24 Sep



E.H. Gombrich, best known for The Story of Art, previously wrote a history book for young people called A Little History of the World:

“Craftsmen such as tailors, shoemakers, drapers, bakers, locksmiths, painters, joiners, stonemasons and master builders all belonged to groups or associations known as guilds. A guild such as that of the tailors was almost as hard to enter and had rules that were almost as strict as those of the knights. Not just anyone could become a master tailor. First you had to serve your time as an apprentice. Then you became a journeyman and went on your travels in order to get to know other towns and other ways of working. Young men like these often went on foot, and often spent years wandering through  many countries before they returned home, or found a city that had a place for a master tailor. Small towns didn’t need many tailors, and the guilds made sure there were no more masters of any trade than there was work for them to do. A journeyman had to demonstrate his skill by completing a masterpiece (perhaps a fine coat) and only then would he be ceremoniously declared a Master and admitted to the guild…

A member of the guild was bound to support his fellow members and not steal their trade, nor must he cheat his own customers with poor goods. He was expected to treat his apprentices and journeymen well and do his best to uphold the good name of his trade and his town.”

“But the worst thing was this: the city’s hundred weavers were now out of work and would starve, because one machine was doing all their work for them. And naturally, rather than see his family starve a person will do anything. Even work for a pittance… One of them might say: ‘I want so much, if I am to live comfortably as I did before.’ The next would say: ‘I just need enough for a loaf of bread and a kilo of potatoes a day.’ And the third, seeing his last chance of survival about to disappear, would say: ‘I’ll see if I can manage on half a loaf.’ Four others then said: ‘So will we!’ ‘Right!’ said the factory owner, ‘I’ll take you five. How many hours can you work in a day?’ ‘Ten hours,’ said the first. ‘Twelve,’ said the second, seeing the job slip from his grasp. ‘I can do sixteen,’ cried the third, for his life depended on it… And this was how business was done. The remaining ninety-five weavers were left to starve, or find another factory prepared to take them on.”

The following is from What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool, 1998.

“Under the Statute of Apprenticeship passed in 1563 it was made unlawful ‘to exercise any craft, mystery or occupation’ then practised in England without having served an apprenticeship of seven years or more, and the law was not fully repealed until 1875.

In essence, apprenticeship was a pre-industrial means to ensure that people in skilled occupations learned their business thoroughly and that the established members of the field weren’t overwhelmed by competition from cheap upstarts who hadn’t worked their way up through the system.”

An overwhelming amount of competition being created by cheap (i.e. prepared to work for less than established pros, or for nothing at all) upstarts, many of whom don’t know what they’re doing and care not one bit for their colleagues? Seems to be precisely the situation in which we now find ourselves.

This system also appeals somewhat because it might kill the cycle of hype and buzz about who’s the next big thing, kill all the prizes targeting under 25s or people who have just graduated (thereby excluding most artists who are mature in any sense of the word), kill the scramble for immediate and unearned recognition and prestige, and at the very least mute the cut-throat competition of art school, all of which can be exceedingly damaging for young artists. Many of them come a cropper because of it, because they can’t possibly live up to the hype that’s been built up around them or the romantic fantasy of what they imagine an artist should be. If they were left alone to mature in peace with the help of a sensible mentor, their ability to sustain themselves and the quality of their work would both increase dramatically.

To counteract this utopianism slightly (and depress you terribly), Pool’s book also notes that as time went on this legislation had a distinct tendency to trap people in obsolete occupations where they’d never make a living because society no longer wanted or needed people like them any more. Perhaps we should bear this in mind, too. It’s entirely possible that the artist as we have known him or her in recent centuries is simply done for, and we’ll go the same way as silk weavers and coach makers.

Isn’t “exercising a mystery” a great description of being an artist, though?



  1. anitachowdry 24/09/2014 at 7:54 PM #

    What a very interesting read – a thinking piece, because I don’t want to offer a half-baked response before having digested the many important historical implications you present…just thanks for the post.

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