycamore, especially for dairy items, but his favourite wood was apple because it was hard, dense, and almost white.
He was also skilled at basket making and calligraphy, and was in general a thoughtful man who was good with shire horses. One of my fondest memories is that he sometimes posted a rabbit to us. It would be gutted but not skinned and arrive with an address label tied with string around its middle.
My grandfather knew the exact purpose of the utensils he made and how they would be used because his work as a labourer gave him a knowledge of all aspects of farming. From his mother he learnt from an early age about work in the household and the family dairy. This knowledge would have helped him combine traditional good design with fitness for purpose.
In the early post-war period, making things from scratch and following the old ways were still practiced in Great Britain. Later reforms would ensure that agriculture and farming were modernised and mechanised. Old trades would be lost, horses would be phased out, and farriers and blacksmiths would not be needed.
This exhibition that started off celebrating 'present day' handicrafts now has the potential to be a 'historical treasure'.
My view of the exhibition is that it really does commemorate genuine rural accomplishments and the sense of community. It embraced the diversity of rural communities of the UK and tangible objects once commonplace. It is both reflective and a project of its time.
This blog was written by Dr Jennifer Lewis, a Welsh Australian. She is now retired following a long working life in the cultural heritage sector (Archives, Libraries and Museums).