Heritage Crafts and Axminster Tools have announced the finalists of the second annual Woodworker of the Year award, including two woodcarvers, a furniture maker and a marionette maker.
This award celebrates a heritage craftsperson who has made an outstanding contribution to the field of woodworking over the past year. It recognises a contribution that is far beyond the ordinary, based on a proven dedication to a particular woodworking skill.
The four finalists for this year’s award are (in alphabetical order):
- Thomas Ball – Tom is the de Laszlo Lead Woodcarving Tutor at City & Guilds of London Arts School, and in 2021 was awarded the Master Carver Certificate by the Worshipful Company Of Joiners and Ceilers. Recent projects include restoration of Grinling Gibbons’ carving at Trinity College Chapel, Oxford, and carving the canopy columns for Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee.
- Oliver Hymans – Oliver is an award-winning puppetry artist who has worked across four continents, designing and making puppetry for theatre, opera, film and music video. In 2023 he worked tirelessly to bring the puppetry sector together to get marionette making listed on Heritage Crafts’ Red List of Endangered Crafts to ensure the craft gets passed on to the next generation.
- Yichen Li – Yichen gathers aged carved wooden panels, which have hundreds of years of history, from the remnants of demolished ancient architecture. She meticulously restores, grinds, polishes, and colors them before combining them with contemporary wood carving techniques to form new spatial and architectural forms. In 2023 she completed her Masters degree at the Royal College of Art as a scholarship recipient.
- Andrew Watt – Andrew has worked with Method Studio for over six years, and in that time has risen to the position of lead cabinetmaker, running the workshop, making their most important pieces and inventing their way out of complex problems. He has developed and crafted stunning works for the likes of The Glenturret, Burberry, The Macallan, and Vacheron Constantin.
The winner will be announced on Wednesday 15 November at a Winners’ Reception at Vicars’ Hall, St George’s House, Windsor Castle. A Young Woodworker of the Year will be announced at the same time.
Heritage Crafts is the national charity set up to celebrate and safeguard traditional craft skills as a fundamental part of the UK’s living heritage. It launched its partnership with Axminster Tools last year, when luthier Jonathan Hill won the inaugural Woodworker of the Year Award. The company has spent 50 years building its family business into the renowned organisation it is today. They work with makers and creators at all levels, from trade professionals through to craft enthusiasts, to support woodworking skills.
The winner will be selected by a panel of judges made up of renowned advocates of craft skills:
- Jonathan Hill – stringed instrument maker and 2022 Woodworker of the Year.
- Alan Styles – Managing Director of Axminster Tools.
- Sarah Goss – traditional woodcarver and expert on Sky Arts’ Prince’s Master Crafters.
Image of Andrew Watt by Shannon Tofts
About Axminster Tools
Axminster Tools has established itself globally as a trusted seller in the mail order tools and machinery industry. They offer a friendly and personal service to many thousands of customers ranging from trade professionals and businesses to amateur DIY and craft enthusiasts.
Axminster Tools is a family business run by industry professionals and passionate craftspeople. Their knowledge is accessible to all, via regular tutorial videos, live streams, project plans and woodworking tips that are completely free to access.
As a British retailer, Axminster Tools supports British design and quality. They work with a number of UK suppliers in celebration of the nation’s skills and craftsmanship. What’s more, they design and manufacture an increasing number of own branded products in their Devon-based engineering facility, including bringing manufacturing back from overseas in many cases.
The making of traditional wood and string marionette puppets.
|Historic area of significance
- China – possibly from as far back as 200BC.
- India – Mahabharata mentions puppetry probably marionettes (dated from the 9th century BCE, it reached the written form in the 4th century BCE). Tamil texts from the 2nd century BCE onwards mention dolls moved by strings.
- Sicily – from the 13th Century
- France – 1800s, Lyon, their most famous puppet Guignol
- Salzburg Marionette Theatre, Austria – founded in 1913
- Prague, Czech Republic – 18th Century?
- USA, early to mid 20th Century
|Area currently practised
|London, Wales, Norwich
|Origin in the UK
|There is evidence of puppetry taking place in the UK from the 1400s.
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
*50 members of PuppeteerUK describe themselves as having skills in Marionettes, but it is likely that these are mainly operators not makers
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
There is evidence of puppetry originally taking place in the UK around 600 years ago in the 1400s. The earliest recorded puppet show took place at Bartholomew Fair around 1600. In the 1700s, there are records of Italians travelling in the UK and performing with puppets, mostly likely marionettes (string puppets).
The 19th and early 20th century saw a renaissance of marionettes led by W.H. Whanslaw and Waldo Lancaster.
More recently the tradition was continued with John Wright Marionettes (1952 in South Africa, then in Hampstead London by 1957) who then founded the Little Angel Theatre by the late John Wright and his wife Lyndie in 1961. Marionette making is still vibrant in Europe, particularly Germany.
There are five remaining theatres in the UK with specially designed marionette bridges:
- The Harlequin (Britain’s First Permanent Puppet Theatre) – Colwyn Bay, N. Wales. Opened 1958.
- The Puppet Theatre Barge, London – is one of the only remaining theatres dedicated primarily to string puppets / marionettes.
- The Norwich Puppet Theatre, Norfolk
- The Little Angel Theatre, London
- Upfront Theatre, Penrith
- Purves Puppets
Most string puppet makers are associated with puppet theatres.
- Drafting and designing
- Wood carving
- Joint making
- Treating and finishing
- Marionette control design
- Ornamental wood carving
- Puppet making
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Training and recruitment issues: Lack of professional training opportunities; lack of opportunities to practice as there is a limited number of productions; few remaining teachers / practitioners.
- Demand issues: Marionette shows largely require 3-6 performers as a minimum and require specific staging. Many producers and theatres will only be able to programme 2-person shows due to lack of funding / rising overheads. So the skills in making marionettes are not as in demand as in the past.
- Market issues: Lack of demand to programme marionette shows in favour of more contemporary forms of puppetry
- Small business issues: These reflect the general challenges to funding within the arts sector
- Ageing workforce: The remaining experts / teachers are all ageing and/or semi-retired.
- Global and geopolitical issues: Challenges to UK artists to travel with shows due to Brexit and having to transport specialist equipment.
- Puppeteers UK
- British Unima (UNION INTERNATIONALE DE LA MARIONETTE)
- The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild
- Puppet Centre
- Curious School of Puppetry
- Little Angel Theatre
Craftspeople currently known
- Lyndie Wright – Little Angel Theatre (designer and puppet maker, marionettes as a key craft)
- John Roberts – Puppet Craft UK (director and puppet maker, marionettes as a key craft)
- Stephen Mottram
- Stan Middleton – Puppet Barge
- Chris Sommerville (The Harlequin) (maybe only performing)
- Oliver Hymans – Little Angel Theatre
- Sarah Wright – Curious School of Puppetry (performer and puppet maker including marionettes)
- Jan Zalud (automata maker and puppet carver including marionettes)
- Peter O’Rourke (designer and puppet maker including marionettes)
- Andrew Grundon
- Sarah Vigars
- Nik Palmer – Noisy Oyster
- Tony Sinnett
There are no formal training opportunities specifically in marionette making.
The following offer short courses and other opportunities to learn marionette making skills:
- Curious School of Puppetry – covers some marionette performance skills, however not making.
- John Roberts – Puppet Craft UK – marionette carving courses
- Little Angel Theatre
- Puppets in Prague School – online courses in marionette making
Degrees and postgraduate study
Whilst there are no degrees that are specifically in marionette making, there are some that include an element of puppet making.
- UAL: Wimbledon College of the Arts offer a postgraduate course MA Puppetry
- Royal Central School of Speech and Drama are no longer offering a BA in Puppetry but an MA course is currently under development (2023).
There are various collections of historic marionettes in the UK:
- British Museum collection
- Horniman Museum collection
- National Puppetry Archive
- V&A puppet archive
- Ysenda Maxtone Graham, writing for The Spectator, Dec 17 2022, The puppetry renaissance: But the most enchanting and emotionally engaging kind of puppet of all, the marionette, is still critically endangered
- Carve a marionette by John Roberts
- John McCormick, The Victorian Marionette Theatre, 2004
- Max Von Boehn, A Photographic Guide to Marionettes in the Nineteenth Century, 2011
- George Speaight, History of the English Puppet Theatre, 1990
- Ken Barnard, Life and Travels of Richard Barnard – Marionette Proprietor, 1981