Vardo art and living waggon crafts
See also wheelwrighting, fairground art, canal art and barge painting.
|Group or community to which this craft is culturally important e.g. geographical, religious community, cultural identity, cultural practice, traditional industry or occupation||Traveller peoples identifying as GRT (Gypsy, Roma, Traveller), Romanichal; British Romani, Romany Gypsy, Irish Travellers, Traveller peoples. Showmen also favoured certain styles of living waggons. Practiced across the UK.|
|Group or community where this craft is currently practised||Traveller peoples identifying as GRT, Romanichal; British Romani, Romany Gypsy, Irish Travellers and Showmen. Family lineages of vardo and living waggon builders, restorers and decorators practice these traditional cultural crafts.|
|Origin in the UK||19th Century; the period c.1860-1920 is considered the golden era of iconic vardo and waggon building in the traditional style we are familiar with today. The older generations who were born and raised traditionally horse-drawn between c.1940s- 1960s call this era ‘the waggon time’, and is still held within living memory.|
|Current number of makers and/or people who hold the knowledge of this craft within the community||Between 10-18 makers and knowledge keepers who are considered all round quality craftspeople with reputation and experience; including those who are currently being mentored or who are working in the traditional way up to a high standard.|
|Current number of trainees and/or people who are learning the craft||Not known; informal mentorship, apprenticeship and training is being given by the older generation to the younger generations, numbering around 7 people within the Travelling communities currently being informally trained.|
|Other makers||Not known; vardo and living waggons tends to stay within family lines, are traded within the Travelling communities, or are gifted to museums, therefore vardo building, painting and restoration proudly remains within the GRT and Showman communities for the most part.|
The mid-Victorian era c. 1860s up until the 1920s is the period that created the most iconic and recognisable forms of vardo, van and living waggons of the style, painting and ornamentation we imagine when we think of a traditional Romani ‘Gypsy Caravan’ or Showman’s Waggon. Prior to the 1860s, Romani and Traveller people would construct bender tents as their shelter.
The post-war era saw a wide assimilation of GRT families ‘into brick’ social housing, and so between the 1940s-2020s, there has been a steep decline of traditional horse-drawn vardo living, in favour of more modern trailers or static chalets on private sites, and with the implementation of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill of 2022 (PCSCB), living roadside has effectively now been outlawed in the UK.
The five shapes of vardo are named regionally, including the Reading Waggon, Burton Waggon (favoured by Showmen), and some names pertain to their framework structure or purpose such as Ledge (or Cottage), Bow-Top, Brush (or Fen); Open-Lot and other working-cart styles, like Peddler’s Carts were (and still are) part of Romani and Traveller life as traders.
In the 1970s, restoration of older vardos was popular, and contemporary names of that era such as Tom Clarke, Joe Barras, Peter Ingram, Jimmy Berry, John Pockett, and Tommie Gaskin, are mentioned in the book ‘The English Gypsy Caravan’ by C.H. Ward-Jackson and Denis E. Harvey (1973). This book also gives excellent examples and references from the 1910s and 1920s, of vardos and waggons made by Tong Herons and Tom Tong.
As culturally nomadic people, Travellers and British Romani people are traditionally seasonal workers and itinerate traders, with needs that pertain to all aspects of life that embrace living and working on a traditional regional ‘circuit’, based on family Atchin Tans (Stopping Places), agricultural labour and attending national horse fairs (Epsom, Appleby and Stow, for example). Although many families now have more static accommodation, the historic family circuits and connections to places remain strong in the living cultural memory.
Stylised scrolls and line work also developed in tandem with Showmen’s Guilds and traditional fairground arts of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, featuring stylistic and popular Victorian motifs of flourishing scrolls and brilliant glass painting popular at the time. As belonging to traditionally oral Traveller cultures, the Romani vardo specifically uses decorative symbols and motifs that invoke good luck, abundance, wealth and favoured animals such as horses and birds. Horseshoes, fruit and birds-in-flight are often found alongside scrolls and tendrils, rendered in bright and rich colours, accented with gold. The vardo in its entirety is a work of art; etched glass windows, fittings, furnishings and internal paintwork add beauty to every surface, with all aspects considered in the design and making.
Famous and well-known names in the heritage lineage of vardo crafts and waggon painting include, Bill Wright, Tom Dunton, Tom Stephenson, Roy Peters, Lol Thompson, George Nixon, Big Roy Morris, Bill Birch, Ryalla Duffy and Yorkie Greenwood.
Wheelwrighting, frame, shaft and unders-building, wood carving and spindle-turning , mouldings, glass etching, mirroring, decorative paintwork, gilding, and various forms of metal-smithing.
Regional origins of certain styles include Burton, Reading and Bristol.
Reverse glass signpainting
Showmen’s waggon building
Metal-smithing (tin, copper, blacksmithing)
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Awareness of the craft in a cultural context: As an archetypal image, the vardo might be misunderstood as a thing of the past, and there are complex sets of social, economic and political reasons around the vardo as a heritage symbol of GRT cultures, and this requires deeper understanding as an ICH intersect within marginalised communities.
- Lack of skilled practitioners: There are currently 18 identified skilled crafts practitioners in the UK (March 2023) actively working in traditional vardo and heritage waggon building, restoration and painting, to an intra-community recognisable standard of quality and recommendation. The GRTSB Crafts Makers Survey will remain open until July 2023 to allow for further conversations, research and updates into the future, and this approach is actively building relationships and support for GRT self-representation.
- Lack of training opportunities: Short courses, informal apprenticeship and mentorship are offered by word-of-mouth in most cases.
- Loss of skills: The older generation who hold the post-war skills from the earlier era of vardo building are getting fewer, and with their loss we are at risk of losing inter-generational skill sharing and wisdom.
- Changing tastes and changes to the law: Contemporary generations are favouring trailers or static chalets over horse-drawn living waggons. The PCSCB also greatly affects roadside living and traditional cultural living methods.
- Emulations: The recent association with garden rooms (and stylised shepherds’ huts) that can appropriate vardo visuals, without appreciating the cultural or political issues faced by Travelling peoples and GRT cultures. ‘Air BnB’ accommodation trends have also led to ‘Gypsy Wagons’ being offered as glamping options, often without cultural context or community association.
- Poor restorations: Some crafts people I spoke to mentioned the need to review and amend historic repairs that were either low quality or not authentic in style to the period of the waggon.
- Availability of materials: Wood, specifically ash, used for bow-ribs has become expensive and hard to find.
- Travellers’ Times
- Romani Cultural & Arts Company
Craftspeople currently known
- Jane O’Connor and Steve Lowe (apprentice of Tom Clarke)
- Mark Goldsworthy
- John Leveridge
- Joshua Gibson (apprentice to Mark Prior)
- Phil Jowett
- John Pockett
- Joe + Donna Davidson
- Sarah Harvey
- Andrew Daly
- Katie Morgan
- Terry Freshwater
- Patrick Gill
- JB Burnside
- Pete Delaney
- Chris Charlton
- Jane O’Connor offers short courses in vardo and waggon decorative painting styles, including shafts and unders-painting.
- Sarah Harvey offers short courses in vardo and waggon painting styles.
Consultants for this entry onto The Red List: Jane O’Connor, Ella Mae Sueref, Joshua Gibson, Mark Goldsworthy, Richard O’Neill. Many thanks for your generous time and willingness to speak on your crafts. Thanks to all the participants of The GRTSB Crafts Makers Survey.
- The English Gypsy Caravan, C.H. Ward-Jackson and Denis E. Harvey (1973)
- Romani culture and Gypsy Identity, ed. Thomas Acton and Gary Mundy (1997)
- Gypsy Memories, A Third Selection of Photographs, compiled by Barrie Law (2000)
- The Stopping Places, Damian Le Bas (2019)
- The Eco Gypsy, YouTube channel, Reuben Leveridge
- The GRTSB Crafts Makers Survey, conducted by Imogen Bright Moon (2023); bit.ly/grtcraft
- Ryalla Duffy articles;
- Pete Delaney article; https://theecologist.org/2011/jun/22/how-one-man-could-inspire-new-generation-horse-drawn-travellers