Brief History of European Craftsmanship



It all started, a long time ago, when an early inhabitant of the planet decided that his cave needed smartening up.  So he painted some designs on the walls, taken from his observations of the world around him  They are still there,  10,000 years later, and are still much-admired.

Lascaux cave-drawing


A big step forward was taken by the Celts.  Their influence spread from the Danube to the British Isles.  They made jewellery for their chieftains, including Cunobelus (Shakespeare's Cymbeline).


But the real leap forward came in the later Middle Ages and with the Renaissance; powered by the Church and the Great Families.  Both were rich and seemingly were there for ever.  Of course there were continual disputes but the future looked stable.  Rheims Cathedral, for example, took ninety years to complete; so the original architects and masons knew they would never see it finished.  But they carried on, which shows real faith in the future.

Reims Cathedral, built XIII century


Throughout Europe and particularly in Italy, families vied with each other to produce ever more magnificent works to reflect their glory. The Wettin dynasty in Saxony, the Medicis in Florence and so on; they filled Europe with treasures that still last today.  Carvings, statues, reredos and glassware, they still attract milllions of tourists and sightseers.



The Medici family started as bankers, with spectacular success.  They dominated Florence, for centuries,  and eventually ruled over it.  TTey gave two queens to France and two popes.  The somewhat forbidding statue, right, is of Lorenzo the Magnificent.


Frederick Augustus I, known as the Just.  Was King of Saxony 1806-1827.  His capital was Dresden, which became one of the most important centres of artistic achievement. This stil applies, despite the bombing in WWII  

Giuliano della Rovere, Pope Julius II, 1503-1513.  It was Julius who bullied Michelange into painting the ceiling of the Cistine Capel, amongst other works.  The quiet, contemplative expression in this portrait is somewhat deceptive.  He was also a fiercesome soldier.

Alexander III was Czar of All the Russias 1845-1894.  His personal involvement in the famous Fagergé Eggs was slight but he did inspire and patronise the craftsman. 

They still fetch huge sums at auction.

Richard II was King of England 1367-1400.  He did not build Westminster Hall, this was started in 1097 AD.  But he did order the reconstruction of the ceiling in oak.  After 700 years, it is still going strong.  It is said that when being cleaned recently, some tennis balls were found in the rafters.  HenryVIII often played there.

Michelangelo's David in Florence

Meissen Porcelain from Dresden

Sistine Chapel

Fabergé Egg

Westminster Hall

All that disappeared in 1918 and we were plunged into the XX Century.  The great families ceased to rule, the Church lost its best ally and a new type of ruler took over.

These were often opportunists, idealists or thugs.  They had little interest in or experience of artistic endeavour.  Power was what mattered.  When they did undertake any building it was precisely to emphasise their importance.   "Short-termism" was the new word.  Little was of any great quality.  After all, the new leaders never knew how long they were going to last.

Ceascescu's "Palace of the People" in Bucarest, built without regard to cost but at great sacrifice to the Romanians.  Nobody now knows what to do with it


Some centres of excellence carried on; some still do.  But they found it hard going to compete with the factories.  Here are some examples. 

Venetian glass is still a by-word for craftsmanship.

The Liberty Bell made by Whitechapel Bell Foundry.  This London institution was founded in 1420.

Spode porcelain; still the best there is.

Meanwhile the XX century, renowned for its brutality, technical and medical advances, has left behind virtually nothing of artistic merit.  There are plenty of anecdotes to illustrate this.  An international corporation commissioned an expensive statue for the main entrance - but the Rubbish Men took it away, thinking it had been put out for them.  A woman spent a week in bed and then entered it for a prestigious award - and won.  An artist exposed a painting at a famous London gallery.  He then furiously pointed out to the staff that they had hung it upside-down.  They corrected this - but then he returned to say that they might have been right in the first place.