Saturday 8 December 2018
A single golden star winking in the middle of the barn accompanied by quiet tolling of bells launched Michael Hulls‘ Tungsten Requiem last Friday at Messums Wiltshire – an elegy to the humble light bulb now being tossed into the dustbin of history to make way for LEDs.
The single light was soon joined by clusters of others, illuminating the rafters of the barn like nests of fireflies.
Some people lay down on the warm floor of the barn, to fully appreciate the gentle glow of pulsing filaments burning, hissing and crackling within the bulbs.
In a discussion following the performance, Michael Hulls, an associate artist with Sadlers Wells Theatre said the piece reflected his ‘rage against the dying of the light.’
‘We are looking at a species on the point of extinction – tiny pinpricks of light that will soon be no longer’ he said.
Hulls spent thousands of pounds buying up boxes of the discontinued light bulbs – largely from Germany.
‘I love seeing that burning filament and got my credit card out and started hoovering up all the lights I can find,’ he said.
The bulbs have a life expectancy of 2000 hours, based on burning non stop at 100%. In my pieces we are upto a maximum of 20% and even then only intermittently, so that is into years and years.
Each of the 9 hanging constellations of Tungsten bulbs are named after different stars – Castor Pollux, Polaris and Antares – in a variety of sizes containing between nine and 52 bulbs each.
As well as the beautiful golden light they emit are the shadows and shapes that form on the floor under each light fitting, reminiscent of the crystalline shapes of snowflakes. Contrasting with the warm, solar light of the Tungsten bulbs is the cold blue lunar coloured LED lights at the top of each light Tungsten constellation.
Michael said he ‘wanted the lights to have a relationship with each other at some times but not at others.’
He added, ‘Different points in the soundtrack triggers different sequence of lights. An aspect of a Tungsten bulb is that as they become bright you feel their warmth like our own precious star. The LED lights are cold whereas the burning Tungsten filament makes energy visible, like an open fire that works on all of us at a fundamental level.’
Summing up Johnny Messum described the art work as a ‘dance in light;’ summarising both how elements of Michael Hulls’ light pieces relate to each other and also life itself.
Read more about ‘Tungsten Requiem’ as part of our Material Light exhibition at https://messumswiltshire.com/material-light-michael-hulls/
Read more about Michael Hulls at:
Saturday 17 November 2018
The picture created of Brian Taylor by his family and friends after being gently probed by the former art critic of the Times, Richard Cork in a discussion at Messums Wiltshire was of a quiet and ‘very difficult man’ but also one passionately devoted to his art.
‘I was told I couldn’t meet Brian because he was in a black depression,’ said the wife of Brian Taylor recalling their first encounter at St Martin’s art school where she was a pupil and he was her teacher. ‘So I went up to him and told him that we had a tutorial booked. I knew I had a lot to learn and he said you need four, one hour drawing classes in the sculpture department.‘
Their son Gabriel described how he sat ‘for hours’ for his father, starting from when he was six years old to create some of the best loved sculptures the artist did.
‘When he was working he wouldn’t be interrupted by anything; he was totally absorbed in what he was doing. He was a man of few words and there weren’t ongoing exchanges. When you sat for him, you felt you had arrived in his territory. We watched old films and DVD’s or listened to cassette tapes as we sat for him for sessions that lasted for up to three hours and sometimes longer.’
‘I did fall asleep when he was sculpting me – which is why my head is down in one of the portraits’
Gabriel added that he continues to see new things in the sculptures made by his father. ‘You can never take enough from these pieces. He was temperamental and could be stubborn but he was a genius with his work.’
Michelle said; ‘He was very temperamental and didn’t talk a lot. He hated small talk – the important things in life were sculpture, gardening and cooking. He was always busy.
Even though I was a painter and he was a sculptor we didn’t clash; he believed the fundamental basis of all our work was drawing ; he was a great lover of painting, in particular Masaccio and Della Francesca.
He understood that painting was all about painting the person from the inside and he applied the same principles to his sculptures.
You really get a sense of the personality of the people he worked on. He told the individual story about them.’
Read more about our exhibition ‘Brian Taylor: A Retrospective’ at https://messumswiltshire.com/Brian-taylor-4/
Saturday 1 December 2018
Tuesday Riddell lived up to her surname when she started explaining the arcane practices that go into creating her delicate and intricate lacquer ware paintings during a talk at Messums Wiltshire.
Holding a wooden panel that she had sanded and then painted with a mixture of varnish, powdered iron and volcanic ash she demonstrated how she creates her quietly elegiac works featuring golden insects quietly devouring each other on the forest floor.
Each picture takes three days to prepare and Tuesday usually has six on the go at the same time. Having drawn a beetle in glue onto the board, she then delicately brushed on a fluttering piece of gold leaf with the effect that the image of the beetle materialised, it seemed, out of nowhere.
‘I am very meditative when I am making my lacquer ware pieces – they force me to concentrate. I have to stay very calm when I am painting them as there is no space for error. If I skip a meal my hand will shake and the work will be ruined.’
The hardest and most dangerous part of the process she said was right at the end of creating a piece when she sweeps the whole board with a final coat of shellac that he has to paint quickly and without hesitation. One false move and the images underneath can be destroyed.
The process begins with preparing a board with up to 30 layers of European lacquer which is sanded between layers to create a mirrored black surface to then paint images upon with gold which will afterwards be gilded with 23.5 carat gold and silver leaf before brushing off the excess gold to unveil the image on the surface. She subsequently builds up the shaded background with line, gold powders and metal flakes before being layered with the final coats of varnish.
The pieces are, she revealed, a quiet elegy to the destruction of the planet by mankind.
She mourns the destruction of the forest and its tiny inhabitants in her miniature worlds of golden insects devouring each other on the forest floor.
‘These dark enchanting techniques are especially suited to my voice as an artist,’ she said. ‘The mirrored reflective surface lends an elegance and grace fitting to my images and compositions.’
‘I want to reflect the mass loss of species caused by global warming’ she said. ‘Insects are used as symbols in a political scene in which horror contrast with beauty. Whimsical small animals and insects devour each other and the birds are dying.’
Tuesday has been inspired by amongst others, Otto Marseus van Shriek – a 17th Century Dutch master of vanitas paintings. ‘We have at our disposal technologies that are numbing and unhealthy. This escape from reality created a need in me to return to physical material.’
Artists Grayson Perry and Rakib Shaw as well as stores like Liberties are all exploring art of the past she pointed out; William Morris’ designs are currently being used for a new range of clothes by Gucci.
‘I care about aesthetic legacies and lacquer work is one area which is not yet surpassed by modern ways of doing things. A lot of modern techniques give the art a Disneyland, plasticky feel, and it is important to me to keep the human, manual product’ she said.
When making her works she can get small ones finished in a couple of weeks or six weeks for the biggest works. Now, she wants to go still bigger – making works six-foot high.
‘Lacquer ware is a bridge to our past culture,’ she said, ‘but it must evolve with contemporary art practice – I want to take it to new places.’
Tuesday’s works are on show in the Long Gallery until Sunday 22 December, read more at https://messumswiltshire.com/tuesday-riddell/
Friday 30 November 2018
It is rare to be able to gain access to an artist’s studio, they are places like the recesses of a mind where ideas are borne and considered before they are ever let out into the public eye. They are in every sense private spaces, and yet to be invited into these is to step behind the finished object and to see their inner workings much like taking the back off a clock. They can be extraordinarily beautiful in their execution of process. So it was when we stepped into the first of two studios belonging to sculptor Laurence Edwards. This was his day or ‘Morning Studio’ up on the remote towns of Suffolk. A place that was once a Fire Station and is now a light infused, detritus strewn start point for all of Laurence’s works. In the corner are a set of dented metal tubs holding murky mouldy clay. This sort of embryonic soup is the recycled clay that his destroyed sculptures go into, only to be resurrected again into new forms. ‘My earliest sculpture is probably in there’ muses Laurence as we stare at his latest ongoing work. Handfuls of clay wrestled and pulled over asteel armature that still protrudes through in places, a primordial figure wrestling out of the ground. It is proving impossible to take it all at once so we fire questions at random, why Reindeer horns cast in wax? – Inspiration from a wild trip up onto the Russian Tundra to study the Reindeer herders with one of the countries leading anthropologists. Laurence tells of a Russian approach to travel where breaking down and fixing your means of transport are as much part of the journey as the destination itself. ‘It was a remarkable experience’ he said ‘to journey for days and to meet these people who had probably never had contact with western humans before and to witness their relationship with the land was extraordinary.
There are also a fine set of Antlers on the wall and we alight on them by way of contrast I could not work with those Laurence answers there is too much heraldic significance, feudal weighting, but these (the antlers smuggled back from Russia) these speak of something else ‘They are admittedly much smaller and certainly less grand, more accessible perhaps and we muse on the distinction. Other parts of the building are set aside for working in Wax, this perhaps is the material or moment that really defines Laurence’s work. Having trained at the Royal College of Art and won the Henry Moore Scholarship, it was really the process o f bronze casting that became his fascination with a life aim of mastering both modelling and casting work. In achieving this he is one of the rarer artists working today and certainly process is very much at the forefront of his work. Process is the topic that we turn to as he leads us through a complicated figure in wax, wood and rope that is on a stand in the middle of the room. ‘This figure is out of memories that have been percolating in my mind since coming back from the outback of Australia in Spring 2018. There the landscape makes such extraordinary impact on your mind, I remember desicated foxes hung off trees and wire fencing that has withstood deluges of flood borne detritus that has clung on through months of heat. ‘These thoughts have become in Laurence’s work – a small figure stands with arms outstretched weighted down by organic material. We begin to learn about how decisions are being made here relating to the bronze casting process. Runners and Risers (the tributaries for hot liquid bronze entering the mould and the escape of air). What looked at first to be a piece of rope or twig leading off from the midriff of figure may in fact turn out to be the escape route for air a it is replaced by bronze in the casting process -or i t may be both. The duality of form and purpose here leaves us all wanting to understand more about the bronze casting process itself, so after wandering the various rooms of his studio which seem so laden with idea in a state of flux we went in pursuit of the finished object: an altarpiece at Blythborough church a few miles away.
Read more about sculptor Laurence Edwards at https://messumswiltshire.com/laurence-edwards-sydney/
Wednesday 21 November 2018
With the unlikely tunes of a late soundcheck still playing in the background, the director of Sadler’s Wells, home to some of the most exciting contemporary dance today took to the stage to start a talk only ever heard once before.
Immediately the surprising image of Louis XIV appeared on the screen in a rather fetching period costume. It was the Sun King’s personal interest in dance that led to the codification of the ballet moves that survive today. Ballet we learned provided pleasure and interest in his court and was also in part a reflection of the stylised moves and postures the courtesans themselves adopted as outward signifiers of rank and class. The subsequent rise and rise of ballet in Paris, Russia and Norway broadly followed dynastic lines of marriage amongst Royal families.
Alistair contrasted this with the opening of Dick Sadler’s hall of entertainment in 1683 in Islington. A great many lines of entertainment ensued, reenacting sea battles on a stage full of water, fisticuffs, wrestling with the occasional sing song sent in to test the artistic heights, such it appeared was the status quo for much of entertainment in England . Dance was noticable mostly for its absence with a clear preference at any societal level for the theatrical, the linguistic or the bawdy. A lineage that was suggested aligned to the more Teutonic interests our Royal household and associated countries.
Alistair then outlined the weypoints in dance from that point generally, chiefly the period of 1890- 1895 and two men Ivan Vsevolozhsky and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky who wrote what have been consistently been the three most popular performances ever since: Sleeping Beaty, The Nutcracker and Swanlake.
Moving onwards he highlighted the role of the Choreographer and in particular Diaghilev who had come into Ballet following a passion for collecting Art, that is to say with no specific dance background. His company, the Ballet Russe would go on to change to the course of dance and their performance in 1913 of “The Rite of Spring” is widely considered to be the starting gun for modernism in Ballet and the beginning of contemporary dance as we know it now. A distinction that he drew loosely as an interest and association with the ground and weight as opposed to weightlessness in earlier dance forms.Needless to say the intial performance was reported to have started a small riot of outrage.
Back at Sadler’s Well another towering figure took to centre stage. Lillian Bayliss was the remarkable producer who ran not only Sadler’s Wells but also The Old Vic with a vision to “create art for the artisans of Islington”. Perhaps the clearest testament to her endeavours was the formation of both the English National Opera and the Royal Ballet, both out of Sadler’s Wells. So it was not until 1928 that a Ballet Company formally existed in the UK!
The development of Modern Dance gathered pace quickly from this point, with notable influences in forms of expression coming from the dance hall and show business, notably Fred Astaire whose untrained and natural movement would influence and inspire George Balanchine at the New York Ballet. American influence at Sadler’s extended to the drive of Robin Howard, an ex Fighter pilot who had lost his legs but brought Martha Graham and the Graham technique to London. Later in the 80s the impact of Hip hop and the Rock Steady Crew, would be followed by the burst of creativity in Music Video, Michael Jackson and Bruce Lee. Remarkable pools of inspiration at first sight but formative on some of the current greats such as Wayne MacGregor and Hofesh Shekter.
Meanwhile in Europe and particularly Germany a more extreme minimalism had taken root. Some people are just simply ahead of the thought processes others and so it was with Pina Bausch and her work in the industrial town of Wuppertal in Germany. Her studied works have become canons of modernism and play to packed audiences whenever they travel.
Sadler’s position in this, as the showcase for dance really clarified in 2000 with Alistair taking the helm in 2005 and made commitment to just present dance. Sadler’s does not support a dance troupe, positioning instead with selected Choreographers who in term have their own crews. The divisions between Ballet and contemporary dance have narrowed and there has also been a willingness to take on and introduce inspiration from different fields such as contemporary art.
The future looks as exciting with the announcement of a development into the East of London as part of the Olympic legacy and a commitment to promote and present more female choreographers
In 2016 Sadler’s Wells Associate Choreographer Russell Maliphant was the first to set a performance in the barn
In 2017 New Wave Choreographer Alexander Whitley presented the second piece.
A number of dance Students attended and supper was served in the Mess Restaurant
Read more about Alistair and his work at Sadler’s Wells at https://www.sadlerswells.com/about-us/people/senior-management-team/
Read more about the dance performances we have shown at Messums Wiltshire in collaboration with Sadler’s Wells by choreographers Russell Maliphant and Alexander Whitley
Three of the artists with works in our New Perspectives exhibition took part in a panel discussion about the value of drawing. Held in the barn at Messums Wiltshire on November 16th the discussion was moderated by Anita Taylor, founder of the Drawing Project which weeks to develop and promote research initiatives in drawing including the Jerwood Drawing Prize.
First to speak was Daphne Todd, head of the Society of Portrait Painters and winner in 2010 of the BP portrait prize. Todd complained that many art students nowadays are taught to draw by copying photographs but as she put it, photographs are ‘small, flat and dead’ when compared with drawing from life. ‘When you are drawing from life you are using your whole self and your eyes are probing into space. The camera records things that you haven’t seen and that wasn’t part of your experience. There is real importance in clinging to the skills that sadly are not being taught, particularly in state colleges nowadays. The challenge is how to get the 3-D world onto a flat canvas. It’s important that we carry on connecting as human beings and carry on using our spirit and intelligence in terms if selecting what’s out there.’
Daphne then revealed that she had had an affair with the painter Euan Uglow, whose work is also in our exhibition and had modelled for him. ‘I think I learned more from watching Euan’s struggles with perception than I did from six years as an art student,’ she said. Daphne revealed that she ‘dives straight in’ without actually doing any preparatory drawings when making her paintings. She paints on multiple canvases ‘to show the bits I am concentrating on.’
Peter Brown or ‘Pete the Street’ as he is colloquially called on account of his penchant for painting en plein air with an easel in front of his subject said: ‘If I am trying to paint from photos then the initial passion is lost. I grew up in a house in the middle of a wood and spent all my childhood playing on my own. My winters were spent building a model railway, it’s important to learn how to play in order to draw. You have to learn how to motivate yourself. He added: ‘I grew up looking at books containing very cheesy illustrations of woodland scenes. They gave me confidence. You have to have the passion to make you want to do drawing and the confidence to do it. I love abstract art but it wasn’t for me. Drawing is mindfulness at its best; it is a wonderful way of spending time in the public domain – people talk to you.’
Saied Dai made an impassioned plea for drawing that started with saying; ‘Observation is central to
existence.’ ‘If you do not have observation you are not aware and without awareness you are not able to do anything at all’ he said. He continued; ‘I would contend that observation is central to virtually every aspect of thinking. Drawing is the benchmark of artistic tradition. In my experience, after 30 years of training, observation is very arduous. People say we don’t need it but observation feeds imagination. Whether you are figurative or non- figurative, drawing is one of the most profoundly engaging processes that uses all your cognitive faculties; intellectual and emotional. Identifying shapes, tones and colours is an acute way of learning about relationships. Figurative artists are dealing with the complex idea of representation to try and express psychological elements. The biggest tragedy in the loss of drawing is the loss of any kind of sustained feeling. The use of the mechanical and of photographs in art has taken the place of perception and seeing. But if art is merely a matter of recording, a photograph can do it very effectively. But figurative art is not about copying – the whole history of art could not have been done by copying. Drawing is the way that artists think. A drawing reveals how they are emotionally from moment to moment. It tells you about their past, their sensibility, proclivity and capacity for analysis, all of which are indicated in the way they express themselves. It tells you all of the past and is involved in predicting the future. No subject is more compelling than the human face, more paradoxical or more contradictory than human beings. A life room changed my life and changed others.’
Thursday 20 September 2018
The day started with Danish pastries at the Danish Embassy where Malene Hartmann Rasmussen was interviewed by Alun Graves, Keeper of Ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum about the work she has created at the museum during the last year as the Danish ceramic artist in residence.
Malene explained that her work is inspired by children’s books about trolls as well as the sense of uhyggelig the uncanny underpinning much of Danish culture.
Her work, exquisitely wrought ‘green men’ made of leaves, trolls and beasts, flowers and bugs, acorns, tree stumps, spiders, rabbits and corn dollies have featured in two in two exhibitions at Messums Wiltshire showcasing Europe’s best contemporary ceramic artists. She is also creating some new works for an exhibition of contemporary ceramics we are curating for the Koç Foundation in Istanbul next September.
In the afternoon a group of Messums Wiltshire patrons met in the main sculpture hall of the V&A where Malene has transformed an Italian Renaissance grotto made by Bernard Palissy for Catherine de Medici into one inhabited by a man made of seaweed and a pink frog. Behind him are some stalactites also made by Malene creating a surreal vignette in a gallery otherwise dominated by works by Giambologna, Rodin and Canova.
We admired how wet and lifelike the seaweed looks; the glaze is fired at such a high temperature (1280 Celsius rather than the usual 1080) that the glaze vitrifies meaning that it can withstand frost as it doesn’t absorb any water; perfect for a fountainhead in the grotto which Malene plans to make.
We then went upstairs and visited Malene’s studio, situated rather publicly in a glass walled room adjoining the ceramics galleries. ‘It does feel rather like a gold-fish bowl but I have got used to having people watching me work’ she said.
Apart from her kiln which has a six-foot-high chimney, we saw the first in a new line of troll heads made of pebbles and shells and her ceramic ‘diamonds’, all using this remarkable new, extremely subtle and lifelike watery glaze.
The like a mermaid’s cave, full of sea life; from the tiniest winkle to the biggest anemone as well as clams, sea snails, stalactites and seaweeds.
Particularly beautiful is a new work woven out of some green snakes, each curling and coiling with the poetry of those you see in the borders of medieval illuminated manuscripts.
the afternoon concluded with some delicious coffee served by Malene and some langues de chats; as delicate and delicious as Malene’s ceramic art.
Read more about Malene Hartmann Rasmussen at https://messumswiltshire.com/malene-hartmann-rasmussen/
Photos: Sylvain Deleu
Wednesday 29 August 2018
It was the shadow of the branches of a bonsai tree that looked like a throne projected against the sitting-room wall of his parents’ house in Chesterfield, that first inspired Gavin Munro to ‘grow’ chairs. Aged only five when he first saw them, it was years later, recuperating from one of a number of operations trying to straighten his back afflicted by scoliosis, that Munro realised that he could make a chair without lifting a single nail, plane or chisel. Just by letting trees grow and subtly directing the direction the branches went in, could, over a period of 8 to 15 years, result in a chair.
“It was when I was recuperating that I learnt patience,’ he said. Speaking at Messums Wiltshire where he has installed a magical tree cum chair that looks like something out of an Arthur Rackham book, Gavin outlined how he brought together horticulture, design and ancient techniques and modern technology to create an entirely new kind of mass manufacture of furniture as well as a new aesthetic.
Having spent a year in London in the early 1990’s Gavin went to live in San Francisco where he made buildings out of straw bales and tables out of drift wood. It was while he was there that he had what he calls his Eureka thought; ‘why not just shape and graft a tree as it grows?’
During his talk he ran through the dozens of implements, tools and vehicles usually required to produce a single plank of wood. ‘I realised that the current system is really slow and inefficient and uses lots o f resources that doesn’t leave much room for nature’ he said.
Gavin started growing four trees but told the tale of how his first crop was decimated by a herd of cows. As a result, he moved his trees to the seclusion of his mother-in-law’s garden where they were safe within a fortress of sturdy beech hedges. By stealth he built up his factory out of a range of trees all growing at different rates and spinning out furniture at different times. The sycamore and hazel chairs take around four to six years to grow; the oak, seven to ten years whereas apple wood tables can take ten to thirteen years. In the spring of 2008 he cut his first chair since when he has acquired 2000 acres in Derbyshire and planted 1000 trees, all slowly being shaped into tables, chairs, bird boxes, beds, hammocks, even bicycle wheels. Particularly impressive was a new range of lampshades that Munro has developed, soon to be on sale at Messums Wiltshire.
‘What’s developing is a horticultural design language,’ he said. ‘It’s uber-green. It’s the value added cash crop and my hope is that it is redefining our relationship with nature. It’s like a Zen form of three dimensional printing,’ he says.
Gavin estimates that he is now tweaking around half a million branches a year, building up a business that needs nothing but sun, soil and water – and the patience of a stone buddha.
Kicking off with a photograph of a gambolling lamb, Gabriel Hemery began his PowerPoint talk at Messums Wiltshire by pointing out that a sheep offers to the consumer both wool and lamb chops. So it is with trees; you can either chop them down or just chop bits off them and keep them alive.
Hemery, one of Britain’s leading forest scientists and co founder and Chief Executive of Sylva, the charity helping to sustain Britain’s woodlands, was at the gallery to talk about his book, The New Sylva; an updated version of John Evelyn’s 1662 tome Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions which is still recognised as one of the most influential texts on forestry ever published.
‘If Evelyn was alive today he would tell us to grow more trees but also to think of what to do with them,’ said Hemery before flashing up on the screen what looked like a lump of lard but was in fact Sappi Biotech, a new substance made from trees set to replace plastic and glass.,
‘Strategically, timber is the most important thing we are running out of,’ said Hemery adding that the UK imports a million tonnes of hardwood into the UK every year.
In 1662, 8% of Britain was covered in woodland and you were not allowed to cut down trees unless you sold it to make British battleships. Before the first World War the amount had dropped to 6% but It was the advent of the Forestry Commission established in 1919 that led to more trees being planted and as recently as the year 2000 the figure rose to 12%. Now it stands at 10% – the third lowest of any country in Europe.
‘We have become disconnected from the natural world as a country,’ said Hemery. Quoting from Richard Louv’s book, Last Child In The Woods, Hemery said we are suffering from a ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’.
‘By rearing two generations of people disconnected from the natural world many people don’t have an affinity with woods and trees and so we need to work out how it can be a sustainable entity’ he said.
Hemery went on to point out that 72% of forest in the UK is privately owned and it is therefore incumbent on the individuals who own trees to keep them flourishing.
At the Sylva Foundation, that has its headquarters near Oxford, 14 businesses, from boat builders to woodcarvers have offices and cross pollinate information and ideas.
Set up by Hemery, with support from Sir Martin Wood, it also runs courses such as Anglo Saxon Tree Writing and making greenwood stools.
Surrounding the buildings and covering 70,000 hectares is planted a community orchard, complete with an apiary, and a demonstration Future Forest with tree species that may thrive despite climate change, pests and diseases as well as a new dedicated forest education area with space for children to learn about and enjoy woodland.
‘We would be better to be without gold than without Sylva’ said Hemery, quoting again from John Evelyn.
After this he went on to discuss his magnificent book, on sale at Messums Wiltshire.
He demonstrated how it came together and how he worked with the illustrator Sarah Simblet to produce a unique but highly topical masterpiece featuring 200 wonderfully delicate yet distinguished drawings of different trees on its 400 pages bound in crimson.
Artistry through action; the benefits of bodging discussed in a talk by furniture maker, Chris Eckersley
Bodgers get a bad rap because they are often confused with botchers explained Chris Eckersley in a fascinating talk at Messums Wiltshire telling the story of a new wave of furniture makers using green, unseasoned, wood.
Ten years ago Eckersley launched The Bodging Project having spent a week in the woods of Herefordshire with ten other makers being taught how to make furniture out of green timber by Gudrun Leitz.
Each of them responded to the material in quirky and unexpected ways with the result that the chairs they made were shown at the Milan furniture fair – stars in the biggest and most prestigious design exhibition in the world.
‘We did come in for criticism from traditional crafts people’ Eckersley said.
‘It always surprises me that we have continued. ‘
One of the makers on that first exploration into reviving this ancient technique of furniture making was Dave Green, owner of one of the biggest wood chair manufacturers in the country, Sitting Firm.
‘At the time they were making traditional Windsor chairs and I kept saying – why not make modern ones?’ recalls Eckersley.
The Windsor chair takes its name from the English town of Windsor where is originated in around 1710. It consists of multiple thin, turned spindles all of which fit into a solid, sculpted seat. It has straight legs that splay outwards and a back that slightly reclines. Its enduring popularity is not only based on its pleasing aesthetic but the fact that it is flexible and light as well as very strong, moving to accommodate the different weights and girths of the people sitting on it.
The point of using green wood rather than seasoned, was to ‘make the strongest chair possible’ explained Eckersley.
‘The seat always has a higher moisture content than the legs as it is a bigger piece of wood,’ Eckersley said. ‘The seat is wetter and as it dries out it shrinks and the holes the legs pass through shrinks too making it very strong.’
Chair making in Britain has historically centred on High Wycombe and the Chiltern hills where there is a plentiful s supply of beech wood. Showing old photographs of the greatest chair maker of the 19th century Philip Clisset who lived and worked in Herefordshire however, Eckersley said that there were also great furniture makers working further west too. Clisset had an enormous influence on Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Charles Ashbee and other leading lights of the Arts and Crafts movement.
It was in Bosbury, the birthplace of Clisset in Herefordshire that Gudrun Leitz bought the woods in which she now runs bodging courses using ancient tools like foot powered pole lathes,. adzes and drawing horses.
‘We were as far away from CAD computers as we could be’ says Eckersley. ‘Everything we designed was done by simply drawing on the back of an envelope.
The conditions were harsh:. ’It was completely freezing; there was no electricity, one tap and an earth closet,‘ recalls Eckersley
‘As designers we are used to imposing our will on materials but greenwood workers like, what we call, wavy gravy; they accentuate the natural grain of the wood and make it part of the design. The wood we were using was much more of a living thing than we were used to working and a lot of it was back breaking work. ‘
The hard graft led , however, to a fluidity of thought that expressed itself in a remarkable and eclectic collection of chairs that have wowed the furniture world.
On their return from Milan, Dave Green invited the group to his factory to make chairs inspired by the ones they had made in the woods that could go into mass production.
Five of these chairs won awards by the Guild of Furniture Makers and have sold in stores such as Heals and John Lewis, successfully popularising the Windsor chair for the 21st century.
‘What we learnt through bodging is the benefit of designing through making; not working everything out too much in advance but just getting on with it,’ concluded Eckersley.
‘Bodge thinking is like working as a sculptor’ said Eckersley. ‘It’s a quality of mucking about until you get something you like rather than sitting at a computer and making a virtual model. It’s artistry through action.’