‘What D’ye Lack?’

Sunday thoughts from Charles Hayward (excerpted from “Honest Labour” – a collection of essays from The Woodworker magazine).


The mediaeval system of apprenticeship, by which the apprentices helped to sell—in booths which then served as shops before their master’s dwellings—the wares they had made, had one considerable advantage. It brought the maker of an article into direct contact with customers or potential customers, and therefore into direct contact with any criticisms levelled at their work. It may be that only the hardier spirits would venture seriously to criticise, for London apprentices, we know, were notoriously quick-tempered, and their cries of “What d’ye lack? What d’ye lack?” were frequently interrupted by the rallying cry of “’Prentices-clubs!” which brought them all pouring out to make common cause against any unfortunate citizen who had ventured to offend them. But, even so, there must have been a regular interchange of opinion between customer and craftsman which was helpful to both, and a far healthier state of affairs than that existing to-day, when fashions in furniture and design are entirely at the mercy of manufacturers behind the scene with whom the customer has no possible contact.

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We have all experienced the utter futility of complaining to a salesman whose only job it is to sell the goods. A shrug and the comment that: “That is all the fashion now” is the only answer we get, except from the most intelligent, and the result is to be seen in a general lowering of standards both in workmanship and taste. One might cite as an example the massive upholstered suites which flooded the market some years ago. Nothing could have been more unsuitable for the average modern house, with its small box-like rooms, but it was only by going to the utmost trouble and expense that one was able to track down anything of reasonable size. The public simply had no say in the matter. Its only possible retort would have been to refuse to buy, and that is unfortunately what it does not do. The very prevalence of a mass-produced article seems to have a hypnotising effect. People come to take it for granted as “the fashion,” and honest criticism is lulled to sleep or given up in despair.

And a great pity it is. It is not good for any of us to get into the habit of accepting things passively. By keeping our minds critically alert we do at least keep them alive and develop our powers of judgment, the chances being that if we fail to exercise them over the less important things, they will fail us over the big. The mind, like any tool, can be blunted and spoiled by rust and neglect, can lose its fine cutting edge, grow slack and unreliable. And so we lose any chance we might have had to influence our fellows, so at least doing something to mould the world a little nearer to our heart’s desire.

Honest criticism is a necessary prelude to any really sound constructive work. It is necessary in all good furniture making. But it has to be based on a real habit of thought and observation. We have to be able to be honest with ourselves, and patient, too, in order that our skill may grow. We have to be able to look at our own work, and the work of others, critically; to contrast and compare methods and designs. In this way we shall gradually acquire the knowledge that is more than skill—an appreciation of what is really good and sound, of the part played by true proportion and clean, shapely line in a really fine piece of work, and a standard of taste which will become a natural part of our mental make-up, so that we shall not tolerate—at least in our own homes—anything that falls below it.

Source: lostartpress.com

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