Masterworks. The Arts and Crafts of Traditional Buildings in Northern Europe

Masterworks. The Arts and Crafts of Traditional Buildings in Northern Europe

John Dean

Masterworks. The Arts and Crafts of Traditional Buildings in Northern Europe. By Nigel Pennick. Loughborough: Heart of Albion Press, 2002. 163 pp. Illus. 9.95 [pounds sterling] (pbk). ISBN 1-872883-63-X

The book is described by its author as a “celebration” of a craft tradition, by which I think he means a review of everything that is good about the tradition of building in timber. The trouble is, he has a rather shaky grasp of the technicalities of the subject and to celebrate, for example, traditional joinery, you need to know about joints. I think it is fair to say the author is over-awed by joints and yet they are in essence very simple. There are two main types–the mortise and tenon, and the dovetail. The former makes up the great majority of joints that hold a timber-framed building together. It could be argued that the great array of different scarf joints encountered in timber-framed buildings should make the author’s point about complexity. However, they are, with their splays and tables and bridles and blades, essentially made up of the two main joint types.

For the author, the craft of building in timber is not so much carpentry as wizardry. However, he misses much of the “magic” of construction: how peg-holes, for example, are slightly offset so that when a tapered peg is knocked through, it pulls the two parts tightly together. He overlooks the “mystery” of timber conversion: how the order in which components come “out of the log” is maintained in the ordering of the frame as a whole.

Much of our understanding of the craft tradition is due to the work of present-day timber-framers, referred to briefly in “The Globe and other theatres.” His comment about the reconstructed Globe that “those who brought the project into being deserve praise for their perseverance in the face of considerable difficulties,” sounds faint praise for a project that demanded the use of traditional skills and materials to produce a building that would meet modern safety standards.

The author does, however, make a brave attempt at defining “vernacular.” Unfortunately, his early (second paragraph) adoption of the Arts and Crafts approach is a hostage to fortune. The outcome is a dilettante view, which ignores the importance of function. Vernacular buildings were built by local craftsmen using local materials and, most importantly, they were part of the local economy.

His subjective response to buildings can be quite irritating. Old is good, new is bad. His exemplars are mostly Arts and Crafts designs rather than truly vernacular buildings, as if it is the reflection of the thing rather than the thing itself, which takes his eye. Is this because he is unaware of the true essence of vernacular, the relationship between function and place? Look closely at Arts and Crafts buildings. Some are beautiful designs of honest, chunky, well-finished wood. Some are distinctly organic, the bark still on the sinuous floor joist, a chimneystack of undressed stone. This is not intrinsically morally superior, nor is it traditional craftsmanship. This is about style and about having the wealth to indulge your version of the past.

He is much better on superstitions associated with buildings. A note of caution creeps in. He is on home ground. No interpretation is allowed without historic precedent. Every traditional explanation could have come from a book. Are we not even allowed to suggest that the skeleton of a dog buried beneath the door threshold might be a symbol of guarding? Probably not.

Anyone interested in the tradition of timber framing should visit the Weald and Downland museum at Singleton, West Sussex and read Richard Harris’s Discovering Timber-framed Buildings (1973), and then visit the open-air museum at Arnhem in the Netherlands for a contrast in techniques and plan-forms. To “visit” the extraordinary world of contemporary timber-framers, try online (

John Dean, University of East Anglia, UK

COPYRIGHT 2004 Folklore Society

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