Editorial By: Mel Shakespeare | Photography By: Dr. Christopher Cooper
The earliest houses were an example of the direct outgrowth of architecture from function and materials. They existed close at hand, thus the form of a house was determined in great measure by the natural environment. The wide trees, readily available to the industrious, yielded beams, planks, shingles and carpentry stock as well as a vast array of the required tools to bend them. Men were privileged to pick and choose as to their house and its contents just as we do today. The houses that have survived from the early era are a monument to the taste and sensibility of our forefathers. They radiate a warmth of feeling that inspired their conception and tells, quite powerfully, of an attention to the first rule of architecture upon which to build: to attend to their own architectural traditions.
The populace of the past were not all hard-fisted pioneers and wilderness fighters but more often, a settled community of sophisticated citizens who were content with nothing but the best things in life. The houses they chose to live in reflected their condition and their station and were the best examples of domestic architecture they could build. The businessmen and merchants with their newfound wealth were eager to make their affluence conspicuous. The means to make the final break from origins they considered too humble was provided by a more refined style we’ve come to know as Georgian.
The early architect, who was often carpenter and builder, referenced the available pattern books of the time that contained good and consistent detail. The lack of pretension in these details is given over to lovely scale and proportion in all parts. The carving, ornamented mantels, staircases, door and window work and its trimwork in general, show admirable restraint. With well placed decorative features and good arrangement of simple mass the early work gives pleasure that even an untutored layman unconsciously feels and admires.
The true craftsman has a responsibility to create and execute pleasing, substantial and honest structure. Our responsibility is to demand good form and live with nothing less. Otherwise delinquency overtakes good taste. Our civilization is reflected in our homes and its furniture. Haste, we know, definitely makes waste. Now, deception rules. The quick dowel replaces the mortice-and-tenon. We seldom see the evidence of hand wrought wood.
In the woodwork and furnishings of the 17th and 18th centuries the element of craftsmanship was paramount. Intelligent men, proud of a manual skill passed on from master to apprentice or father to son, produced an ever-fresh handling of traditional forms that were acceptable to the several generations. In their early work we may be aware of the classic origin without being conscious of imitation for the charm of style often lies in naïve interpretation.
These joiners, cabinet-makers, carpenter-builders and housewrights worked in the style of the time freely interpreted. Moulded work, whether of the cornice of linen press or cornice of a schoolhouse, was cut by hand with planes formed to make the curved elements of a simple architecture of classic design. Quarter-round, half-round, cymas, ogees, scotias, etc. of graduated sizes were pieced and played together to delight the eye. The mouldings are never petty or tentative as is so often the case in modern work. Satisfying sections, robust while restful, warmed by the patina of time, possess an individuality that forever brings warmth to the owner’s life. He is rewarded by the projection of the inner spirit of the craftsman and stimulated by his sensitive and sensible perceptions. If we are capable of understanding the artifact he has created and left for us, his objective and beauty will be his gift to us as well.
Many early buildings in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime Provinces, outwardly display the lovely early traditional European styles of construction and millwork.