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The potter’s skill : perceptions of workmanship in the English ceramic industries, 1760-1800

By Kate Esther Smith


This thesis focuses on perceptions of workmanship in the English porcelain\ud and earthenware industries between 1760 and 1800. Research by Berg and\ud Clifford has demonstrated a new interest in and valuation of workmanship\ud by contemporaries in the eighteenth century. Yet little is known of what\ud contemporaries understood workmanship to mean, or be. This thesis\ud argues that understandings of workmanship affected both the consumption\ud and production practices of eighteenth-century contemporaries. It does so\ud by concentrating on six groups of people – industrial tourists, consumers,\ud retailers, designers, manufacturers and workers. It demonstrates the\ud different ways in which contemporaries perceived hand skills and tacit\ud knowledge by examining a range of sources such as letters, prints, trade\ud cards, travel accounts and objects.\ud This thesis concludes that meanings of ‘workmanship’ - that combination of\ud effort, work and skill - were shifting in the second half of the eighteenth\ud century. For those not employed in manufacturing, reading manuals,\ud seeing production in action and handling objects all challenged their ideas\ud of workmanship. These experiences encouraged contemporaries to\ud question the meaning of innovative products and the manufacturing\ud techniques used to make them. Similarly, in manufacturing the\ud development of the design process and the demands of novelty and\ud standardisation forced manufacturers, designers and modellers to ask how\ud to achieve ‘excellent workmanship’. At the same time, workers understood\ud and valued their work in different terms – as a hard-won, social and\ud physical skill. This thesis argues that for eighteenth-century contemporaries\ud ‘workmanship’ was a complex idea, under challenge from developments in\ud production and consumption. In so doing it moves the interlinked history\ud of manufacturing and consumption away from the extant debates of\ud economic historians and into a different sub-disciplinary space, namely\ud cultural history; a space that has tended to neglect the cultural aspects of\ud production

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