Art. Craft. Potato, Potahto.

I read Jarrod’s post,

and then Robin’s.

It’s weird stuff. I have no idea where I fall in the discussion. I usually stay out of it. When asked what I am, (that is, what is my job…) I describe myself as a joiner – and here in America most folks don’t know what that means. At the museum where I work, I and others who make things with our hands are called “artisans”. Because of all the carving on my furniture, people often say, “You’re an artist:” – and my response is usually that I consider myself a craftsman.


chair carvings

I had a visitor from Germany one day this year. She was looking at some carved panels I had on the bench. In her hesitant English, which was very good although she had little confidence in it, she said “It is very artificial.”

I thanked her greatly, and stressed that she had just used the term right out of the 17th century; and there weren’t many places where she would be understood using that old meaning of the word. I pictured people being upset or hurt that someone thought their stuff artificial.

But its roots are in artifice – someone who makes such things is an artificer. I dug out the OED & got these snippets:

artificer 1. A person who makes things by art or skill; an artisan, a craftsman.

▸a1393   Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.) vii. l. 1691   Artificers, Whiche usen craftes and mestiers, Whos Art is cleped Mechanique.

1445   Petition in Rolls of Parl. (2005) Parl. Feb. 1445 §44. m. 6   Þe wages of..a maister tyler or sclatter, rough mason and meen carpenter, and other the day .iij. d. with mete and drynk.

a1475   J. Russell Bk. Nurture (Harl. 4011) in Babees Bk. (2002) i. 187   Worshipfulle merchaundes and riche artyficeris.

c1517   King Henry VIII Let. 3 May in Camden Misc. (1992) XXXI. 32   A great number of..malicious jorneymen of theire..rancorous disposition against aliens and strangers, artificers and others..soddenly assembled themselves withein our..citty.

1592   T. Nashe Pierce Penilesse (Brit. Libr. copy) sig. C4v,   A base Artificer, that hath no reuenues to bost on.

1659   Milton Considerations touching Hirelings 147   From the magistrate himself to the meanest artificer.

1671   Milton Paradise Regain’d iv. 59   Carv’d work, the hand of fam’d Artificers In Cedar, Marble, Ivory or Gold.

artifice †1. The action of an artificer; the making of something by art or skill; craftsmanship, workmanship. Also: the work of an artificer; manual or mechanical work. Obs.

1526   Grete Herball sig. Qiii/1,   Hony is made by artyfyce, and craft of bees.

1646   Sir T. Browne Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1686) v. v. 195   Adam immediately issued from the Artifice of God.

1667   Milton Paradise Lost ix. 39   The skill of Artifice or Office mean, Not that which justly gives Heroic name To Person or to Poem.

a1682   Sir T. Browne Certain Misc. Tracts (1683) i. 4   The early artifice in Brass and Iron under Tubal-Cain.

2. Human skill or workmanship as opposed to nature or a natural phenomenon.

1526   Grete Herball sig. sig. Pvv/2,   There be yt are naturall without artyfyce or craft & they be ye best & whan ye fynde perles in receptes it is them ytbe naturall perles.

a1533   Ld. Berners tr. A. de Guevara Golden Bk. M. Aurelius (1537) f. 79,   As ye se a thynge made by artyfice peryshe, and a naturall thynge laste.

1593   J. Eliot Ortho-epia Gallica 153   No artifice of man can tell how to counterfait her note.

1774   G. Marriott Estimate of Human Life 355   Nature..infinitely excelled human Artifice.



a. Of a thing: made or constructed by human skill, esp. in imitation of, or as a substitute for, something which is made or occurs naturally; man-made.

c1425   Lydgate Troyyes Bk. (Augustus A.iv) iii. l. 5678 (MED),   Bawme natural, Þat ran þoruȝ pipes artificial.

c1475   tr. H. de Mondeville Surgery (Wellcome) f. 157,   Close þe lippis of þe wounde &..binde hem & hele hem wiþ wiyn and stupis & pressuris & plagellis & artificial byndynge.

1547   C. Langton Very Brefe Treat. Phisick ii. vi. sig. Gviv,   Artificiall bathes, be made by mannes witte.

1588   T. Hariot Breife Rep. Virginia sig. E2,   Their houses most townes couered with barkes, and in some with artificiall mattes made of long rushes.

1611   S. Rowlands Four Knaves 22   An artificiall flie of silk.

1663   Marquis of Worcester Cent. Names & Scantlings Inventions xlvi,   How to make an artificial Bird to fly.

In sixteenth-century England rules concerning the trades’ management were created. These were called  the Statute of Artificers.  

I remember Jogge Sundqvist using the term “handycraftsman” – but like the German visitor, this is a case of having  Jogge’s idea being translated into English…

Jogge Sundqvist at Country Workshops, 2010

Jogge Sundqvist at Country Workshops, 2010

But “handycraftsman” is an old term, think of Moxon’s book’s title, Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-works. I ran into this phrase when Trent & I studied Boston joiners too.  Here is an excerpt from the Bulletin of the Boston Public Library, vol. 4, #4, Jan. 1894, pp. 305-6:

 Fac-Simile of a Petition of the Handycraftsmen of Boston in 1677, Against the Intrusion of Strangers

On page 426 of his “History and Antiquities of Boston” the late Samuel G. Drake gives an account of the accompanying Petition. The original document, of which a fac-simile is now presented, was once owned by Drake, who thus describes it:

 “May 29, 1677. At the may session of the General Court, the Handycraftsmen, a very considerable part of the Town of Boston,’ to the number of one hundred and twenty-nine, put in a petition, praying for protection in their several callings, `whose outward subsistence,’ they say, `doth depend upon God’s blessing, and many of us not having estates any other way to advantage ourselves; that by the frequent intruding of strangers from all parts, especially of such as are not desirably qualified, find ourselves under great disadvantages, and prejudicial to the Towne; and many times the stranger drawes away much of the custome from his neighbor, which hath been long settled, and in reality is much more the deserving man; whereby it has already come to pass with many, that severall inhabitants that have lived comfortably upon their trades, and been able to bear publick charges in a considerable degree, now cannot subsist, which is very pernicious and prejudiciall to the Towne; and some that never served any time, or not considerably for the learning of a Trade, yet finding wayes to force themselves into the Towne, and then sometimes by hireing or buying a servant, they doe set up a Trade, and thus draw away the custom of the Petitioners belonging to the Town, as above has been set forth. They, therefore, `conceiving that the foresaid disadvantages do arise, either for the want of power to make orders, or due execution of orders, ask that power might be granted to the Selectmen,’ or others, `for a regular and effectual execution of all such orders as are, or may be made, referring to the admission of inhabitants; that Tradesmen shall fulfill a sufficient apprenticeship, and be (proficients?) before they set up Trades, etc.

For “artist” I think of Heather –


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