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WEEKEND WEB: The Wisdom of Ages

John Hayes has been granted the Fellowship of the City and Guilds.
John Hayes has been granted the Fellowship of the City and Guilds.


This month I was honoured to be granted the Fellowship of the City and Guilds. Asked to give the annual address, having long sought to elevate the practical, I spoke on the importance of skills, craft, and apprenticeships – practical wisdom passed on through the ages.

Craft is, essentially, an act of transformation; turning raw craft materials into useful objects. I have always been in awe of those who can turn their hand to craft, and carefully create something of true individual beauty.

Being trained to teach history, I walked through the Palace of Westminster reflecting on the great men and women who paced the same corridors before me as a matter of habit. However, a skilled joiner would be able to appreciate the Palace of Westminster in an altogether different way. He could look at the great medieval hammer-beam roof of Westminster Hall and see the raw materials from which the beams were fashioned, the practical steps by which the hall was put together, through the skills of those that did so. He would sense the form and style; gauge the volume and geometry in a way I never could.

By these means craftsmen are nourished in many ways; through a connection to fellows from the past, by sensitivity to the beauty of the process and by enhanced self-worth springing from personal and communal pride. Certainly, these characteristics are just as valuable and fulfilling as an academic understanding, and arguably, are of even greater value.

In the early 20th Century the philosopher and aesthete RG Collingwood listed six characteristics of craft. Underlying these characteristics is the relationship between the craftsman and the material with which he works. Craft is, essentially, an act of transformation; turning raw materials into useful objects. As Collingwood wrote, there is a ‘distinction between planning and execution’ such that the ‘result to be obtained is preconceived or thought-out before being arrived at.’ The craftsman knows what he is going to make before he makes it.

It is this foreknowledge, the ability to look at materials and see how they can be transformed, that is fundamental to the relationship between the craftsman and the material world. It enables a chef to look at eggs, cream and cheese visualising a soufflé. It enables the carpenter to look at blocks of timber and imagine a finished table. And it enables the potter to look at unworked clay, perceiving the beautiful ceramic tableware which when fashioned it may become.

The visionary William Morris described the craftsman as ‘making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as will as his body.’ In this way, craft is juxtaposed with consumerism. Where craft connects us to the material world, consumerism, and the marketing that is integral to its appeal, mystifies it. In so doing consumerism, first inhibits and ultimately destroys our sense of value.

A consumer society, as the former chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observed, depends on a ‘cult of the new’, specifically the conceit that value is a consequence of novelty.

In an age where the excesses of consumerism tighten their grip, the creation of a ‘cult of the new’, as Rabbi Sacks lamented, has suffocated many people’s appreciation of the skills it takes to make things of quality. As such skills are passed from one generation to the next, it is that which is time honoured that matter most, not the latest trend or the next craze.


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