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Crafted by hand and heart

20 October 2010

By supporting a dwindling band of craftspeople, the Church is playing a vital part in keeping traditional skills alive, Steve Tomkins discovers

IT IS probably inevitable in a rapidly changing world that traditional crafts, like other ways of life, will struggle to survive. Many of the crafts that the Church employs and depends on — such as silverwork, stonecutting, and wood-carving — face this decline. The number of practitioners has dropped steeply over recent decades, and ap­prentice-ships are few, where they exist at all.

Craftspeople are generally finding the market a tough one, but, despite the gloomy prognosis, the Church offers a brighter prospect by commis­sioning the bulk of their work, there­by playing an invaluable part in keep­ing the traditional crafts alive.

People do not pursue these trades because they are easy or lucrative, but because they are meaningful and mag­nificent. The antiquity and spiritual richness of churches provides a per­fect setting for such craftsmanship. And the existing structures, orna­ments, and vestments of the Church constantly demand traditional skills in repair, replacement, and augmen­tation.

Rather than hampering creativity, working to commission seems to have the opposite effect. It allows craftspeople to work collaboratively, providing constant variety and new stimuli. Church commissions can offer the opportunities of comple­menting existing church spaces, interpreting the vision of others, and drawing on Christian artistic tradi­tions in new ways.

A personal religious commitment is not, and has never been, a neces­sary prerequisite for such work. None the less, some have found a powerful spiritual connection with the work they have done.

Philip Sanderson, tapestry weaver

AS THE creative director of West Dean Tapestry Studio, in West Sussex, Philip Sanderson provides work for various public spaces, including hospitals, colleges, and parliamentary offices as well as churches. All his work is done to commission, which he finds constantly stimulating. It varies widely, from telling a story or embodying an idea to recreating a painting on a hugely magnified scale — but always interpreting someone’s original vision, and generally har­monising with existing structures.

“The commissions present inter­esting challenges,” Mr Sanderson says. “It’s always different, and it’s site-specific. The tapestries become part of the building. Because of that, you’re having to take into account the space or a particular narrative the client wants to have included in the work.”

He finds that every commission ends up meaning a great deal to him because of the amount of time each takes; but one that has special impor­tance is the altar frontal for Chelms­ford Cathedral. “They wanted a representation of the chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, in Bradwell-on-Sea, a seventh-century chapel built by St Cedd . . . The tapestry tells the story of Cedd’s life and his journey from Lindisfarne.”

He also created an altar frontal and pulpit fall for Holy Trinity, Bosham, West Sussex, from an original watercolour by Mark Cazalet, which weaves together Christian and local maritime imagery.

Originally from Hartlepool, Mr Sanderson took to weaving after visit­ing a workshop during his founda­tion year at art school. He enjoyed the physicality of the process, and went on to study weaving and tapes­try at degree level.

Tapestry is a traditional craft that has not changed a great deal over the centuries, he says. “Computers help in the designing stage, and enlarging an image; and we dye our own yarn, and use modern chemical dyes. But the process of translating cartoon into tapestry has changed very little since the Middle Ages. There’s quite a nice connection there to what has been done through the centuries.”

There is a spiritual element to the work for him, he says. “But, first and foremost, it is a craft. There is defin­itely a poetic side to it. It’s always interesting to research those areas. And, in fact, the process of weaving is quite meditative.”

Louise Tiplady, lettercutter

LOUISE TIPLADY provides lettering for memorials. She started as a stone­mason in Herefordshire in 1999, work­ing at the cathedral, and then moved into the more specialised area of lettercutting.

The Memorial Arts Charity, which funds training in letter design and carving, sponsored a two-year ap­prenticeship with the veteran letter­cutter Charlotte Howard, in 2005. “It’s a kind of area where it’s expected that, if you can, you pass on your skills to keep the craft alive,” Miss Tiplady says. “But it’s much more difficult to come by an apprentice­ship for lettercutting than for masonry. Many people can’t afford to take on an apprentice, and Charlotte wouldn’t have been able to [without] the Memorial Arts Charity.”

Miss Tiplady finds that working to commission brings variety and interest. “You’re obviously working with a very sensitive subject,” she says. “People deal with bereavement in different ways; so you have to ap­proach it differently. And these days, when people are scattering rather than burying, they often want memorials that they can keep at home, maybe with a relevant phrase rather than names and dates.

“I feel privileged that people ap­proach and trust me to create some­thing so personal. Sometimes it’s difficult to get the ideas across. It can take quite a few sketches to get it right. And then we have to deal with the church as well, for everything that goes in a churchyard.”

Miss Tiplady is less concerned to express her own spirituality in her work than that of her clients: “I was brought up in the Church of Eng­land, and it is a privilege to be allowed to work with people in this way. But it’s their point of view and their level of spirituality — that’s what matters.”

Mark Munson, silversmith

AS A master silversmith, Mark Munson (a Freeman of both the Goldsmiths’ Company and the City of London) feels he is the prac­ti-tioner of an endangered craft. When he was an apprentice at Blunt & Wray in Clerkenwell in the early 1970s, there were about 30 people working there. They were the last of the manufac­turing ecclesiastical silversmiths in London.

“Twenty years ago, I had seven people working for me, and we were always too busy,” he says. “Now, I work on my own, and have a few people to help out from time to time, but it’s not just the ecclesiastical side of the trade: it’s the whole thing.”

“I was very lucky with my training: apart from being an apprentice at Blunt & Wray, I was able to train with Roy Flewin, who made much of the silver for the ecclesiastical retailers Osbournes. He taught me how to repair silver so that it looked like it had not been damaged.”

For more than 30 years, Mr Munson has made a large and varied range of church silver such as chalices, ciboria, and wafer and pyx boxes, mostly for the large retailers, and in particular Vanpoulles. “I have made some special commissions, most notably a large silver font-bowl for St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle,” he says. “When I was running a larger company, I was able to make large ornate pieces myself — very good ecclesiastical work, and military models and centrepieces for most regiments of the Army.

“Now, it is much easier to find people who can help make a model or centrepiece than it is to help you make an elaborate ecclesiastical chalice or a piece of church plate, because so few, if any, ecclesiastical silversmiths have been trained over the past 30 years. I would doubt if many people have my knowledge of manufacturing or repair in the ec­clesiastical trade.”

For this reason, Mr Munson has set up his own website. “I am hoping that it will interest people who want traditional handmade silver, or items made to their own design, or replace­ment for lost or stolen items.” He hopes that in the future someone younger, with silversmithing experi­ence, would consider buying into his business: “They could work with me for a year or so to learn the in­trica­cies of the trade before taking over.”

Mr Munson does not recognise any spiritual or religious dimension to his work, but says: “I realise and respect the importance of the items to the people who order from me.”

Polly Meynell, textile artist

POLLY Meynell creates textile installations, vest­ments, and furnishings, besides acting as a colour consultant.

She became fascinated by textiles while studying at Brunel University, and set up her own business 14 years ago, at the age of 22, although it has only recently become financially self-sufficient.

“It was a career move,” she says. “I started out working for the Church, as it’s the one of few places where you can do highly embellished pieces, whether to wear or to decorate a building. And it’s somewhere where you know they will be revered and looked after. I expect many of my pieces to outlive me.”

She enjoys working to commis­sion: “You’re working together with people, going on a journey together. You’re taking [an] old building and moving it on, looking forward to the future.”

Experiences can vary tremend­ously. For one episcopal piece she produced, the bishop said that as he knew and liked her work his only stipulation was that there should be a cross in it somewhere. Another com­mission involved very close consul­tation all the way along.

“I enjoy the collaborative process with the clergy,” Mrs Meynell says. “I’ve come to understand so much more of the faith that I’m serving, by working with the symbolism that has been [there] for so long.”

She says that working for churches, and especially seeing what that work has meant to people, has enhanced her own faith. She has just finished work on the reconstruction of St Andrew’s, Furnace Green, Crawley: it has been rebuilt to serve the com­munity, with a youth wing, a crèche, and a café.

Mrs Meynell’s part in the process included helping to create the kind of interior space that fulfilled their vision for the church, as well as providing stretched canvases for decoration.

She found it inspiring to be part of the work of a parish that was by no means wealthy. “When people came in for the first time, and saw what we had done — I’d produced some pretty bold designs — some were moved to tears. It’s an incredible thing to see and to be part of .”

Laurence Beckford, wood- and stone-carver

IN 1978, Laurence Beckford took one of the last British apprenticeships in his field, with the Exeter woodcarving company Herbert Read.

Mr Beckford’s work now includes lettering, the restoration of medieval panelling, and new sculpture for a variety of historic buildings — most of them churches.

All his work is commissioned. “I’m not in the privileged position of being able to take time off to produce my own things,” he says. “It’s all com­mercial: you have to budget, and give estimates, and you’re in competition with others. The nicer the job, and the keener we are to do it, the lower the price we’ll put in. You always hope they’ll remember you and you’ll get recommended for the next job.”

It is a traditional craft where tech­niques have changed little over the years. “There is some mechanisation, of course, but you still have to have design, and eye-hand co-ordination, and you really need to be ambidex­trous. You need to understand materials, the grain structure, the right use of materials in the right circumstances, the right use of tools.”

The most outstanding experience has been his recent commission to create 12 angels to adorn the quire screens in Bath Abbey. They were designed and modelled in plaster by the sculptor Paul Fletcher, and Mr Beckford reproduced them in lime­wood, on two new quire screens: “The most impressive, bold, difficult, creative work that I have ever done.”

He has always been involved in the church, from Sunday school, through choir and confirmation, to ecclesias­tical woodwork from the age of 17. “There may well be something spiritual going on in the background that I’m not hugely aware of. I’m not a hugely religious man; I’m quite easygoing, don’t have strong views, let people be as they are as long as they don’t put it on me.”

Nicholas Hobbs, furniture-maker

NICHOLAS HOBBS has been de­signing and hand-making furniture for 19 years. He trained as a designer, and then worked as a schoolteacher for 11 years before launching himself as a furniture-maker. In recent years, a large part of his work has been for churches, and includes making and designing tables, chairs, pulpits, and fonts.

“My work for churches has come as a bit of a surprise,” he says. “I went for 14 years with only three commis­sions from churches, and then, all of a sudden, in one year I’ve had seven churches commission work from me, and I’m currently in talks with a cathedral.”

Each piece is tailored to the par­ticular church space. Mr Hobbs spends time visiting the site, talk­ing to the priest and the individuals involved, and using their stories and lives as inspiration for his designs.

“Sometimes, there will be a par­ticular saint mentioned, or a patron, or something from the life of the church that I can incorporate into the work. It will often be manifested in an abstract way, but, if the church is aware of it, then, once the pieces are in place, they take their place neatly in the church and the community.”

One of the themes he pursued for St John the Baptist, in Beeston, Not­tingham, was the Holy Trinity, rep­res­ented by the subtle incorporation of triangles into the design of the tables and chairs he created for the church. “It’s not only visual and symbolic,” he says: “it’s also struc­tural. In both the table and the chairs the triangle helps to strengthen the furniture.

“It’s important that not only do the pieces look right, but they have to be comfortable; they have to be use­ful, and they have to have meaning.” He is immersed in the tradition of the Arts and Crafts movement, with its emphasis on hand-crafted, simple elegance.

His work incorporates a spiritual approach to life: “I was christened in the Church of England, raised a Methodist, turned away from belief, but have become very interested in the Quaker tradition. I’m drawn to the lack of hierarchy and the silence. I work by myself, and the quiet suits me.”

He also feels strongly about the need to slow down and allow tradi­tional skills and crafts to flourish: “So much is now about quick returns, and the immediate, to the point where many practical skills have been ne­glected.

“When I’m making things, I feel that all my senses are at work, my mind is engaged, and I’m working for other people. It’s slow work, but it’s intimate and fulfilling.”

Additional reporting by Marcus Dunk

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