World Ever New

Currier & Ives. Happy New Year. 1876. New York: Published by Currier & Ives. Photograph.

“True taste is for ever growing, learning, reading—”

It is well-nigh impossible to begin a New Year without some stirring of the pulse. Anything may happen to us, for good or ill, during the coming year. There is a certain sense of adventure in the air until the year is well launched and the same old pattern begins to repeat itself and the same old routine threatens to submerge us. But need it? Sometimes I think that, in an age which is pre-eminently one of change and experiment, we are often very slow as individuals to become interested in either. Most of us at heart do not like change. What we most dread about war is the major uprooting it makes in our lives, and rightly we dread it, because that is the kind of change over which we have no control. But when it means setting ourselves against new ideas, new methods, simply because they are new, then we are in danger of closing our minds to much that is interesting and stimulating in the world to-day. And a very good resolution for many of us for the New Year might be to take down the shutters from our minds, the self-imposed iron curtain by which we try to shut out the changing world.

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Behind it we accumulate a somewhat formless litter of preconceived ideas, cosily familiar tenets and shibboleths and judgments, acquired many of them during schooldays and early youth, which have become a great part of our mental make-up. As such they will limit and cramp us unless we are determined to keep our vision clear, our minds receptive, by deliberately looking out upon the world with the eyes of maturity, noting and comparing the new with the old, and prepared to find interest and pleasure in whatever is good in both. In this way we shall remain mentally alert, and in fair way to become men of trained judgment and good taste. Which, for the woodworker who wants to become a first-class craftsman, is essential. For it is the habit of really looking at things for their own sake with intelligent, seeing eyes, and a habit of comparing and contrasting, which teaches us the difference between mediocre and fine work wherever we may find it. And not only in furniture. We can draw inspiration from anything that man has made when the work is good.


The great difficulty is how to hold the balance between a readiness to seek out the best in what is new and yet not to be led astray by the vagaries of fashion. We all know how from time to time a change of fashion can inundate the furniture world, so that wherever we turn, in every shop window, our eyes are caught by a new style. Whatever our first reaction may be, the fact remains that when we have seen it sufficiently often our critical faculty becomes dulled. We find ourselves liking it simply because it has become familiar. “It grows on one,” we tell ourselves, and any plans we have for making furniture can be influenced for better or worse. How are we to learn to discriminate, to keep on the one hand an open mind that is prepared to learn, on the other hand not to be led away by every passing eccentricity? 


I fancy that there are no easy rules. That the answer can only be found in that gradually maturing judgment which comes through continued, thoughtful, observation, a weighing-up of points which, as experience accumulates, becomes an instinctive habit of mind. Ruskin who, amid a welter of words, can be relied upon for flashes of golden insight, sums it up thus: “The temper by which right taste is formed is characteristically patient. It dwells upon what is submitted to it. It does not trample upon it, lest it should be pearls, even though it looks like husks. It is a good ground, soft, penetrable, retentive; it does not send up thorns of unkind thought, to choke the weak seed; it is hungry and thirsty too, and drinks all the dew that falls on it. It is an honest and good heart, that shows no too ready springing before the sun be up, but fails not afterwards; it is distrustful of itself, so as to be ready to believe and try all things, and yet so trustful of itself that it will neither quit what it has tried nor take anything without trying. And the pleasure which it has in things that it finds true and good is so great that it cannot possibly be led aside by any tricks of fashion, or diseases of vanity; it cannot be cramped in its conclusions by partialities and hypocrisies; its visions and its delights are too penetrating, too living, for any white-washed object or shallow fountain long to endure or supply.”


Life so lived ceases to be the drab kind of affair that subordination to routine would make of it. For there need be no subordination of the mind except to what is true and good. And a habit of constant, eager observation will show us that “every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest.” Once such a spirit is kindled within us life becomes something vital and glowing, full of new interests and potentialities. “True taste is for ever growing, learning, reading, worshipping, lamenting over itself and testing itself by the way that it fits things,” says Ruskin. “And it finds whereof to feed, and whereby to grow, in all things.” Which is a pretty heartening thought to take into the New Year.

— Charles Hayward, The Woodworker magazine, 1951


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