Heritage Craft Training Case Study – Lawrence Neal, Richard Platt and Sam Cooper
Bringing a craft back from the brink
The Gimson ladderback chair is a classic of the Arts & Crafts Movement, made by an unbroken line of craftsmen. Gimson was inspired and taught by the village chairmaker Phillip Clissett, born in 1817, and the skills were handed down through Edward Gardiner, Neville Neal and then to his son Lawrence Neal. In 2018, master craftsman Lawrence was approaching retirement age and, as the last in the line of chair makers, his skills and this important lineage were in danger of being lost. Hugo Burge of Marchmont Ventures became aware of this and commissioned a film, The Chairmaker, to tell his story. From this, and the attention that the film attracted, the idea of recruiting an apprentice was formed.
The apprenticeship opportunity was promoted through the HCA’s social media and other green woodwork networks. Two talented young makers, Sam Cooper and Richard Platt, were selected and began their eighteen months of training with a focus on equipping them with the practical skills to make rush seated ladderback chairs to a very high standard. They were supported financially by Marchmont Ventures during their training which covered their living and accommodation costs.
Spring 2020 saw them move to the newly equipped Marchmont Workshop, Berwickshire, where they will build their business. This exciting opportunity will enable them to develop a sustainable business using locally sourced materials from the estate and surrounding area. The workshop is one of seven units for makers and creators with an aim to create a community of highly skilled makers at Marchmont. Hugo’s aim, through Marchmont Ventures, is to invest in arts, crafts and early stage businesses that support sustainable creativity.
Sam and Richard are optimistic about their future making rush seated chairs and developing new complementary products. The apprenticeship has been hugely positive and constructive with both apprentices becoming highly skilled in a valuable heritage craft. As Lawrence says: “It’s a credit to Sam and Rich that they were able to grasp the craft in such a short period of time”, and it is evident that the commitment shown by Sam, Richard and Lawrence, combined with a realistic level of financial support through Marchmont, has been the key to the success of this project. The traditional skills and lineage of the Ernest Gimson and Phillip Clissett chair now have every chance of surviving and thriving in the stunning surroundings of the Scottish Borders.
“We’re very thankful to both Hugo and Lawrence for giving us the opportunity to learn the craft and the rich history it carries, as well as trusting us to continue such an important legacy. We can only hope that our story inspires other makers and their supporters to ensure endangered crafts are not lost.”
Length – 18 months
Qualifications gained – No formal qualifications were gained as it wasn’t considered necessary
Sheffield scissor makers Ernest Wright have won the inaugural President’s Award for Endangered Crafts in this year’s Heritage Crafts Awards. The prestigious award, and £3,000 bursary, was initiated by Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) President HRH The Prince of Wales.
The President’s Award was one of five awards presented by Sir John Hayes at the HCA’s Awards Ceremony held on Wednesday 7 October. The event was held online instead of the planned Winners’ Reception due to take place at the Houses of Parliament, which was inevitably curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Paul Jacobs with master putter-togetherers Cliff Denton and Eric Stones of Ernest Wright scissor makers. Photo by Carl Whitham.
Ernest Wright was founded in 1902 and reflects everything Sheffield has become famous for – highly skilled craftspeople making supreme quality products. Following a tragedy in 2018, the company went into receivership and the critically endangered craft of scissor making was on the verge of disappearing from Sheffield. Paul Jacobs and Jan Bart Fanoy took action and bought the company, re-hired the remaining master putter-togetherers, Cliff Denton and Eric Stones, and took on several putters in training. The factory is now back in action with 12 scissor patterns currently in production. They plan to use the prize to repair machinery so that putter-in-training can have more productive time learning the craft from Cliff and Eric.
The four other awards were presented with the generous support of the Marsh Christian Trust, who have supported these awards since 2012.
The HCA/Marsh Trainer of the Year award went to Achilles Khorassandjian, shoe making tutor at Capel Manor College in Enfield, Middlesex. Achilles, known as Ash, has worked in the shoemaking industry for 57 years, and still designs and makes shoes from his home studio as well as supporting the next generation of UK shoemakers with his knowledge and skills.
The inaugural HCA/Marsh Trainee of the Year award went jointly to Richard Platt and Sam Cooper, chairmaking apprentices to Lawrence Neal at Marchmont House in Berwickshire. Richard and Sam are currently in the process of opening a rush seated chair workshop, the first of its kind since 1958. They use skills and techniques passed down from Phillip Clissett, Ernest Gimson, Edward Gardiner and Neville Neal. Without them taking up the craft, with support from Hugo Burge at Marchmont, one of Britain’s proudest craft traditions would have been lost.
The HCA/Marsh Volunteer of the Year award went to John Savings, from Appleton in Oxfordshire, hedgelayer and volunteer at the National Hedgelaying Society. John excels at promoting and encouraging others to take part in the traditional craft of hedgelaying. John lays in the South of England style but can put his hand to any style, showing young and old how to make a perfect hedge.
The HCA/Marsh ‘Made in Britain’ Award went to Two Rivers Paper. Established at Pitt Mill on Exmoor in 1987, Two Rivers is now the only manufacturer of traditional handmade, artists’ quality rag paper in the UK and one of only a handful of similar businesses in Europe. Their watercolour paper has an international reputation for excellence. Owner Jim Patterson has recently trained apprentice Zoe and plans to relocate the company to the historic papermaking town of Watchet.
An amazing opportunity has come up for two people to learn from one of the country’s top traditional craftspeople and carry forward an important traditional craft.
Lawrence Neal has spent his life making rush seated chairs, a trade he learned from his father Neville, who in turn learned from Edward Gardiner. Gardiner had learned from the famous architect and designer Ernest Gimson who had was taught by country chairmaker Philip Clissett. Lawrence is now approaching retirement and is looking to pass on his skills, knowledge and tools many of which were originally owned by Gimson.
Heritage Crafts Association supporter Hugo Burge has taken a personal interest in Lawrence’s chairs and is going to fund the training process for Lawrence to pass his skills on. Not only that but once the successful new chairmakers are trained he can provide a workshop and subsidised accommodation on the Marchmont Estate in Scotland… all-in-all a once in a lifetime opportunity for the right person.
“I fell in love with the Ernest Gimson’s Bedales Library and its chairs over 20 years ago when I bought six Bedales chairs from Lawrence Neal in 1994. Much more recently, I have been working with Lawrence Neal, who continues to make rush seated chairs today in a 100 year tradition from Ernest Gimson, still using Gimson’s tools. We are now looking for two individuals to learn from Lawrence directly (as apprentices), in Stockton, Warwickshire for one to two years, before moving the whole workshop up to Marchmont House stables in Berwickshire to let Lawrence retire and take the business forwards within a charitable structure.
The business will generate a good living and offers the opportunity to grow and evolve, with an incredible lineage, using the actual tools of Ernest Gimson from Daneway – one of Britain’s greatest architect designers and pioneers of The Arts and Crafts Movement. There will be a base salary and the opportunity to grow your income, taking subsidised accommodation on the Marchmont Estate when you establish the workshop. This is a unique opportunity to build and create a new legacy; a new chapter of chairmaking – it will require commitment and long term dedication, so will be highly selective and not for everyone, but for two people with a real passion for taking the legacy of this traditional process into the twenty first century…..it will be ideal”
The making of ‘Orkney chairs’, a type of chair with a wooden base and a straw back.
Historic area of significance
Area currently practised
Origin in the UK
Current no. of professionals (main income)
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
Current no. of trainees
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers
Minimum no. of craftspeople required
It is not known when Orkney chairs were first made, but it is possible to chart how they evolved from simple stools to the full blown chair associated with the islands today.
Orkney does not have enough indigenous trees to supply a furniture making industry, so furniture and other household items were made from reclaimed wood or driftwood, along with the leftover straw from the black oats grown to feed livestock. The early stools were made almost entirely of straw, with the only wood being used in the feet. Gradually wood (usually driftwood) was used to form the base of the chair, although the basic design was still that of a stool covered in straw. Eventually a low woven straw back was added, and later still hoods were added to the chairs to keep out the draughts and sometimes a drawer was added under the seat.
Until the 1890s, Orkney chairs were made for use by the maker’s own family or to be sold within a small local market. However, the Arts and Crafts movement and the foundation of the Scottish Home Industries Association increased the interest in the traditional hand crafts of Scotland. At this time, a Mr David Kirkness, a joiner of Kirkwall, began to produce four standardised versions of the traditional Orkney chair. By creating standard versions he was able to increase his output, and the straw backs were stitched by outworkers. It is estimated he made about 400 chairs per year, far more than other makers. The new publicity and increased output led to the Orkney chair becoming a must-have item of the upper classes.
Today, locally grown straw is still used to make the backs of the chairs, which still have to be stitched by hand. The chair frames, originally made from driftwood, are now more often made from the best quality wood available.
The making of the frame of an Orkney chair is a fairly skilled job and consists of making about 26 separate components. The main joint used to make the frame is a mortice and tennon joint; this is also combined with shaping various components and sometimes a drawer is required to be made and fitted. The technique used to stitch the back is very similar to techniques used in coiled basket making where each row is stitched onto the one below. Differing from basket making, each row is tied onto the chair uprights before being folded back onto itself to start the next row. The needle is angled in various ways while stitching to shape the back. The oat staw used for the chair backs is harvested using traditional methods. It is either cut with a scythe or binder.
Most of the current chair makers have diversified from making just traditional style chairs to make more contemporary designs
Windsor chair: solid plank seat, with the legs tenoned into the seat.
Frame chair: a woven seat, with all the components tenoned into each other
Chairs only became a part of general domestic furniture in Elizabethan times, and the demand for chairs began to grow in the seventeenth century. The Industrial Revolution and mechanisation led to a new middle class which provided customers for chairs. While fashionable chairs made from imported woods such as mahogany were mainly obtainable in London and provincial towns, rural people relied on locally made furniture from the ‘wilder’ woods of beech/elm.
Chair making became separated from other woodworking trades through its development as a wood-turner’s chair rather than a joiner’s chair.
Windsor chairs have solid plank seats which are generally hollowed slightly for comfort. A tool called an adze is used for this, and a travisher is used for finer shaping. All the other components of the chair are socketed into this seat. The legs and spindles are generally turned on a lathe, and fixed into the seat using round tenons. Traditionally, these components were made from unseasoned or ‘green’ timber, which are then thoroughly dried before assembly. Often Windsor chairs incorporate curved pieces. These are generally steam bent, a process which makes wood pliable after being placed in a box containing steam for some time. Often the parts of the chair are finished with a cabinet scraper, a small metal tool with a fine burr edge. Traditionally Windsor chairs were dyed with a mixture of shellac and oil. Many contemporary Windsor’s are often left in their natural state.
Market issues: There are not a lot of chair makers around (perhaps 30 highly skilled makers) – but the market can only support a certain number
Market issues: Hard to find the market
Market issues: Need for business skills, marketing skills etc.
Market issues: The time it takes to make a chair means that a certain amount has to be charged (e.g. £800 for an armchair which takes a week), which significantly reduces the number of potential customers
Dilution of skills: There are probably only 30 highly skilled chair makers, but many more fairly inexperienced makers are teaching the craft and passing on their skills
Training issues: Chair making courses are very popular with lots of people doing them, but very few of those go on to become serious/professional chair makers