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'Perceptions of Workmanship in Eighteenth-Century British Culture, 1760-1800'

I became interested in the workings of the ceramic industry after studying the operations of ceramic dealers for my MA thesis. In this work, I was interested primarily in the networks of information that ceramic dealers formed between themselves and other entities. I mapped out the location and value of the different ceramic dealers in London and in the more provincial town of Shrewsbury. Using letters and diaries I explored the various forms of network that dealers managed to form and became interested in the types of information that flowed through these networks. I was particularly interested in how dealers responded to the increased prevalence of catalogues that used visual information (drawings and colour schemes) to depict new designs and goods. I explored how dealers were able to effectively cross-conceptulise between these two-dimensional drawings into three dimensional objects and how important this process was to their ability to sell objects.

From this project I became interested in the objects themselves and how contemporaries understood such concepts as 'quality', 'workmanship' and 'skill'. Do the objects themselves represent these concepts? Or is the situation more complex and affected by other external forces? How do these concepts change in the early years of industrialisation?

I am exploring these issues from the perspective of various groups connected to the British ceramics industry; industrial tourists, customers, retailers, designers, manufacturers and workers.

Firstly, my research questions how industrial tourists recognised and understood the processes of making they saw when they visited factories. Highly influenced by the work of Alfred Gell, my research probes the idea of enchantment and recognises how industrial tourists frequently framed their experience of factories and making in terms of 'magic'. Yet, framing their understanding in these terms often lead to an inability to grasp the realities of industry and making, which perhaps had a detrimental effect on the ways in which workers and their skills were understood and evaluated.

Second, my thesis looks to the realm of retailing and examines the various ways in which retailers represented forms of making and production. It questions how these representations position making in terms of distance (geographical, social and knowledge-based) and also questions the different forms in which those representations occur (trade cards, prints, written material). Moreover, it questions how consumers responded to these representations. How dominant were forms of advertising? Did consumers collect information from other sources? How did they acquire alternative understandings of making?

Third, I examine the consumer inside the retail environment. Following the work of Claire Walsh and Jon Stobart, amongst others, I consider the importance of haptic skills in making consumption decisions. Initially my research questions how the design of shop interiors encouraged sensory interaction with objects. Second, I consider that if consumers were required to handle multiple goods in order to make their consumption choice, how through this process did they establish concepts of quality and workmanship?

The thesis also studies how workmanship operated in manufacturing. By focusing on three main aspects, the design process, the manufacturing process and the workers.

The design process underwent significant changes, particularly in the ceramics industry, in the second half of the eighteenth century. As design increasingly became a separate part of the manufacturing process how did it insure, or fail to insure quality and workmanship in the finished product? The thesis looks both to the design process and to modellers and drawers who were employed in the design process. It asks whether modellers faced questions of workmanship, and if so, how were these framed and registered? Were questions of quality and workmanship associated with design, or was quality something that was manufactured?

The thesis goes on to explore the production process. It is particularly interested in the organisation of manufacturing, which from the 1760s onwards went through major changes in the British ceramics industry. It asks how manufacturers perceived of workmanship, and examines the strategies they put in place to try and achieve it. Were they able to organise manufacturing in such a way that standardised 'quality' could be achieved repetitively? Did they understand workmanship through their own experience of skill? How did they encourage and train workers to achieve it? How did they reward it?

Finally, the thesis looks to the workers themselves to examine how they understood and valued their own skills. It looks to the economic, social and cultural values that surrounded ideas of workmanship. How did workers experience their skills? In what ways did they attach value and meaning to that skill? Were these purely economic practices, or did it operate culturally in certain groups or areas?

By exploring how the concept of workmanship changed during the early years of British industrialisation, the thesis hopes to shed new light on contemporaries' experiences and understandings of objects, production and skill.



Prof. Maxine Berg

Department of History

University of Warwick, UK