M. Roubo, L’Art du Menusier, vol. 2, Paris 1770

The virtuoso control of medium and tool is of fundamental importance in the experience of eighteenth-century buildings. This research strand will focus on the development and maintenance of quality in architectural craftsmanship. How were craftsmen trained? How did they sustain and develop their skills? How was the language of classical architecture learned and understood by stonemasons, joiners and carvers? How can we demonstrate the nature of virtuosity in craftsmanship? Discovering evidence for the training, skills, methods and business operations of early modern craftsmen is a challenging task. In a society which concealed the means of production and valued only the final, polished outcome, the records of making are few and far between.  

The remains of a plaster column at Clandon Park, Surrey, reveals the structure of slender laths upon which it was modelled. Photo: ©CRAFTVALUE

Guild and apprenticeship records offer one valuable avenue research, as do the papers of contemporary measurers which contain much useful material on production techniques. Some trade manuals of the period also contain information on the ways in which the classical orders and their ornaments were achieved, though much workshop activity remains undocumented and elusive. Another way into the craft skills of the past is provided by modern conservation of eighteenth-century buildings, which when opened up and surveyed by skilled practitioners reveal much about the methods of their makers. The dismantling of columns at Leinster House in Dublin and the scorched remains of damaged columns at Clandon Park in Surrey tell us about the processes of eighteenth-century joiners and stuccatori.

Paint and plaster analysis at Headfort House in County Meath revealed the original colour scheme. Photo: ©CRAFTVALUE

One of the challenges of this research strand in seeking to apply academic research to manual and transitory processes is how to communicate in words the long and drawn-out period of application, the thousands of hours of apprenticeship and the tacit or embodied knowledge not hitherto captured in the literature. Here digital technology comes to our aid, providing the optimum means of building on the archival and site research to visualise and animate the multi-layered surfaces of historic buildings. Digital humanities provide us with narrative and analytical tools to craft in three dimensions and time-lapsed form the processes which we seek to understand. This aspect of our research has significance and high relevance for many stakeholders in architectural heritage presented with the challenge of making buildings accessible to a wider public and of communicating the processes of conservation. 

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