Locating David Pye

As I’ve deepened my readings/re-readings of David Pye over the years, some interesting things have started to pop out at me. He’s got an Aristotelian knack for taxonomies and frameworks, but there are some real prejudices in there that are troubling.

First, he clearly privileges the visual over the tactile; second, he’s strongly biased against his own peculiar reading of the Arts and Crafts movement. I’m finding some evidence from his family history, thanks to this interview in Craft found via his obit in the Independent:

Marigold Coleman: How did you come to work in wood? Was it an accident or did you make a deliberate choice?

David Pye: No, in a curious way it has been in the family for a long time. My father was always making something or other out of wood as an amateur, and my mother’s uncle was a great hand at it, and also a jeweller, as was my father. This was a William Morris tradition. My grandfather was John Brett the painter, and a friend of Morris’s, I believe, and of Ruskin and so on. Though he didn’t remain a friend of Ruskin’s! I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing round with bits of wood. There’s a nice story which may come in handy — my great-uncle, Uncle Pat, who was also my godfather, he was in the Dragoon Guards, I think, or anyway a very snob cavalry regiment which he couldn’t possibly afford. He went out to India the year after the Mutiny, then got some leave and went out again in 1862. He went out in a sailing ship and to keep himself amused on the voyage he provided himself with 12 dozen bottles of Bass and a wood-turning lathe, both of which he used throughout the voyage to Bombay, which of course took an enormously long time. I think that that flywheel there is from the lathe he took. A lot of these tools belonged to him, and some to my father and some to my grandfather. One way or another wood has been around all my life.

MC: So this is a middle-class tradition of inheriting what would normally be an artisan tradition?

DP: Yes.

MC: Wasn’t that very rare that early?

DP: It was probably the William Morris idea that did it. Quite apart from that, when I was four years old, I can remember to this day one particular piece of wood my brother brought back from school. I thought it was absolutely marvellous because of its surface quality. I think most artists are made by the age of four — they find out what they’re really interested in at an early age, fall in love with it then and it doesn’t alter much. They go on to think that they’re perhaps interested in an enormous number of things they’re really not interested in at all. There’s really only one thing they can do, and that’s true of most of us.

Note that his grandfather had a falling out with John Ruskin, though he maintained his friendship with William Morris. In The Nature and Art of Workmanship Pye demolishes Ruskin while leaving Morris untouched; this really strikes me as odd given that he is obviously familiar with Morris. The impact of World War II on his life is incredibly strong as well, given the loss of time it entailed in getting started on his life-long project, his “one thing”:

MC: How long does it take to find this out?

DP: A hell of a damn long time!

MC: How long did it take you?

DP: Till I was 30? I had a better chance than most — or my generation did — because of the war. I was out of everything for six years. When I got out of the navy I’d had time to think a bit. Anyway, the thing about wood which has always fascinated me is its surface quality. All the chaps who write about wood write about its tactile quality — well, what I’m talking about is decidedly not tactile, it’s visual. Wood has surfaces that are enormously subtle and varied, and that’s the thing that from the age of four I was really struck with. And then when I was about 14 or 15 1 saw a couple of chairs at a farmhouse, early i8th-century walnut chairs, country-made ones. I was really beginning to look at things for the first time, beginning to grow up, and I thought, that’s what I want to do, things like that. So I suppose that is how I came to be fascinated with it. I was brought up to be an architect, but I spent most of my time as a student building boats, a very eccentric thing to do then. My father was always doing it. That was how I started seriously using wood in a connected way. I learnt more from that than I ever learnt from my training as an architect. At the end of my time as a student and afterwards I started specialising in wooden buildings, inevitably. Then the war broke out. After the war there was no wood for buildings for a long time, so I thought I’d stick to wood and ditch buildings.

Marigold Coleman interviewing David Pye (1976) in Crafts no 217 82-4 Mr/Ap 2009

Note that the surface of wood is a visual thing for Pye, a somewhat unusual twist; nonetheless, it would make sense that he’s also a woodcarver because the play of light and shade is what makes carvings special. As my previous excerpt from the same interview attests,  his perspective is also driven by consideration of end products rather than processes; process is important only in that it is a vehicle to get somewhere.

This would tend to make his theory of work somewhat incommensurate with Morris, who emphasized the satisfaction of doing good work over the products. I begin to see Pye’s perspective as a weakness now, rather than a strength. Pye rightly tries to divorce the perfection of craft from economic constraints, but the emphasis on product I think works against him. One point is well taken though: “Anyone can learn to make things, it’s designing them and getting rid of them that’s difficult.”

Looking over on my shelf I see six bowls that aren’t’ good enough to gift to anyone, and don’t really have much use to me. That’s the problem of learning; there are surplus byproducts.

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