A MODERN mobile phone is a wondrous thing, but you cannot take it to pieces and see exactly how it works. These are not my words, but those of the writer Anthony Burton, who, with the photographer Rob Scott, travelled the length and breadth of the country to record and celebrate traditional crafts and industries that have survived in the modern workplace.
The resulting book, Crafted in Britain, is a magnificent piece of work, visually stunning and profoundly moving. The images burn themselves on the mind and stir a response in the soul.
Technology cannot, in all instances, replace the centuries-old processes of the millwrights, the silversmiths, the brewers, the blacksmiths, the stonemasons, and the rest; and these industries survive not as museum pieces but because they offer something valuable, for which demand continues.
“CHURCH” work is crucial to the survival of several traditional industries. One of the most dramatic images is of a craftsman seated within the body of a great Willis organ. He is so at home here that the curve of his body is in accordance with the curve of the pipes; as he inspects the piece of pipework he is assembling, the angle at which he holds it and the particular span of his fingers make him an almost Pan-like figure.
It is a rare glimpse of the light engineering that lies behind the façade of a church organ, and the managing director of Liverpool-based Henry Willis & Sons, David Wyld, makes the point that, until the Industrial Revolution, the pipe organ was the most complex mechanism ever made by man.
The core language of organ-building is of flues (plain tubes), and reed pipes, which contain a vibrating tongue made of brass. These must be accurately curved, and the smaller ones can be done by hand. But the larger ones are curved on a unique machine invented by the company in the 19th century, and using an elaborate array of springs and levers operated by wheels and handles — not because the company is old-fashioned, but because, in Mr Wyld’s words, “no one has ever found a better way.”
Pipes are fine-tuned in the voicing room, sounded together a semitone apart, and adjusted to produce the correct timbre. Bellows, sounding-boards, chests, valves, and membranes create the intricate mechanism to get air in the pipes to make the notes. The book displays a jewel in the crown of Willis organs: the magnificent instrument in Christ Church, in Port Sunlight near by.
The firm has been building organs for 172 years. Mr Wyld admits to being biased, but has no hesitation in naming the best organ he has ever heard as the Willis organ in St George’s Hall, Liverpool. “It was the biggest organ in the world when it was built,” he says. “The room is fantastic, and the acoustic is the finest in Britain. Everything about it is just right. You become a part of it. You are surrounded by the sound, and it becomes a part of you. It is all-encompassing.”
He tells his apprentices that, if there had been a better and quicker way of building an organ, they would have found it by now. Organs that the company made 140 years ago, and which have “never spent a day outside the care of our firm”, are still going strong, and, he says simply, “It’s what we set out to do. Their nature is the nature of the Church. It should be there for ever.
“Of course, a lot of the original materials like felt and leather rot away, but if you replace that stuff, it’s as good as new for another 100 years. It is a long-term investment, but unfortunately, most congregations these days don’t seem able to think in that same way, which is a pity.”
THE bulk of the work does still come from churches, and, when it comes to the industry’s continued survival in the future, there’s the rub. Only three or four brand-new organs are built in the UK each year: those that Henry Willis & Sons are building, or have in prospect at the moment, are bound for Italy, New Zealand, and North America.
“You have to be crazy about organs to be an organ builder these days,” Mr Wyld says, wryly. He points out that the three large organ-building firms — Henry Willis, Nicholson’s, and Harrison’s — employ just over half of the total workforce between them. About 150 people work in the trade, where skills range from leather-working and pipe-making to cabinet work.
A pipe-maker is apprenticed for anything from five to seven years, might only begin to be productive after the first two or three, and, under employment legislation, is entitled to walk away after that time. So it is a huge investment for any company, and one that is not always appreciated by clients when it comes to paying the price.
“We are constantly having to work small miracles on a shoestring. Consequently, the firm just about makes a profit, which means you don’t have the money to keep reinvesting,” he says. “The trade will eventually shrink to one or two firms. It won’t happen in my lifetime, but, over the next 30 or 40 years, I should be very surprised if there were more than one or two organ-building firms left.”
He is passionate in defence of church organs, and famously forthright about what he perceives as the Church of England’s short-term thinking and false economy when it comes to building a new organ, or restoring an old one.
Many churches “throw their organs on the scrapheap when it comes to spending a few bob on them, and buy an artificial substitute: a cheap electronic one that will last for just a few years.
“Look at the memorials in parish churches in the UK — to people who gave the bells, the organ, the stained glass. They bought the best that money could buy. If they had had the same short-term thinking, we would have been left with nothing. The Church of England is robbing itself of a fantastic past. They should be the protectors of that heritage, not the destroyers of it.” For there is nothing like the music of an organ in worship. The original plaque on the Port Sunlight organ has the inscription “Per aures ad animum”, which translates as “Through the ears to the soul.”
“An electronic organ doesn’t move any air. You feel organ music, you don’t just hear it. When you feel uplifted, when you hear the organ crashing around in a big acoustic, it really does make people feel differently about things,” Mr Wyld concludes.
NO ONE who has visited Taylor’s Bell Foundry, in Loughborough, on a casting day can ever forget the sight. Rob Scott’s image of two men tipping the molten bell-metal from the furnace into moulds that have been buried in freshly dug earth pits all week — the method that “allows our bells to sing” — is the most evocative of all. In the cavernous foundry, with the black sand floor, the orange glare of the molten metal, the flying sparks, and the shafts of light through the dusty windows, he captures something both timeless and ennobling.
The line of bell-founding in this locality is unbroken since the mid-14th century; members of the Taylor family have been operating the business since 1784, and the company has been on its present site since 1839. They have meticulous records and patterns of every bell they have ever cast, in every tower, and to say that little had changed would be to pay a compliment.
I remember seeing a completed bell being struck here to the satisfied comment, “That will do for another 300 years,” and the observation, “We only consider a bell to be old when it gets to 700 or 800 years.”
Demand for church bells worldwide has declined, and the industry has had its casualties. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry cast its last batch of tower bells earlier this year at the east-London premises it has occupied since 1738, in an area now almost entirely residential (News, 9 December).
To upgrade the buildings would have cost in the region of £8 million, and the directors, Alan and Kathryn Hughes, spoke of “years of struggling against economic pressures and the high cost of maintaining the listed premises”. Whitechapel tower bells will in future be cast by Westley Group Ltd.
IN A town with proud engineering credentials, Taylor’s residential neighbours complain only when the carillon tower fails to play tunes every lunchtime and — at the end of every day — “Now the day is over”. Seventy-five per cent of its orders are from churches, and current orders include bells for North America, Australia, Sri Lanka, and Burma.
Urgent repairs to the roof and guttering of the Grade II Listed building are being helped by a £1 million grant, and the company is working with the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic England on outline plans to create a visitor centre.
Continuity of skills is assured at present, but nobody is complacent. “You have to enjoy working in a place with a curious atmosphere,” the chairman of John Taylor & Co., Andrew Wilby, suggests. “You shouldn’t expect to be working in a clean, shiny atmosphere: a foundry’s dirty, and you’ve got to appreciate that.” The apprenticeship is seven years, and, of the six workers on the shop floor, two are women.
The bell shape and “the way we do it” are what makes a Taylor bell distinctive, Mr Wilby says. He has been ringing church bells all his life. Loam-casting rather than modern wax processes affects the tone of the bell, but it’s more than that: “A secret we don’t share with anyone else. Taylor bells have a presence that others don’t achieve. After the clapper strikes, it opens like a flower. It grows. With other bells, you hit it, and the sound just dies away. That’s it. [Ours] opens like a flower. And if it doesn’t, it goes back into the pot.”
WHEN it comes to stonemasonry, the book’s authors declare, “There is probably no finer place to see craftsmanship in stone than in one of the great cathedrals.” Renovation to the fabric of these is, of course, core business.
But what Burton and Scott found remarkable, as they watched a mason working on a pinnacle at Salisbury Cathedral, was the way in which he produced “a structure of great beauty, with each arch elaborately carved, even though few visitors will ever get to see it, or even be aware of the complexity of the work if they do look up.” And that was true of all the renovation work that would continue for many
years to come, they reflected: “The masons are working on it not for
the short-term effect, but for posterity.”
IT IS not all about grandeur and iconic buildings, though. One of the most uplifting comments came from the Master of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass, 2017-18, Keith Barley. The work of his studio in York is magnificently featured in the book, not least the glorious new windows designed by Helen Whittaker for Westminster Abbey. On the conservation side, there is a great inheritance of 19th-century windows which now requires attention.
Mr Barley had recently been working on the 16th-century windows of Lichfield Cathedral. But, in conversation, he highlighted a glass-refurbishment project undertaken last year with Elton Parish Church, near Peterborough. It has a number of fine examples of 19th-century windows from distinguished makers such as Morris & Co.
“The whole community was involved with the fund-raising,” he says with respect. “They’d been to visit the studio. We were invited down there. In all my career, I
have never known a community so passionate about looking after the windows in their church: they even had a competition for local schoolchildren to design windows, and a miniature of the design was made for them. Yes. I am optimistic for the future.”
Crafted in Britain: The survival of Britain’s traditional industries by Anthony Burton and Rob Scott is published by Bloomsbury at £25 (CT Bookshop £22.50).