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Some thoughts on the individuality of Scottish tools

Tony Murland

It has long been apparent that Scottish made tools display a distinctive style, whether it be the classic cove fronted metal planes filled with walnut and with pierced heart and shield lever caps, or the elaborately decorated ebony spirit levels. This ‘Scottish style’ is evident, not only in craftsman-made tools, but in the manufactured ones as well.

In 1850 nearly half the population of Scotland was to be found in Glasgow and the Clyde Valley so it is not surprising that Glasgow was to be the centre of any new ideas in design. The appreciation design and production of objects are all shaped by the culture in which people live and only by first exploring the city of Glasgow can one appreciate the genesis and truly innovative aspects of the ‘Scottish Style’. The sensory, emotional and aesthetic experiences created in Glasgow had a direct influence on the patterns and designs of its residents.

Glasgow in the mid-nineteenth century had been demonised in the popular imagination as some sort of “Dantean Hell” by authors like Thomas Carlyle who likened it to a “murky simmering Tophet of copperas fumes, cotton fuzz, gin-riot, wrath and toil, created by a Demon, governed by a Demon”.

Glasgow was undergoing a massive period of growth fuelled by its Industrial Capitalisation. To be Scottish was to be European. It’s Internationalism arising from Glasgow’s trade and industry was amplified by cultural reverberations from ancient political alliances with Scandinavia and Europe. As one of the richest cities in the world, and as the centre for an immense network of trade and manufacture, Glasgow operated in an international, rather than a narrowly Scottish or British context. Against this back-drop it is hardly surprising that Glaswegian artists architects and designers did not seem to have the built-in resistance to continental or foreign influences that blinkered their English contemporaries. This climate allowed freedom of expression and is a major contributing factor to the development of a singularly ‘Scottish Style’.

So Glasgow was a vibrant, dirty industrial city and yet cosmopolitan, all the ingredients for radical change in all branches of human endeavour political, scientific, intellectual, commercial and most importantly – design.

The city was polluted, cramped, with high building density. The city’s labour force and slums were centrally, inescapably, located in the functional heat of the city. It was a depressing place. In these conditions design becomes a tool with which to combat. psychologically and socially, the forces of fragmentation and alienation that threatened to pull society apart.

Art, architecture and design in varying styles could be manipulated to reimpose meaning and coherence on the fluid conditions of city life, whilst also masking its unpalatable aspects.

Social anthropologists have pointed to a correlation between the growth of urban, industrialised societies and an increased sense of “inferiority” as well as a heightened awareness of the human body. In other words, by introducing style and design into the simplest of things, although not improving their function, it can combat the physical battles of day to day living, providing a material analogy for spiritual and sensual values. In the same way prisoners serving life-sentences will decorate their cells in order to preserve a purpose in their lives.

In the words of William Morris, “The pleasures of creating something which, without their individuality, would never have existed, was the greatest pleasure the world afforded”.

“It is curious to know how most of the triumphs of art have been won in cities, and in cities too, whose life was oftentimes of the busiest and most complex description … A civic life would seem to knock fire out of men, like the sparks evolved from the contact of flint and steel”.

References
Francis Newberry, 1897.
Various essays by Julian Kinekin – Glasgow School of Art

Appeared 1997 – Toolshop Auctions Catalogue

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© 1998-2017 Tony Murland - email tony@antiquetools.co.uk