THE exquisite jewellery of Egypt, Etruria, Europe and Greece, work so fine as almost to appear miraculous, was the outcome of centuries of development. What remains to us is the sum of an infinite series of small improvements in work and method, added by one generation of craftsmen after another. Each worker brought his fraction of beauty to the store laid up and bequeathed to him by those who had gone before. The men who made these things which fill us all with wonder had, however, not only inherited skill to guide their hands and eyes. Each went through a long apprenticeship, during which he was made free of the results of an unbroken tradition of craftsmanship.
His work lay almost in the open air; there was beauty in all his surroundings, and inspiration waited on him continually. As always the happiness of the worker was reflected in the work. Each seems to have been content if he could surpass by ever so little the skill of his forbears.
Yet the farther the discoveries of archaeology take us back into the past, the more clearly we see by what slow, tentative, almost stumbling steps that perfection of skill has been attained. Between the prehistoric fibula hammered out from a nugget of ore and the granulated cloak-clasp of Etruria and Greece the distance is enormous, yet we are able to follow the line of development and almost to mark its stages. Apart from the fact that this gradual perfecting of craftsmanship has been the way to excellence in the past, it is the only way by which the student can attain to confidence and knowledge. Lacking these no one can give adequate expression to his ideas. Not only does the study of methods and the qualities of material enable the worker to give expression to an idea, it is absolutely the most fruitful source of ideas, and those which are suggested by process are invariably healthy and rational. The hand and the brain work together, and the outcome of their partnership is a sanity of conception, which is greatly to seek in most even of the best work of to-day. The reason is perhaps that the zeal of the artist has not been tempered by knowledge. The reason of this again is that. for more than a century the painter and the sculptor have stood before the public as the sole representatives of the Arts, and in consequence all the crafts and arts have been approached pictorially, even by those who practice them, as if each were only another form of picture-making.
This is not wholly untrue, only the methods of the painter do not always apply in the crafts. Take as the simplest example a Rhodian ear-ring. What is it? —a rough pearl, a skeleton cube of gold wire, a tiny pyramid of beads, and a hook. What could be more simple? Yet the cunning collocation of these elementary forms has produced a thing of beauty that cannot now be surpassed. No amount of fumbling with a pencil could ever lead to a like result. The material was there in front of the crafts- man, and on the material the creative idea engendered the work of art. Art is craftsmanship plus inspiration; and inspiration is the rush of unconscious memory along channels made by a habit of craftsmanship. But the craftsmanship of the early workman was frank and fearless, the worker of to-day is hidden behind the stones he uses. His material is a screen and not a medium of expression. Stones and jewels to the early artist were means of adding emphasis to his work, or were used as the germ of a design; by the modern they are used as substitutes for design. To the former the jewel was an added beauty to the setting; to the latter the jewel is a means of hiding the setting and the workmanship. The old workman took the rough crystal of sapphire, or ruby, or emerald, and polished it, keeping the stone as large as possible, displaying to the utmost its native beauty. The modern workman splits and cuts his gems into regular, many-faceted, geometrical forms of infinite ingenuity and intolerable hideousness. The modern method of cutting equalizes the colour and intensifies the glitter of the gem, but the glitter takes away that mysterious magical quality, that inner luster of liquid light, which for the artist is its chiefest beauty, and replaces that beauty by a mechanical sheen offensive to every cultivated eye. Moreover, the machine-made perfection of the cut stone has, as it were, reacted on the mounting, and is, perhaps, one cause among many of the mechanical hardness and lack of artistry so visible in modern work. The student who is seeking to avoid these defects must begin at the beginning, learn thoroughly the rudiments of his craft, and build up his system of design by slow degrees out of the results of his daily experience. He must learn to rely at first on excellence of handiwork as the foundation of his claim to be considered an artist. The one guiding principle of all true craftsmanship is this: the forms used in design should express naturally and simply the properties of the particular material employed.