Artists and guilds in London: constraints and opportunities

Ian W. Archer, Keble College, Oxford

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

The guilds were probably at the height of their power and influence in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century London. They had weathered the storm of the reformation; their property portfolios were expanding as they took on further charitable endowments; and their membership rolls swelled with the huge expansion in the numbers of freemen in the sixteenth century. Membership of the guilds carried important economic (including the right to engage in retail trade) and political (including voting for city officials) privileges; but they also provided means of social networking fostered by regular dining, as well as services such as welfare and dispute arbitration. The guilds regulated the labour supply through their restrictions on the numbers of apprentices and journeymen individuals could keep, and through measures to limit trading partnerships. At the heart of the guild ideal was the self-sustaining independent trading household.

There were a number of challenges to the authority of the guilds. One was the custom of London, which allowed persons once free of the city to practice any trade they wanted, thereby undermining the occupational homogeneity of the craft. Thus a number of painters were free of companies other than the painter stainers, Nicholas Hilliard and his apprentices being notable examples. But one should be wary of exaggerating the weakness of the companies in this regard. It is true that occupational identity may have been weakened in the great twelve companies, but within the lesser crafts it was much stronger, and commitment to regulation of the craft through searches and masterpiece proof works remained strong. Most members of the Painter Stainers would have held some connection with the craft, though one should note its varied nature, including easel painting, heraldic painting, the painting of cloths, interior decoration, and in the case of members like Ralph Treswell map making and surveying.

Another challenge was the competition of non-free labour, and this was particularly prominent in the artistic community, given the generally advanced status of continental production by comparison with that of native artists. Foreign artists were much in demand at court, and they seem to have practised their craft relatively immune from interference by the London guilds, perhaps precisely because of the protection their court connections gave them. But perhaps also in the case of painting, the Painter-Stainers' Company was less concerned with competition from foreign easel painters, and more concerned about competition from the heralds and from the Plasterers' Company over heraldic and household painting respectively, as well as with stemming the tide of imported stained cloths.

Many artists, however, did enjoy the benefits of guild membership, and were well integrated into the cycles of civic life. Rowland Lockey, son of a member of the Armourers' Company was apprenticed to Nicholas Hilliard in the Goldsmiths, and married the daughter of a member of the Grocers' Company; his brother Nicholas, although free of the Armourers, also practised limning. Hilliard himself had been apprenticed to Robert Brandon, a court supplier and the chamberlain of London; Hilliard was also the copy book case of the apprentice marrying the master's daughter. William Rogers, also free of the Goldsmiths, trained a line of skilled engravers, including Thomas Cockson who took up his freedom in his father's Company, the Merchant Taylors. William Larkin, although not apparently apprenticed to a freeman, found the city freedom of the Painter-Stainers sufficiently attractive to take it up by redemption in 1606.

Alien artists maintained their own social networks. For example, the religious refugee Marcus Gheeraerts the elder was part of an immigrant network including Lucas de Heere, Abraham Ortelius, and Emanuel van Meteren; he married a sister of Jan de Critz while his own daughters married the miniaturist Isaac Oliver and the sculptor Maximilian Colt; his son Marcus the younger married another de Critz (sister of his stepmother!). But it is noteworthy that some second generation aliens were able to work their way into guild life (and this in spite of the discriminatory city legislation designed to prevent it). So, Marcus Gheeraerts the younger and John Droeshout (the engraver responsible for the iconic image of Shakespeare which prefaces the First Folio), both the sons of immigrants, seem to have become freemen of the Painter Stainers' Company.

Relations between native and stranger artists needs much more research, and one which takes us beyond the stereotypes of mutual hostility. Detailed investigation may be hampered by the limited sources available for many crafts (including the Painter Stainers), but the possibilities are revealed by recent work by Lien Bich Luu on the well documented Goldsmiths' Company, where it is possible to assess the contribution of immigrants to the transfer of skills.