‘Shall we judge him by his WORK?’: The Quennells and the primitive craftsman
My PhD thesis considers attitudes to the past in Britain from c. 1918-1969, with a particular emphasis on how people thought about and represented ‘everyday life’ in history in popular culture. This research has started with and continues to be led by the life and work of Charles and Marjorie Quennell, an extraordinarily under-researched pair, as it turns out.
Charles Quennell (1872-1935) was an architect by profession and his wife Marjorie (1883-1972) was an amateur artist. From 1918 they embarked on a ‘moonlighting’ career, writing popular history books published by the firm BT Batsford. The Quennells’ first series was called A history of everyday things in England, made up of four books covering the period 1066-1935. These books were innovative because they explored England’s social, artistic, and technological history through objects, largely ignoring the ‘high’ political developments of each century. They were, unsurprisingly, heavily illustrated and therefore quite expensive for ‘children’s’ books (each volume was priced at 8s 6d). However, this did not detract from their popularity and the books become a commercial sensation throughout the mid-twentieth century. When asked by The Bookseller in 1968 to estimate total Quennell sales, Batsford stated that in 1961 total sales exceeded one million copies, and a further quarter of a million had been sold in the succeeding seven years. It is also pertinent to note that the Quennell books were as much enjoyed by adults as by children: upon reading over fifty contemporary reviews of the Quennell books I have found this point the most striking. Evidently the Quennell brand of history had a broad and galvanizing appeal in the post-First World War era, they offered a more democratic version of the nation’s history that underlined social cohesion through aesthetic development.
The first two volumes of this original A history of everyday things in England series were produced in 1918 and 1919, and the last two in 1933 and 1934. In the fourteen-year gap, the Quennells turned their pens to the period of history before 1066, and thus entered into the realms of archaeology and anthropology. For the majority of the 1920s, the Quennells worked on their Everyday life series, which explored prehistoric Britain from the Old Stone Age down to the arrival of the Normans, in four successive volumes. Methodologically, this venture posed a new set of challenges for the authors. Their other books drew mainly on documentary sources and material culture as preserved in the nation’s museums and libraries and on its streets in the extant built heritage of England. As the Quennells explain to their readers in the first book of the new series, Everyday life in the Old Stone Age (1921), ‘in the prehistoric period we have only everyday things, and the physical character of the earth itself so the pick and shovel become more useful than the pen, and men dig for the information they need. We call the pick and shovel historian an Archaeologist’.
Throughout the series, the Quennells make a concerted effort to engage with contemporary research, drawing on published scholarly works and periodicals. Moreover, they corresponded with the likes of AC Haddon, Sir Arthur Keith, and HJ Fleure, and appear to have struck up a friendship with Reginald Smith, then deputy keeper of the department of British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum, who is thanked in each volume for proofreading their manuscripts. Very suggestively, Marjorie Quennell’s closest and dearest friend was Nelly Forestier, the daughter of the famous illustrator Amedee Forestier, who was well-known for his depictions of prehistoric everyday life in The London Illustrated News throughout the early years of the century. One particularly notable point about the Everyday life series is the use of the comparative method, whereby modern ‘primitive’ tribes are taken to be at an analogous point of development to prehistoric man at various stages. For example, in Everyday life in the New Stone, Bronze and Early Iron Ages (1922) the Quennells draw heavily on the Routledges’ account of the Akikuyu in British East Africa, With a Prehistoric People (1910), in their discussions and drawings of the early iron-age Glastonbury lake village settlement. In their quest to uncover what everyday life might have been like for these long gone peoples, such linear social evolutionary thinking is deemed the most illustrative and ‘humanizing’ method of depiction. The Quennells were of course rehearsing an entrenched scholarly technique in making these comparisons, which had been established by anthropologists such as E. B. Tylor in the 1860s and 1870s. It is notable however that this method was increasingly coming under question by the interwar years. This revisionism is reflected in one 1928 review of the Quennells in the journal History. The reviewer comments ‘Our only criticism is that the authors are somewhat too confident in their identification of the cultural horizon of the Australian aborigines with that of Paleolithic man’. In the Quennells’ defence, such critiques were symptomatic of their attempt to write for both children and adult audiences. The comparative method was often considered suitable by reviewers for the latter, but not the former. As well as attracting the general reader, the Quennell books were widely used as a resource by schoolteachers. The 1920s saw an outpouring of books on ‘Early Man’ designed for the expanding educational publishing market, as prehistory found its way onto school history curricula.
The Quennells do exercise a degree of caution in their comparisons however, noting that ‘we have to be careful that the models used are real primitives and not degraded races, and there is all the difference in the world. A real savage often has unexpected virtues and cleverness, with a moral and spiritual code admirably suited to his surroundings’. These comments in fact betray an important link between the Quennells’ archaeological Everyday life books, and their pioneering Everyday things series. In their effort to put objects, labour, tools, and expertise into the historical record, the Quennells were in many ways continuing in the arts and crafts tradition of William Morris. Indeed, they write a lot about Morris and his peers, but are somewhat ambivalent about his methods, feeling that his movement ultimately failed to create any social impact, as it became inward looking, ‘an extreme form of sophistication’. Like many of their contemporaries then, the Quennells were re-working these arts and crafts ideas for the realities of the twentieth century, namely mass-production and democratic participation. I very much see the Quennellbooks as emblematic of this ideological shift. They are an attempt to rehabilitate the workaday, pre-industrial craftsman for modernity and to find a way for his skills and ethics to speak to modern society. In this the Everyday life books are essential because they seem to project back onto prehistoric man the craftsman qualities that the Quennells want to endorse in the now. As public interest in prehistory grew, the Quennells were well-placed to use the genre to hammer home what was a very present-oriented message. In the introduction to Everyday life in the Old Stone Age (1921) the Quennells ask in earnest what their readers think of prehistoric man, is he a loathsome creature, a noble savage? Or, ‘shall we judge him by his WORK’? Thus they particularly admire the ‘artists’ of the Magdalenian period, who seem to compare favorably to the ‘poor factory hand of to-day, chained to the machine as its slave’. Similarly, the notorious Piltdown man takes centre stage, as he too is identified as a craftsman bequeathing skills to posterity. They explain, ‘we are very proud of him because he is the first known Englishman’. In the Quennell drawing of Piltdown man, he is surrounded by his tools and is shown making a flint implement.
These are some very preliminary thoughts on the Quennells’ Everyday life series. I have been working primarily on the Everyday things volumes, but am keen to integrate the Quennells’ archaeological and anthropological writings into my work. I would be so grateful for any suggestions from HARN members about these ideas and the wider context, or just relevant reading. I would especially love to hear about any references to the Quennells that people may have found in archaeological or anthropological works, particularly from the period 1918-1969.
Laura Carter, PhD candidate in History, Trinity Hall Cambridge
M. Quennell and C. H. B. Quennell, Everyday life in the old stone age (London: B. T. Batsford, 1921)
M. Quennell and C. H. B. Quennell, Everyday life in the new stone, bronze & early iron ages (London: B. T. Batsford, 1922)
M. Quennell and C. H. B. Quennell, Everyday life in Roman Britain (London: B. T. Batsford, 1924)
M. Quennell and C. H. B. Quennell, Everyday life in Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman times (London: B. T. Batsford, 1926)
M. Quennell and C. H. B. Quennell, A history of everyday things in England, vols 1-4 (London: B. T. Batsford, 1918-1934)
E. McKellar, ‘C. H. B. Quennell (1872-1935): Architecture, History and the Quest for the Modern’, Architectural History 50 (2007), pp. 211-46
 M. Quennell and C. H. B. Quennell, Everyday life in the Old Stone Age (London: B. T. Batsford, 1921), p. viii.
 A. F. H., ‘SHORT NOTICES’, History 13 (1928), pp. 278-83, at p. 278.
 M. Quennell and C. H. B. Quennell, Everyday life in the new stone, bronze & early iron ages (London: B. T. Batsford, 1922), p. viii.
 M. Quennell and C. H. B. Quennell, A history of everyday things in England, vol 4 1851-1934 (London: B. T. Batsford, 1934), p. 114.
 M. Quennell and C. H. B. Quennell, Everyday life in the Old Stone Age (London: B. T. Batsford, 1921), p. ix.
 Ibid., p. 98.
 Ibid., p. 22.