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Artisan culture in London, c. 1550–1640

This book explores artisanal identity and culture in early modern London. It demonstrates that the social, intellectual, and political status of London’s crafts and craftsmen was embedded in particular material and spatial contexts. Through examination of a wide range of manuscript, visual, and material culture sources, the book investigates for the first time how London’s artisans physically shaped the built environment of the city, and how the experience of negotiating urban spaces impacted directly upon their own distinctive individual and collective identities. The book identifies and examines a significant cultural development hitherto overlooked by social and architectural historians: a movement to enlarge, beautify, and rebuild livery company halls in the City of London from the mid-sixteenth century to the start of the English civil wars. By exploring these re-building projects in depth, the book throws new light on artisanal cultural production and self-presentation in England’s most diverse and challenging urban environment. Craft company halls became multifunctional sites for knowledge production, social and economic organisation, political exchange, and collective memorialisation. The forms, uses, and perceptions of company halls worked to define relationships and hierarchies within the guild, and shaped its external civic and political relations. Applying an innovative and interdisciplinary methodology to the examination of artisanal cultures, the book engages with the fields of social and cultural history and the histories of art, design, and architecture. It will appeal to scholars of early modern social, cultural, and urban history, and those interested in design and architectural history.

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Crafting identities
Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin

This chapter introduces key debates in British and European scholarship concerning early modern artisanal identity, and its significance to our understanding of urban culture and society. It then locates my distinctive argument and methodology within this historiography and sets out the central thesis of the book: namely, that the social and intellectual status of London’s crafts and craftsmen was embedded in particular material and spatial contexts. The enlarging, beautifying, and rebuilding of company halls was expensive, highly visible, and time-consuming. Showing how artisans and merchants fashioned their corporate spaces decentres narratives about changes to the built environment of early modern London, which are usually framed solely from the perspective of aristocratic, gentlemanly, and royal activity. This introductory chapter further explores how the findings of the book throw new light on wider urban themes. First, through exploration of the intersection of artisanal and civic cultures, this study speaks to a broader historiographical debate about the nature and timing of English ‘civic’ and ‘urban’ renaissances in this era, and the social groups participating in this cultural resurgence. In particular, it elucidates the importance of the subjective notion of skill to London’s citizens. Second, looking beyond England, this book also contributes to a European-wide debate on the role of artisans in shaping early modern knowledge cultures.

in Crafting identities
Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin

This chapter explores the interrelationship of knowledge, text, and artisanal identity in early modern London. The focus, unusually, is not on literary representations of craftsmen, or the archives produced by craft companies, but on materials that were independently authored by artisans. This examination of early seventeenth-century artisanal writings includes a master mason’s account book and notebook composed for his workshop and household (authored by Nicholas Stone and his sons), a manuscript treatise on metallurgy written by goldsmiths for a select civic audience, and a printed text of practical mathematics authored by a carpenter for a far-reaching commercial public. The chapter begins with these artisanal-authored texts because in their discussions of household, commercial, and civic activities, they illuminate key features of a broader epistemological culture, which will be examined in greater depth in subsequent chapters. First, the ideal master craftsman has both extensive practical experience, and an understanding of the theoretical principles underpinning his labour; experiential and propositional knowledge are intertwined. Second, artisanal expertise was a charged concept, intersecting with social and political stratifications within civic culture. A third shared theme is that workshop production and assessment of material quality are represented by artisans as collaborative processes, subject to social negotiation. Legitimate judgements about material quality and craftsmanship were made collectively, within select civic spaces, such as the assay house, or company parlour. A fourth shared element is that none of these artisanal texts were meant to be understood in isolation; they all point towards corresponding material cultures and urban spaces.

in Crafting identities
Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin

This chapter establishes the multifunctional nature of craft guild halls, buildings in which company members and officers lived, governed, worked, and socialised. It argues that the halls were not inert sites which simply ‘contained’ mercantile and artisanal activities, but active environments – fashioned through built fabrics, material cultures, and human agents – which generated meaning. The craft hall was at the centre of guild activities and had a substantial impact on everyday encounters and exchanges, but this multifunctional space was also fundamental to the collective historic imagination, or memory, of London’s craftsmen. Through their designs, materiality, layout, and furnishings, craft halls held great symbolic significance for their artisanal members and the broader urban community. This chapter also identifies, for the first time, distinctive patterns of company hall rebuilding, adaptation, and ‘beautification’ from c. 1550 to c. 1640 – changes which can be observed in the shifting language of guild inventories and organisation of building plans. Throughout the City, late medieval guild structures were either demolished and replaced, or significantly modified and enlarged, a process which affected hall chambers, parlours, courtrooms, treasuries, kitchens, galleries, and adjoining workshops, gardens, and almshouses. Artisans were investing significant funds, time, energy, materials, and ingenuity into the institutional built environment. The chapter shows how these improvements were shaped, both conceptually and materially, by a considerable range of established and aspirational guildsmen. Contributions to the material and structural organisation of company buildings impacted upon the status of master craftsmen within the guild hierarchy.

in Crafting identities
Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin

This chapter considers knowledge cultures on the building site. If we broaden our focus from rarefied texts of architectural theory authored by gentlemen – the customary sources used by scholars for elucidating building projects – to evidence of practice and engagement on work sites, then a very different picture of epistemologies emerges. Whereas works of architectural theory present a firm separation between the cerebral process of design and mechanical construction, records of building assessments and work on construction projects show that firm divisions between propositional and tacit knowledges were not recognised by London’s artisanal population. The evidence from the Viewers’ reports – the four master craftsmen specifically employed by the City to adjudicate upon contentious building projects – shows that evaluation of building construction, sustainability, and design was demonstrably a job for (undifferentiated) mind, body, and hand. Similarly, the citizens engaged in the major project to rebuild Goldsmiths’ Company Hall on Foster Lane in the 1630s, individually and collectively looked at the site, physically examined the building, and consulted those with specific building expertise. Artisanal knowledge was communicated on site through a range of mediums, including the spoken word, written instructions, and visual sources. ‘Plots’ (plans) composed by master mason Nicholas Stone were not definitive blueprints but works-in-progress, critically assessed by building practitioners in dialogue with the built environment. Moreover, disputes over the valuation of artisanal labour on this building site show that establishing skill and precision was not reducible to abstract theoretical principles, but subject to social negotiation between craft experts.

in Crafting identities
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Artisanal virtuosity and material memorialisation
Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin

Moving from architectural concerns to guild cultures of object exchange and the physical interiors of early modern livery halls, this chapter reconsiders the material gift within London’s guilds, using material cultures, inventories, wills, and books of benefactors. Existing research into the culture of civic gift-giving has focused exclusively upon substantial bequests of money and property by mercantile elites to the ‘great twelve’ livery companies. By contrast, the chapter demonstrates that a rich culture of material gift-giving, hitherto overlooked, also thrived within London’s craft guilds. The chapter uncovers the fundamental importance of material cultures to the articulation and establishment of individual artisanal reputations and collective craft culture; it identifies typologies of donors and gifts, and the anticipated ‘returns’ by the recipient company. A material approach reveals that master artisans and retailers sought to establish civic status, authority, and memory through the presentation of a wide range of artefacts, including paintings, armour, silver plate, textiles, workshop tools, and sculpture, for display and ritual use in the livery hall. Hand-wrought objects from particular master artisans or workshops were understood to be especially valued gifts because they embodied artisanal expertise through their designs, materiality, and technical aspects. Finally, the chapter considers the changing spatial and temporal contexts of gift presentations by citizens, which by the latter half of the sixteenth century were synchronised with the most important ritual events in the civic calendar, and into the built fabric of the City’s livery halls.

in Crafting identities
Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin

This chapter explores the ways in which adapted guild buildings shaped the experiences, identities, and behaviours of artisans and broader groups of urban inhabitants. It also considers how the performance of particular artisanal and civic activities impacted upon the meanings and significance of certain spaces. Notions of belonging, status, and hierarchy were articulated and experienced through institutional architectures. Further, conceptions of relative ‘secrecy’ and ‘openness’ were enacted and reinforced through the use and appropriation of company halls. This examination of the manifold ways in which built environments shaped guild communities, and how the users of company halls appropriated them, considers specific spaces such as galleries, parlours, kitchens, halls, assay houses, and domestic sites, as well as particular activities and cultural practices, like material testing and feasting. These highly ritualised activities derived significance from their performance in certain spaces, and in turn shaped the meanings and import of the rooms in which they were enacted. As artisanal company halls were expanded and beautified from the mid-sixteenth century, their users and visitors became increasingly conscious of how access, movement, and placement within these institutional spaces reflected upon personal and collective identities. Through their spatial organisation and ritualised uses, livery halls ordered bodies relationally according to social, gender, and generational differences. Privileged access to particular chambers, and witnessing of protected or ‘secret’ guild practices, signified and produced artisanal status. Additionally, proximity and contact with the treasured material apparatus of feasting rites worked to bolster status and hierarchies within the artisanal or mercantile guild.

in Crafting identities
Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin

This chapter explores external walls and political relationships. Improvements to guild halls were located within a broader political and cultural movement to refashion the urban fabric of the City and its environs. It considers three central case-studies: first, the enhancement of guild and City gatehouses; second, dialogues over the exterior designs of Goldsmiths’ Hall; and third, the long-running debate over the contested location of London’s goldsmiths’ shops and work sites. Linking these case studies is a deep-rooted concern on the part of both civic and royal authorities to regulate space and enhance the material fabric of London. Thematically central too is the question of what exactly constitutes ‘public’ space? At the Goldsmiths’ Hall site in the 1630s there was an inherent tension between the complex interior spatial organisation of company buildings (the prerogative of the guildsmen) and their façades (adapted in accordance with the royal concern for ‘uniformity’). To resolve tensions over the extent to which company architectures were ‘public’ buildings, guild office-holders made a distinction between ‘inward’ works, over which they exerted close control, and ‘outward’ walls, where responsibility was largely delegated to those with architectural expertise and close royal connections. Congruently, the well-documented campaign to return all ‘remote’ goldsmiths (located in western suburbs) to Cheapside (their customary City location) shows that contested interpretations of ‘private’ or ‘public’ space, in workshops and city streets as within company halls, came to define an artisan’s or trader’s place within the body of the guild or, indeed, his exclusion from it.

in Crafting identities
Abstract only
Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin

The conclusion summarises the key arguments and intellectual contributions of this book. In doing so it opens with a gifted object – the Goldsmiths’ Company’s Gibbon Salt – a micro-architectural salt that must have been a constant reminder both of the magnificence of the wider built environment of Goldsmiths’ Hall, and the collective virtuosity of London’s goldsmiths. This final material article brings together some of the key themes with which this book has been centrally concerned: improvements to built space; meaningful furnishings and material gifts; artisanal skill as a valued attribute and a symbolic artefact; and the interrelationship between individual and collective identities. The chapter also briefly looks forward, and extends our chronological range to 1666, the year of the Great Fire. This was an event which devastated the livery halls of London’s mercantile and artisanal communities, reducing to rubble the architectures through which company cultures had been organised for generations. The rapidity with which these buildings were re-established, in the late 1660s and early 1670s, often at considerable personal cost to the membership of artisanal companies, reaffirms the centrality of these built environments to collective craft identities.

in Crafting identities