The Chair Maker: What is it?

The Chair Maker is our short film about Lawrence Neal, a master craftsman and the last rush-seat chair maker in England who makes a living from his craft. It tells the story of Lawrence’s life, the history of his craft, and the wider picture of endangered heritage crafts in the UK.

Lawrence has been making rush-seated chairs by hand for over 50 years, using rushes from the local river and material from nearby ash woodlands in his native Warwickshire. He is the fifth chair maker in an 128-year tradition which began in 1890 when the Arts and Crafts architect-designer Ernest Gimson learnt to make chairs from an elderly Herefordshire chair-maker named Philip Clissett, keeping a dying craft alive. Edward Gardiner, and Lawrence’s father Neville were the third and fourth makers in the tradition. Today, Lawrence makes chairs in the traditional way of his predecessors.

Heritage craftspeople have a vital role in sustaining our cultural heritage.

What Are Heritage Crafts?

There are many ways of defining heritage craft. Settling on a single definition is never straightforward; the nature of craft practice defies easy categorisation because it ranges so widely, from innovative, experimental work to traditional crafts which represent our cultural heritage. ‘Heritage craft’ covers disciplines from textiles to ceramics, woodwork to jewellery-making and a range of products from small portable items to architectural structures of considerable scale. That being said, there are some definitions that we think accurately describe what ‘heritage craft’ is. The Craft Occupational Standards Board (COSB) defines craft making as “an accepted body of skilled techniques learned over time, with materials worked by hand (albeit often using sophisticated hand tools and hand-controlled machinery and equipment)”.

Heritage craftspeople have a vital role in sustaining our cultural heritage. The existence of makers with the knowledge and understanding of a whole range of traditional skills is as, if not more important than the treasured objects preserved in museums and galleries. Robin Wood, a Trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association, puts it well, arguing that heritage crafts are “every bit as much a part of our cultural heritage as grand museums, fine buildings and admired works of art or literature.”  But, lacking in substantial support, heritage crafts are dying out at an ever faster rate due to an ageing workforce, a declining market for craft objects, and a lack of funding for recruitment and training.

– Photo, James Mcnaught

 

The threats facing heritage crafts are a national issue. These are craft forms that helped shape the world we live in today and are an integral part of our British heritage. As Prince Charles recently argued, “If we had to start again tomorrow, it is far from certain whether we would have the knowledge or experience to recreate them. Stonemasons, carpenters and other artisanal craftsmen and women who specialise in a whole range of unique heritage crafts, have been disappearing at an alarming rate.Their skill seems too often swept aside in a race for cheaper, faster-building techniques that often produce homogenised, mono-cultural buildings that are not in harmony with the natural environment in which they appear and offer little consideration for the people who live in them.”

The Chair Maker echoes these sentiments. We are conscious of the threats facing these crafts and want to raise awareness of individuals such as Lawrence Neal and the traditional methods used in historic craft making, encouraging support for the survival of British heritage crafts.

If we had to start again tomorrow, it is far from certain whether we would have the knowledge or experience to recreate them. – The Prince of Wales

Why Are These Crafts in Danger?

The crafts that face the most danger are the methods that involve one person; people making traditional products that demonstrate incredible skill, and who can make a decent living for themselves, such as Lawrence Neal, but do not have the time or means to take on and train anyone else. The obstacle lies in the transferring of these traditional skills. Presently, there is little incentive to do so from the education system and from government. Working craftsmen and women cannot afford the time to teach apprentices, or the money to pay them.

“In Britain,” says Wood, “heritage crafts fall between the Crafts Council, which supports the artistic, innovative end of the crafts spectrum, and English Heritage, which only deals with buildings. We come under the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, but in reality, we don’t fit in anywhere. So there’s no coordination, no promotion, no funding of anything at all. Almost every country in the world is doing more to support these crafts than we are – helping maintain them as real, thriving, evolving businesses, not just objects in a museum.”

Our goal is to inspire people through The Chair Maker and remind them that heritage craft is an intrinsic part of British culture. In the same way that people care about historic buildings, endangered species and the environment, we should support the activities and skills which lie at the foundations of our material heritage.

The Future

The film will be launched online at the Falcon Productions Vimeo Channel on the 30th August 2018.

Over the next few months, we will be holding a number of screenings around the country:

Saturday 15 September: Marchmont House, Berwickshire, Scotland

Friday 12th October: Bedales School, Petersfield, Hampshire

Tuesday 16th October: The Art Workers’ Guild, Bloomsbury, London

TBC: The Arts House Cafe, Bristol