Modern Times

Mathew Baker: The First Naval Architect.

Modern Times, As Seen Through Ship Design, Part 2.

Drawing ships on paper was something new, usually someone wanted a ship and it was built.
Mathew Baker’s drawing of a race-built galleon.

The changes that appeared with the dawn of the Fifth Epoch at the beginning of
the fifteenth century were clearly apparent around 150 years later. Because this isn’t to look at the life of Mathew Baker, but to look at the times he lived in that led him to deal with the world around him in an entirely new way. Baker was a master shipwright, a skill so profound that it requires a man to all but smell the shape of the piece of wood they’re forming. In this respect, Baker was the equal
of the men who created the Mary Rose, but living just a few decades later made an enormous difference to his abilities to reflect on the things he did.

Mathew Baker was truly a man of his time, yet he respected those who went before
him. Baker could not have been the shipwright he was without that feeling of reverence to his elders – and this has a very real difference in quality to the intellectual who is humiliated by those who are superior to him. Baker was a superb craftsman, and as such, could stand proudly before his monarch in the way that might
intimidate an archbishop. Put another way, Baker could look at the creations of his forefathers and think “they were working with what they had, and still they were able to build such excellent vessels”.

The last moments of HMS Revenge in 1591.

It was this ability to reflect on his work as much as appreciate what his
forefathers had achieved that led to his building of the Revenge in 1575. This was a vessel known as a ‘Race-built Galleon’ – a nippy and lightly built vessel with low castles and heavy guns. In building vessels of this kind, Mathew Baker all but beat the Spanish Armada single handedly. Which isn’t quite true, because the men who sailed these vessels took the same approach when using them, for they had the reflective skills to see the advantages such a small vessel gave them. After all, the Spanish when sending out their Armada, took the modern American approach to the matter of winning a war: it was bigger and with enough of them, it can’t lose. A strategy that is easily undermined by someone possessed of intelligence and the power of reflection – and armed with small deadly weapons that the enemy so unwisely despised.

That is to say, underrated.

Despising As The Metaphor Of The Fifth Epoch.

It is interesting to note the intellectual’s reactions to the writings from the beginnings of our modern era, a few of which survive, for they have the true quality of the mediaeval. The most important of these came from Venice, of which they comment:

These texts are cryptic in the extreme, using obscure local terminology to record the proportions of vessels, and accompanying their recipe-style instructions with rough sketches” Stephen Johnston, ‘Making mathematical practice: gentlemen, practitioners and artisans in Elizabethan England’

(Stephen Johnston, ‘Making mathematical practice: gentlemen, practitioners and artisans in Elizabethan England’ Ph.D. Cambridge, 1994)

Well, an outsider would say that, wouldn’t they? Were I to describe the manner in which one works with newly cut wood, much of it would seem cryptic and the terminology would be necessarily obscure to those who were not closely involved in the craft. That it is the craft of Green Woodworking ought give you a flavour of what the intellectual would see! They might protest, “why say that the wood is green? Isn’t wood brown?” The point is that in our modern times, we now see everything turned inside out, the outsider now has the right to understand the insider’s work, but without being able to understand the realities. They can only understand the words being used, they lack the perspective that a craftsman like Mathew Baker would have had.

The problem is that as in the above example, the term ‘green’ is used by woodworkers in a way that extends the term’s use to an extreme that is unacceptable to those used to terminology that is clearly framed. It is usually the case that the intellectual cannot hope to keep pace. Put bluntly: if one is going to understand these cryptic passages and obscure local terminology, it is a requirement that the intellectual respects the speaker. That is to say, the intellectual needs to get their hands dirty, understand the practicalities of dealing with a situation that does not easily lend itself to verbal description.

The usual situation is that in not respecting the craftsman, the intellectual cannot hope to enter the craftsman’s realm! The fact is that many craftsmen have no experience of – nor any need of describing these things to others. The craftsman finds himself at a loss when faced with an intellectual who can only see the outside of the words rather than their full meaning, as even a newbie apprentice would.

For Mathew Baker, for all his skills as a craftsman, had responsibilities to those who could not penetrate the veils of his craft. This meant he had to master the ability to speak of the obscure terminology in illustrative ways that would then be understood. For example he might point to the manner of the timberwork in the roof of the hall to give fuller meaning to his words. His ability to draw was also helpful here, and it is the quality of his drawings that I now turn to.

Detail As The Key To Our Modern Times.

Drawn by someone who knows the practice, a ship will float. Practice comes first!
A drawing of Baker’s HMS Revenge.

Mathew Baker’s drawings, as seen at the head of this posts and elsewhere, were of a quality that one might expect today. The picture of the Mary Rose in the last post in this series was detailed, but lacked the accuracy and attention to detail that one expects today. That one of the yards is depicted behind the mast clearly shows their lack of perception. As a manner of deteriming a person’s ability to perceive, one need only look to their drawings – or for that matter, anything artful that they express themselves in. Their abilities (and lack thereof) will be clearly demonstrated for all to see, no matter how much they make to hide these, even from their closest friends.

Mathew Baker was clearly a practiced draughtsman, and his eye for exactness and
detail are clear from the results. Only Baker wanted to go further – and it is this striving which makes the man truly human. After all, it is evil that wishes to invade realms that do not belong to it; yet it is the human’s greatest strength! The point here is that Baker had the surety of the craftsman, and not just the ingenuity of Leonardo da Vinci. Baker measured his steps into the unknown by reflecting on his ability to build a vessel with his own bare hands.

Baker wanted to be able to describe the vessel’s ribs on paper. Something far more difficult to do than in reality, on the ground with wood and a lot of space – which after all, gave the immediate feedback of it simply looking right. Believe me, in the hands of a man like Baker, that ability to see a fault is more than enough. What is more, that ability to perceive in the chalk lines on the ground would be delicately balanced with the forms of the ribs he had already cut.

It was this skill that Baker wanted to apply using the abstraction of lines drawn on a piece of paper. The purpose of this was more that his concept of the form should be clear, that he also had a record of what he had done in a more meaningful way than the ship itself. After all, the ship might sink, taking all that valuable data with it. Pieces of paper could be rolled up and stored in safe places well away from the damp.

It is the intention of my next post to study the effects of drawing a design first and of enacting it afterwards. Again, this is the human overstepping the boundaries, only in my next post, it will be shown that this doesn’t always work. Well, it will be unless some other and more interesting element crops up that is historically earlier.

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