Is it fair game to copy the work of traditional craftspeople because their work is traditional rather than their own artistic invention?
I actually encourage folk learning craft to copy good work as a way of mastering skills. I see this as a bit like learning to play music by playing other people’s songs. The Rolling Stones learnt their craft by playing the blues and Chuck Berry covers. It would be a tough call to learn to play the guitar without ever playing another person’s tunes. So does that mean it’s OK for all and sundry to make copies of the work of traditional craftspeople? Or maybe folk think that like traditional folk songs our work is not our own invention anyway.
I draw my inspiration from traditional work and I have spent many years driving around the country and all over Europe visiting museums, handling reserve collections, photographing them learning from them. Just occasionally I find one that I love and use as the starting point to develop a new piece for my own range of 21st century woodware. The finished pieces are never direct copies unless I am doing museum replica work, I develop them and bring all the knowledge of what makes a good bowl that I have accumulated over 20 years handling, making and using them to make pieces that I find work well in modern homes.
If I take the example of the porringers that I make. These are inspired by an Elizabethan bowl that I was asked to look at when it was first excavated in Southwark about 15 years ago, very close to the site of the Globe theatre. If you didn’t know what you were looking at you may not realise it is a porringer, the archaeologists didn’t at the time. The handles are turned rather thin, too thin I think and they have broken off but you can clearly see they were there. I make my handles a little thicker to avoid this happening. I also think the base is too big so I turn mine smaller, this gives much more energy to the form. I like the rim though which is rather similar to bowls from the Mary Rose, I use that element.
I knew immediately this was a porringer because I had recently studied the 12th century one at Winchester this one too is a fairly ugly bowl, it could be improved in many ways but handling it gave me insights into the sort of porringer that I wanted to make.
The final bit of inspiration for my design came from a potter who I admire hugely, Svend Bayer, he is a master of turned form. This is one from my kitchen.
What I take from Svend’s pot is the small base, the angle the wall meets the base at and the way the side wall is a gradually tightening curve all of which combine to create a seriously vital form.
So I took all these inspirations and more and combine them into a form which I evolved over 15 years to create my own porringers. These are the current ones but if you go back to my first ever blog post in 2008 I was making them pretty similar and the last chapter of my 2005 book The Wooden Bowl shows me making one start to finish.
In plan view this is the way I carve the handles. I have never seen this on any old porringer in any material, but having experimented with the various options of concave, convex, parallel, outsloping, insloping etc this is what I settled on.
Now the question is should the design you see above be regarded as something that is mine in the same way that an artists work is? Or since I am a traditional craftsperson is it fair game to make near exact copies of these porringers?
My take on it is this. I am very happy for folk to be inspired by my work, I think it is a good idea to look at things you are inspired by and make copies of them, this is the best way to understand what it is you like about them. I am very happy for folk to share pictures of them and if they say I made a copy of one of Robin’s porringers in the way that musicians would say we are going to do a Rolling Stones cover that would be great. What I am not so keen on is when I see near exact copies of my porringers or quaichs or whatever else up for sale as if these porringers are simple generic items like cheddar cheese. “Here I made a porringer” as if the world were full of wooden porringers from which to draw inspiration, the two above are the only originals I know amongst thousands of medieval bowls I have handled, they were not a common form. There are many other bowl forms out there, today it is easier than ever to find them online you don’t even have to visit the museum. Developing a really sweet form and design takes a lot of effort but it is worth it, when you find something that you really feel is something you have developed yourself and added to the tradition and it works really well in the home that is a good feeling. That is what being a good traditional craftsperson is about, innovation within the tradition.