Making Things and Making History

Nicholas Cooper

Histories. Three different periods: the main house of 1600, the porch from a house of c.1550 but placed here in the 1780s (Montacute, Somerset).

Members of the Guild are active makers and artists, and one of the (very few) compensations in the current lock-down is that by having to limit what we can actually do, we have time to think about how we do it. I am an architectural historian, but though I can’t get to libraries and archives or go and look at buildings, I can think about what I have in common with other Art Workers in the Guild.

Documents. Part of a stone mason’s bill of 1636
(Holland House, Kensington).

History is a craft. The people and events that are said to ‘make’ history are merely history’s raw materials, just as wood, clay and precious stones are the raw materials of the cabinet maker, the potter and the jeweller. Materials and events are only finished objects or history when they have been shaped and put together to make something that is satisfying and fit for purpose. What matters is the reliability of the materials that are chosen, how the maker sees what might be made of them, and how they are used. The historian’s methods are like the craftsman’s in finding and assessing his sources, and then seeing how they can be understood and related. But for neither the historian nor the craftsman is there any single, right way of doing these things, nor finished designs or histories (beyond the most basic) that are good for all cultures and for all time. Just as chairs, pots or houses are made to suit different fashions, uses and situations, so histories are written for a variety of audiences, to try and solve different problems, to exploit different source materials and to answer new questions.

Documents. 1837 plan for additions to the Henley on Thames Workhouse.

Perhaps the parallel is even closer between historians and engineers. Engineering is constantly evolving new techniques and materials and rejecting old ones, identifying new problems to be solved and finding new ways of solving them. The historian asks questions because he has new theories that he must test, has discovered new facts to be explained or new sources of evidence, or else because society needs fresh answers to old questions or to questions that have not been asked before. The engineer constructs the future, the historian reconstructs the past, but both use modern tools to serve the needs of the present.

Questions: A roof with a complex history. (Bramshill, Hants).

People sometimes think it’s the historian’s job simply to establish ‘the facts’, but if the only link between facts is that one thing happened after another, this does not make them history. The historian’s job is to explain change; without change there would be no history, and the historian must create a credible picture not just of what may have happened but of how and why. One can never know everything about the past, any more than one could design every possible chair. The historian must therefore use his imagination, but he is not free to invent, any more than the craftsman wastes his time in designing a chair that doesn’t fit the facts of human anatomy. The historian must not misrepresent or ignore the facts that he knows, or pretend to know things that he doesn’t, but it is by fresh suggestions and ideas that history moves on.

Questions: Six different alterations to be explained (Hardwick Old Hall, Derbyshire).

My own area of history is architecture. I study buildings and read what their architects and their critics have said about them in order to trace the history of design and construction. I study their plans and search for documents so as to understand how buildings were perceived and used, enabling buildings to throw light on other areas of history and society. But besides needing a creative imagination like any historian, I also feel a community with craftsmen in a more material way when I climb around an old building in order to work out how it developed and functioned. Blocked windows, structural alterations and signs that bits have been demolished or added are all essential clues, and call for skill and experience in recognising and interpreting them. Architectural sources, both written and three-dimensional, are the pieces of a four-dimensional jigsaw, and there will always be pieces missing. But trying to solve the puzzle and to create a picture that may correspond to past reality is endlessly rewarding. And by making the past intelligible one makes the present intelligible too.

Working round the builders. A 17th century stair balustrade (Godolphin, Cornwall).  

Posted on: 16 July 2020

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