imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

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.18--bermondsey-poringer

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.23-win-porringer-6

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.

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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.

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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._MG_8008-Edit

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.

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18 Responses to imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

  1. Jane Mickelborough March 27, 2014 at 8:27 am #

    I agree with you Robin.
    Although I have yet to get top the stage of being able to make an exact copy of anything, I try to acknowledge a source of an idea, as I did when I first published pictures of my own attempts at a porringer.
    However, I could argue that your porringer designs are now so well known as to have become the definition of a porringer!

    • Robin Wood March 27, 2014 at 8:43 am #

      So now it’s like a band going on stage and playing “Satisfaction” and everyone knows it’s a Stones number? Hmmm maybe. But then what about the quaich? I see lots of quaichs which are based on mine rather than originals, I know because I know where all the design elements of my quaich come from and there has never been an old one with handles like that, or the octagonal handled spoon? I searched for years to find a decent medieval spoon to make interpretations of. I found one in a museum in Lubeck Germany and went through a very similar development of it to the process described above for the porringer. It took a lot of effort and time and my medieval Lubeck spoon is a long way from the original that I credit. Barn in turn was inspired by my spoon and wrote a really nice blog post where he credited mine as the inspiration. Others just copy them and say “I made a medieval spoon” http://www.bushcraftuk.com/forum/showthread.php?t=81327

      • David Blanc March 31, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

        As Jane said, “your porringer designs are now so well known as to have become the definition of a porringer!” Problem is: not anybody knows they come from you, or how much of it is an original design. There are so many people posting pictures of porringer like yours on the Facebook group for instance, that newcomers wouldn’t necessarily know it’s your design (unless everyone credited you each time with a “copy of Robin Wood’s porrindger”): I just learn from this blog post how much was from you and how little was traditional. You know how you got there, and you can tell from other people’s bowls how much of your ideas were stolen, but they probably can’t.

        And it seems to me that’s the problem with traditional craftsmanship. People know it’s a bit of traditional design and a bit of the artist’s talent, but they don’t know how much is which. To draw on your analogy with songs, it’s not like “Satisfaction”, it’s much more like when musicians play their arrangement of (or something inspired by) a traditional tune, say “Greensleeves”. People will recognise the melody as a traditional one, but unless they really know the history of that tune and all the other versions that exist of it, they won’t be aware of the work these musicians put into this particular interpretation. They will appreciate the end result, guess most of it comes from the tradition, and might even end up playing exactly the same version themselves without crediting that arrangement.

        The big difference with “Satisfaction” is that this song has been known (or advertised) from the beginning as a Rolling Stones’ song and they made sure that every time it was played or every time someone did a cover, they were credited. If they weren’t, they would sue. Sadly, the only way for you to get the same level of recognition would probably be to have an “officially” registered design and sue anybody copying it without crediting you.

    • Phil Steele April 6, 2014 at 12:35 am #

      I can understand your frustration Robin. A replica of a truly original design should have a reference to the original designer. However if the design is described as “Historic” and not “Original” peoplel feel free to reproduce it at will. After all it is historic design and therefore does not belong to any one person.

      Here is where I see the issue originating with your porringer specifically. Here is an excerpt of your own description of your porringers for sale, “a replica of an Elizabethan bowl found not far from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.” Nowhere in your description do you mention it being an original design. Anyone reading your description would rightly think that the porringer is purely a traditional design with no one person having a particular claim to it, so there is no problem reproducing it.

      If it is an original design based on an amalgamation of the best features of several other porringers plus your 19 years experience as a bowl turner, it really should be mentioned in the description. Without some such wording, it is very sensible for anyone to believe the porringer is a purely historic design and therefore open to replication by anyone without mention of you as the originator.

      • Robin Wood April 6, 2014 at 11:00 am #

        This is a good point. I shall change the wording on my website for this and my other work that is inspired by museum pieces. Maybe I’ll do a blog post on the inspirations for each and link to it from the sales page. Having said that If someone is copying my porringer even if they thought it was a replica of an original they are not replicating the original but making a replica of a replica. I personally would never do that. I would always go back to the source. If I can’t find the source I cite the place that I found the information, that is standard academic practice and I feel it translates well into craft.

        • Bruce Denney April 22, 2014 at 6:52 am #

          I think that changing the descriptions is a great idea, not to protect your work, but to help prevent the adoption of your modern original design as being a historic design.

          I bet there are school kids out there who have found your website and successfully picture of your work as being original historical examples, gradually, indirectly and unintentionally you may be warping the original historical forms.

          Teachers may be accepting your designs, university students, professors and those of the future may also make the same errors. You have duty to history to preserve it and avoid warping where possible.

          • Robin Wood April 22, 2014 at 7:41 am #

            I changed the wording a while ago now. I would hope that students would not look to sales websites as sources of historically accurate information. I publish in various ways, general interest goes on the web, serious interest in in my book “The Wooden Bowl” which is fully referenced with lots of photos of originals and transcripts of source documents. Students and academics should be reading peer reviewed work, again I publish in that context too.

  2. Eric G March 27, 2014 at 5:24 pm #

    If you have not seen it, here is a related editorial from the American Craft Council site:
    http://craftcouncil.org/post/alibaba-and-copycat-thieves#comment-form

  3. Katy March 27, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

    I’d be getting nowhere if I didn’t try to replicate objects I’d seen, but then I’m right at the beginning of learning how to use my tools and materials. It’s not that I don’t make things which are uniquely mine – none of my cannibal forks are copies, for example – but I can better judge my progress when I work on a mix of things. For me it’s about aspiration.

  4. Mike Siemsen March 27, 2014 at 8:50 pm #

    I believe Emulation is the sincerest form of flattery. Imitation is just copying. Unless you want to spend a lot of time and effort on it and give up your craft to protect your “trade dress” there is really very little you can do about it. It is a bit like cursing at the weather for all the good it does. You have spent a lot of time and energy researching and reviving a craft you love, few if any have a greater understanding of the history and the process than yourself. A second or third generation copy is never as good as the original. I believe you to be an original, and a bit difficult to copy.

  5. EJ April 6, 2014 at 8:43 am #

    Well said Robin.

  6. Kalia Kliban April 15, 2014 at 5:07 pm #

    As Phil pointed out, it did seem from your wording that what you were showing was a historical design rather than an original interpretation. I may be one of the people you’re grousing about, since I fell in love with that shape and have made many of them (and sold them). When people ask about the design, I do say that I learned it from you, but also that it’s a historical design. Mine are slightly different (painted exterior, and I feature a textured band where I leave the handle protrusion slightly proud of the bowl’s exterior between the handles), but not, I now think, different enough. Please accept my apologies for inadvertently stepping on your artistic toes. I do still love the handled bowl form and will continue to use it, but I’ll avoid that particular flat-handled porringer shape in future.

    • Robin Wood April 15, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

      Just to be clear I am not grousing about anyone in particular. I see lots and lots of porringers out there on the internet rarely with any attribution. I am happy for anyone to make them, post pics of them, sell them even if the design is credited. Or to use it as inspiration to develop your own designs in the way that I have done with the old bowls here. It’s just when I see a close copy of one of my porringers with all the little bits that I put into the design, the inward angled handles, the chamfered rim, the gradually tightening curve of the sidewall etc if you are doing all those things then it’s a Robin Wood style Porringer not a Tudor style one.

  7. Flisnissen May 9, 2014 at 9:18 am #

    Be inspired… http://digitaltmuseum.no/search?query=vangar&search_context=1&page=1

  8. Kalia Kliban May 14, 2014 at 12:34 am #

    At the top of the “Porringers” album on my Fbook woodworking page, I’ve got the following attribution, after some general copy about why porringers have handles:

    “I’d also recommend looking at the wonderful website and blog of English pole-lathe turner Robin Wood, from whom I learned about this lovely bowl form. ”

    This has been there since I posted the album, but I don’t know if it’s sufficient. Robin, I’d really appreciate your input about this. I value your work both as a turner and a historian, and don’t want to be irksome.

    The album is located here: https://www.facebook.com/kalia.kliban/media_set?set=a.10201353903354941.1073741825.1394317457&type=1

    I’m more than happy to provide attribution in any form you feel is appropriate and sufficient.

  9. Mike M August 27, 2014 at 1:19 am #

    Robin,

    I just wanted to say that your work is inspiring and its no wonder it is being copied. My skills are not such that I’ve ever attempted an exact copy but images of your spoons are always on hand as I work to improve my skills. Thanks for everything you do for the craft and your generously shared knowledge on this site.

  10. Kate Jones October 17, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    Well said Mr Wood, well said.

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