The question of the critical and popular reception of craftsmanship in the long eighteenth century is bound up with that of dissemination, which depended on accessibility, travel, publication, the migration of architects and craftsmen, as well as the dynastic changes that often informed artistic fashions and patterns of patronage. Craftsmen themselves were not without agency in creating a receptive audience for their skills.
The building of the town hall in Amsterdam during the 1640s and 50s, for example, did much to create the taste for richly carved interiors in Britain in the last decades of the seventeenth century, and the Quellinus family of sculptors who worked here produced a magnificent engraved volume to disseminate their own figurative and ornamental carving. Similarly, British architects of the mid-to-late seventeenth century were drawn to cities like Paris where they witnessed the kind of massive building projects that had been impossible at home due to the Civil War and interregnum. These in turn influenced the great works at St Paul’s, Windsor, Hampton Court, and a host of great country houses that define the last years of the century in Britain.
Outside of the architectural cognoscenti, materials and craftsmanship provided a talking point for those unaccustomed to architectural treatises. The late seventeenth-century traveller Celia Fiennes had almost nothing to say of architectural style, nor made the kind of references to correct taste that so preoccupied eighteenth-century writers. But her appreciation for woodwork was observant and subtle. At Chippenham Park in Cambridgeshire she noted that the hall was wainscoted in walnut, with rims of lemon-coloured Mulberry wood, and mouldings of ‘a sweete outlandish wood not much differing from Cedar but of a finer graine’. In the dining room there she described both the variety and the finish of the carving: ‘the finest carv’d wood in fruitages herbages gems beasts fowless, etc., very thinn and fine all in white wood without paint or varnish.’
Prior to the wider dissemination of architectural writing, descriptive vocabulary bends towards craftsmanship: the key word in Fiennes’s artistic lexicon is ‘curious’ – which does not mean strange or obscure, or even interesting, as it might today, but rather something thoughtfully and laboriously crafted. Later the question of taste came to monopolise eighteenth-century discourse on artistic production, making the discernment of the viewer central to interpretation and dissemination. By the middle of the century Horace Walpole was downright dismissive of the painted ceilings that had been fashionable in the previous generation. Of Chatsworth he commented ‘the heathen gods, goddesses, Christian virtues, and allegoric gentlefolks, are crowded into every room, as if Mrs Holman had been in heaven and invited every body she saw.’ For him the combined effect of painted ceilings, inlaid floors, and unpainted wainscot was merely sombre, which is perhaps to be expected from a leading exponent of the Rococo Gothick. For Walpole the question of craftsmanship was overshadowed by that of taste. What’s more he had none of Celia Fiennes’ broad appreciation of woodwork and his negative comment on the unpainted wainscoting at Chatsworth suggests a distance from raw materials in an age of stucco.