The family of the late master hand grinder Brian Alcock have received a posthumous British Empire Medal in the King’s Birthday Honours in recognition of his service to the Sheffield cutlery trade and heritage crafts.
Brian, who passed away less than three weeks ago, was one of six makers nominated by Heritage Crafts to receive national honours, alongside clockmaker David Poole MBE, boatbuilder Ronald John Maclean MBE, blacksmithing trainer Delyth Done MBE, marbler and woodgrainer Robert Woodland MBE, and knitwear designer Jeanette Sloan BEM, in recognition of their unparalleled craftsmanship and tireless work in ensuring their skills are passed on to current and future generations.
The six were nominated for this year’s Birthday Honours, following 24 previously successful nominations from Heritage Crafts since 2013. In May, the charitable organisation – which was set up in 2009 to support and champion traditional craft skills – published the fourth edition of its groundbreaking Red List of Endangered Crafts, the only report of its kind to rank UK craft skills by the likelihood they will survive into the next generation.
Heritage Crafts was deeply saddened to learn of Brian Alcock BEM’s passing on 30 May. As a jobbing grinder working up to a week before his death, Brian was an unparalleled repository of knowledge and skill in the craft of hand grinding. He exemplified the honest work ethic of a skilled master craftsman, and even at the age of 81 he would work 40 hours a week, starting at 6.30am each morning through all four seasons. No job was too small for him; even putting an edge on a simple pocket knife was handled with the care and concentration of a man who relished the craft he had learnt so well.
What set Brian apart was how freely he shared his knowledge and skill. Five years ago founding Heritage Crafts Chair Robin Wood MBE was concerned that once Brian stopped he would have nobody to grind axes for his growing business, and that this important part of Sheffield’s cultural heritage could be lost. At this point Brian offered to train Robin’s apprentice Zak Wolstenholme. He had been passing his knowledge of how to grind tools and maintain the machinery to Zak, free of charge, right up until his passing. Zak admired him greatly and he had become a very significant life mentor.
Thankfully, Brian learned of his forthcoming honour before he died, knowing the esteem in which he was held. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.
David Poole MBE has been clock maker of the highest standard for over forty years. He has made critical contributions to horological education, establishing remote learning, support and examinations through the British Horological Institute and organising apprenticeships through the George Daniels Educational Trust. Between 2016 and 2019 David set up the Watchmakers Trailblazer Apprenticeship Scheme, one of the first of its kind under the government-backed initiative to promote craft apprenticeships, overcoming many obstacles with devotion and total service.
Ronald John MacLean MBE represents an unbroken line of boat builders who, over 150 years, have provided as many as one thousand workboats to the island communities of the Hebrides. He has preserved an entire style of vernacular boat building (the Grimsay workboat of Scotland) through his craft skills, teaching and interpretation of the tradition. He has designed accredited courses in Traditional Boatbuilding Skills, and with his gifts as a teacher devised a curriculum to transmit the Grimsay boat tradition through Gaelic boatbuilding terminology.
Delyth Done MBE has been unparalleled throughout the past decade in ensuring that the next generation of blacksmiths have the high-level skills they need. As head of the blacksmithing degree programme at Hereford College of Arts for over ten years, she has been directly responsible for improving the training standards so that graduates are recognised and sought after as employees by master blacksmiths around the world.
Robert Woodland MBE is one of the most highly-skilled ornamental artists, woodgrainers and marblers in the UK today. His work can be seen in a variety of buildings across the country, including the Palace of Westminster, Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, the Tower of London, Grand Lodge, Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Kensington Palace, Bagshot Park and the Mandarin Hotel. Robert has a passion to keep his trade alive and shares his knowledge openly with students from around the world, enthusiastically demonstrating his craft whenever he has a chance.
Jeanette Sloan BEM is one of the most prominent and successful Black knitwear designers in the UK today, and has done a huge amount to promote and celebrate the contribution of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) to British textile crafts. Among a career of achievements, she devoted her time and expertise, unpaid, to found the ‘BIPOC in Fibre’ project, to celebrate and raise awareness of the contribution of BIPOC to British textile design.
Heritage Crafts Executive Director Daniel Carpenter said:
“We are thrilled that six of our nominations have been recognised in this the first Birthday Honours of King Charles III’s reign. Having traditional craftspeople up there with other great luminaries of public life in this way is vitally important, as UK is still one of only 12 of the 193 UNESCO member states yet to ratify the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage.”
Heritage Crafts encourages anyone who supports the continuation of traditional craft skills, whether or not they are makers themselves, to become Heritage Crafts members via its website www.heritagecrafts.org.uk.
The charity has set up an Endangered Crafts Fund to provide small grants to projects that increase the likelihood of endangered craft skills surviving into the next generation, and is currently seeking donations to save more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion – visit www.heritagecrafts.org.uk/ecf to find out more and to donate
Graining and marbling
The replication of marbles and fine woods using paint techniques. See also signwriting and gilding.
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
At its height mid-Georgian to Victorian
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|21-50 full and part-time skilled makers
(12 companies listed on Buildingconservation.com)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
(Graining and marbling are covered as optional modules within NVQ Level 3 Decorative Finishing-Painting but it is unclear how many training providers will be offering this element to trainees)
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|There will be many people out there working on furniture and doing paint effects/distressing etc. but there are unlikely to be many with the skills of those at a commercial level.
|Current total no. of leisure makers
The origins of graining and marbling date back to Ancient Egypt and it was also used extensively by the Greeks and Romans who employed decorative painters to imitate real marble. Examples of marbling including trompe l’oeil (‘trick of the eye’) scenes can be seen in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The practice of graining and marbling in the UK arose as a cost saving measure, as timber and marbles were very expensive. The replication, or faking, of marbles and fine woods using paint techniques became popular during the Georgian, Regency and Victorian periods. Many of our finest buildings and palaces have fine examples of the art. Faux finishes became particularly popular in England during the Regency period, when tabletops were painted to resemble those brought back by Napoleon from his Italian campaigns. Painted furniture became so popular that books such as ‘The Decorative Painter and Glazier’s Guide’ were written, detailing the techniques employed to create the finishes.
Graining and marbling reached its height in the 19th century, inspired by the popularity of rare and expensive tropical woods and exotic marbles, and from the fine examples of graining and marbling shown at the Great Exhibitions of London in 1851 & Paris in 1855.
Examples of graining and marbling:
- Bolton Museum holds examples of work by Thomas Kershaw and Lesley Priestley.
- Ham House, Wiltshire
- V&A – holds work by John Taylor
Graining is a decorative paint effect that imitates an exotic wood grain on a non-wood surface, or an inexpensive wood surface. Marbling is a similar decorative paint effect that imitates marble or stone.
The painting is carried out in thin multiple layers of transparency, the first layer being a base. A second layer of tempera or thinned paint is applied over the dry base, by means of a sponge or large brush.
Graining and marbling can be achieved using a range of specialised tools. A thick brush or ‘mottler’, fan brushes, floggers, softening brushes and texture combs are used to create various effects.
Graining – a skilled grainer would be able to recreate all the joinery joints: mitres, tenons, bolection mouldings, gunstock tenons etc. Grainers also have to study the types of grain exhibited by different species of wood; in addition the grain pattern changes depending how the wood is sawn.
Marbling – a skilled marbler would have an understanding of how different marbles are formed in nature and how the real thing would be applied. Imitation of stone work needs to follow all the joints that a master mason would use: keystones, quoins, voussoirs, mason’s mitres etc. Trompe l’oeil techniques are used for shading mouldings and carvings.
- Trompe l’oeil
- Decorative paint effects – rag rolling, dragging, mark making etc.
- Film/theatre set design
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Skills issues – Standards in the craft have fallen due to a lack of continuous training and as the numbers of highly skilled practitioners diminish. There is generally less of a focus on the higher level skills of painters and decorators.
- Lack of training opportunities – there are no formal courses or apprenticeships in graining and marbling alone, although it is included as an optional module within Level 3 painting and decorating NVQs.
- Lack of funding for training – it is difficult to source financial support to take on apprentices or trainees.
- Ageing workforce – Many craftspeople are now in their 80s with no one to pass their skills on to.
- Painter-Stainers’ Company
- Painting & Decorating Association
- Association of Painting Craft Teachers
- AS Handover – supplier of materials
- Wrights of Lymm – Supplier
- SPAB, Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings
- Salon: Annual Gathering of International Decorative Painters
Craftspeople currently known
Buildingconservation.com holds a list of companies who offer graining and marbling.
- Philip Waite, Bristol
- Paul Bailey, Portsmouth
- Stuart Kelly, Essex
- Ricky MacPherson, Kent
- Gordon McGowan, Southend
- Jeremy Tailor, Scotland
- Stuart McDonald, Scotland
- Mark Nevin, Scotland
- David Lane, Scotland
- John Townley
- Mick Jones
- Steven Oxley, School of Decorative Art
- Simon Nobs, South Coast Studios
- Robert Woodland
- Tim Salandin
- Cait Whitson
- Joanne Poulton, Jo Poulton Studio
- Theresa Meisl, Black Barn Studios
- Walter Riley – retired
- Jeff Chapel – retired
- Gary Clemence – semi-retired
Companies employing two or more makers:
- Michel Nadai – France
- Pierre Finkelstein – US
- Jeff Pollastro – US
- Shane Ralph – Ireland
William Holdgate (deceased): http://www.painting-effects.co.uk/bill/index.htm
City & Guilds of London Art School: BA (Hons) in Conservation: Stone, Wood & Decorative Surfaces
Level 3 Apprenticeship in Painting and Decorating
Vocational training and apprenticeships
The NVQ Level 3 Diploma is an advanced qualification in painting and decoration that includes optional modules in graining and marbling. This is available at a number of colleges and training providers but it is unclear how many offer graining and marbling.
- NVQ Level 3 Diploma in decorative finishing-painting and decorating
Specialist short courses
- Cait Whitson runs classes in graining and marbling
- Paint school runs short courses in decorative paint effects including graining and marbling
- South Coast Studios Paint Effect Courses – offers online and workshop based classes
- Mindy Drucker & Pierre Finkelstein, Recipes for Surfaces
- Ina Brosseau Marx, Allen Marx and Robert Marx, Professional Painted Finishes
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of Graining and Marbling, by Frederick Maire: Downloadable as an e-book at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43500/43500-h/43500-h.htm
- Wikipedia: Graining https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graining
- Winters, Wendi. “America’s most beautiful door is undergoing a Revolutionary change”. capitalgazette.com. Retrieved 2017-07-11.
- Oestreicher, Lisa, ‘Imitation Timber Graining in the 18th and 19th Centuries’, The Building Conservation Directory 2014
- DVD by Walter Riley, Oak Graining: quartered and oak over-graining