Among the silliest distinctions in the world of art is that between so-called ‘fine art’ and ‘fine craft.’ Prior to the Age of Enlightenment, artists were craftsmen. It was only with the Romantic notion of the Cult of Genius that artists developed the slight stink of intellectualism. Somehow, that separated us from our craftwork brethren.
The Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century ought to have ended that. Based on the writing of art critic John Ruskin, this movement held that mass production created “servile labour.” Our subsequent history of importing cheap goods from the Third World seems to have proved his point.
The gap between fine art and fine craft was bridged by brilliant artists like William Morris, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald, and the Roycroft Movement. Sadly, their influence has largely been aesthetic, not practical. The dichotomy between fine art’s intellectual fussiness and craft’s plain usefulness has grown wider.
This is why plein air painting gets so little respect, by the way. It rejects the idea that fine art is primarily an intellectual activity. Instead of making great statements, it seeks to transmit a lowly and practical view of the world. It makes people happy.
I pondered these matters as I wandered the British Museum’s monumental show, The Celts, currently in Edinburgh. What material culture is left of ancient Europe is largely what we categorize as ‘fine craft’—beaten gold torcs, shield bosses, or pottery. (While we moderns reject purpose in contemporary art, we are always quick to ascribe it to the things we can’t understand among ancient artifacts. Apparently, no ancient person ever carved anything for the joy of carving: all incomprehensible art is now classified as some kind of religious totem.)
There was also a textile history that went along with the metal and stone history, but almost all of it is lost to the ages. Textiles are so ephemeral that they occupy a smaller niche in art history.
Phoebe Anna Traquair is one of the few women artists who achieved international recognition as a craftswoman, largely because she worked within the international Arts and Crafts movement. Traquair was what we might ironically call a Renaissance man, a virtuoso in many media: murals, painting, jewelry, illustration, illumination and embroidery. She was the first woman elected to the Scottish Royal Academy.
Traquair’s first commission was to do a series of murals for the Mortuary Chapel of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh. This was hardly prestigious; the room itself was a former coalhouse where bodies were kept prior to burial. She went on to do murals in several more prominent locations around Edinburgh: at St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Thistle Chapel at St. Giles Cathedral, and the Catholic Apostolic Church.
Four of Traquair’s tapestries are on display at the National Galleries. The Progress of the Soul is exuberant, luxurious, and exquisitely composed, borrowing heavily from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Traquair uses an idealized, beautiful young man dressed in an animal skin to represent the human soul. As young Denys moves from joy to despair, the natural world also changes from joyous to ‘red in tooth and claw.’ In the last panel a seraph breathes life back into him. Death is vanquished.
And all of this was done with a needle, by a mere woman who was also a wife and mother. Imagine.