What does it mean to republish a book titled Made in England with Brexit hanging in the air, the outcome of a campaign fought on differing ideas about sovereignty, fraught with rising narratives of xenophobic nationalism and tinged with nostalgia for a bygone age? There are clearly dangers in romanticising the past and that tension is present here in this book, seen for example in Hartley’s quotation of a rhyming couplet that casually advocates violence towards women.
Made in England captures a sector of society that struggled, and still struggles, with increasing inequality, uncompromising international pressures and urban-centric government. It documents precarious communities, the lives of migrant workers such as bodgers and coppice workers needed to support the rhythms of production and economy. Hartley’s book is a reminder that culture is a collective activity, one that exists outside of cities or institutions, and that it is important to learn from vulnerable communities and recognise the forces affecting them.
This cultural survey is crystallised through the vision of a woman clearly committed to the advocacy of rural life. A tenacious artist, teacher and historian, Dorothy Hartley describes the overlooked and undervalued layers of rural industry; jobs, skills and networks of knowledge, from the ‘almost incredible’ fineness of a blacksmith’s work to the expertise and experience that a charcoal burner needs to make a well-built hearth. She does more, however, than simply describe the scenes or practices of various rural industries. Her survey is framed through a set of attitudes and an agenda – ideas about townspeople and how they view country folk (‘The townsman laughs at the countryman for spending so much of his time “looking over the gate”; he does not realise how much the countryman is seeing as he gazes over that gate’), about types of craftspeople, about men and the way they think (‘Our lumber men, though few, are a good breed, who have brains and use them’).
Hartley’s character comes across throughout – dry, terse, thoughtful and curious. She moves with ease between different cultures and practices, ranging from quarrying to thatching, using different mediums of observation. With words, drawing and photography she conveys a sense of time, stillness and movement; the individual experience of work; ways of processing and holding information. Following her curiosity, she traces clues and noises in the landscape for miles to find transient workshops and remote industry and to track particular processes. It is ‘through noticing a chip of fresh-cut wood sticking in the mud on the foot-rest of a stile’ that she tracks down a beechwood camp, while the scent of woodsmoke leads her to a group of men clearing coppice. She gives voice and authorship to the people she meets and a description of their method of working with direct quotations. While sketching out delicate straw ornaments made as ‘finishes’ to hay ricks, the author surveys the reasons for their existence; among those cited are ownership, authorship, spare time and finally, pointedly: ‘One reason is as good as another and you’d best rest satisfied.’ Dorothy Hartley revels in the plurality of work and life.
She makes it possible (to start) to appreciate the nuance and variety in countryside activities, tools and labour, determined by botanical, soil and geographical conditions; the breadth of factors accommodated within processes and lives that are so co-dependent on the environment. She weaves together the poetry and mundane detail of physical substances and their employment, at times tracing ubiquitous features of the countryside as symptoms of human economies and demands on the land. She loves the stories hidden in the landscape – particular hedges, the small paths that signify cross-breeding links, farming styles, a new kerbside or a route home. To me Dorothy Hartley is a fellow student following the complex web of how the physical, natural world translates to our daily and cultural material experience. She reads the world as a layered history of labour and work, which is something I also continue to seek to understand, though in a very different context and through different means.
Hartley gives so many rich details of cultural practice – spaces suitable for sex in haystacks; ceramic ware formed by the technical requirements of popular local dishes such as the Lancashire hotpot; spoons (or rather ‘spurtles’) made in the north of England with a straight bottom edge, designed to prevent the oatmeal sticking to the pan. We discover why you would find old forks jabbed upright into a barn rafter fourteen feet over your head. We hear which processes – carding wool, for example – could be continued in darkness during the winter when it was no longer possible to see and which, such as straw-rope making, were reserved for rainy days.
We find pleasing echoes from body to material, from tool to application: early book formats depending on the average measurements of sheep bodies that their parchment came from; the clay trimmed from a pie-dish mould exactly as the cook will presently trim the pastry away from the same rim. Throughout the book we are shown chains of use and re-use as material and in application: a rag rug, composed of among other things ‘pre-obesity, external trousers’, once worn out as a hearthrug, is given to the doghouse, and when the dog dies, is burnt. Particular attention is given to language and terminologies; regional vocabularies and their distinctive categorisation. Etymological lineages relating to rural production are drawn out – we learn that ‘dis’carded’ wool is the less useful byproduct from the carding process (in which the fibres are disentangled and aligned to be parallel with each other).
The provenance of contemporary issues and attitudes to animals is also apparent in the author’s description of nascent transplant and bionic practices – for example, moving a horn base to produce a unicorn leader for a herd beast, the smithing and application of metal horseshoes – and also in their use as substance. We hear about animals as functional tool – goose wings as a cleaning implement nailed to a strip of firewood and used as a broom, or kept in a housemaid’s box for reaching banisters and corners. Animals as simple material, for example as bedding filler, still need consideration for the symbolic power they hold; ‘feathers from the birds of flight destroy sleep’, the saying goes. It is easy to forget that so many parts of our lives, whether directly or indirectly, are or have been composed of animal products. The cultural rebranding of these materials now imaginatively removes them from their visceral origins.
Dividing productive relationships with the land through categories of material, Hartley outlines certain moral codes and propensities of people as characterised by the attributes and qualities of the substance they work. The most exciting moments are the references to different kinds of intelligence that exist outside of traditional forms of education and independently evolve networks and systems to support their continued application. We learn, for example, about the large communities of ‘rock men’ who set up their own courts and laws based on technical expertise and professional relations. This perfectly disproves the reductive description by Ecclesiasticus that Hartley quotes in the preface, that ‘all these…cannot declare justice and judgement’. She draws our attention to a world of complex labour where craft and beauty are valued for their own sake, one where processes are wholly and directly intertwined with human culture and there is no performance for a digital world.
Perhaps the most beautiful picture the writer paints is that of how the economy of wool is woven through a small community’s lives, creating mutually supported and related weaves; the warp and weft each specific to use and location of the individual within that network. This section is introduced through a powerful evocation of her memory from that environment. Though historically distant and geographically unknown, that vivivd beauty feels familiar – one of those particular moments in landscape where colour feels important. It is these moments of reflection and wonder that are so valuable to share.
FRAN EDGERLEY is one of the founding members of Assemble, a collective of designers, architects, researchers, makers and artists. They champion a collaborative working practice deliberately blurring the lines between art, architecture and the public. Originally founded to create just one project, Assemble have now completed many across Britain. In 2015 Assemble won the Turner Prize.
This essay is the introduction to Made in England by Dorothy Hartley.