Philip Clissett, chairmaker of Bosbury by Terry Rowell

Philip Clissett from a portrait by Maxwell Balfour 1898Philip Clissett, by Maxwell Balfour 1898

Exactly two hundred years ago, Philip Clissett was born in Birtsmorton, Worcestershire, into a family of chairmakers. He was to become, arguably, the best known of all English rural chairmakers because of his association with the Arts & Crafts Movement. He was born in 1817 during Jane Austen’s lifetime, and lived long enough to take a ride in a motor car, and to see aeroplanes fly. Those who knew him remembered his rosy face, and that he said “thee” and “thou” in the old way.  When the Arts & Crafts architect and designer Alfred Powell visited him in 1903, he felt Clissett gave him “quite a glimpse of what the old aristocratic poor used to be”. The drawing of Clissett was published in 1898 in a prestigious arts journal, and captures something of what Powell expressed in words.

Philip moved to Bosbury,  near Ledbury in Herefordshire, in the early 1840s, and there he plied his trade in rural obscurity. His chairs were made from green ash on a pole lathe and shave horse, and he produced a wide range in the local style, with both the distinctive West Midlands board seat and with rush seats. There were two other chairmakers in Bosbury, and several others in nearby Ledbury. But from about 1860 onwards, vernacular chairmaking of this kind declined dramatically because of the upsurge in factory-made seating so that, by the 1880s, Philip was the only chairmaker left in the area.

Simple Country Chair by Philip Clissett

Board-Seated Chair by Philip Clissett, photo: Alan Meikle

Then, in 1886, the Bosbury chairmaker was “discovered” by the Scottish architect James MacLaren who was working on a project in Ledbury, Herefordshire. While out for a walk, he came across what his companion later called “a real survival of village industry”, Philip Clissett’s workshop. MacLaren asked Clissett to make him some chairs, having made some drawings that were “improving a little upon his (Clissett’s) designs, but perfectly simple and in the old spirit”.

A rush-seated ladderback by Philip Clissett

A rush-seated ladderback chair by Philip Clissett. photo: Alan Meikle

A couple of years later, the recently-formed Art Workers Guild was looking for chairs to furnish its meeting room, and MacLaren (an early member) appears to have introduced Clissett’s new ladderback chair, for it is these we see in the earliest photographs of the Guild’s meeting room in Barnard’s Inn (1892). Over a period, the Guild bought many of these chairs, and they are still used in their Meeting Hall in Queens Square to this day. Many members of the Guild, and others interested in the Arts & Crafts style, bought chairs from Clissett, and they were used extensively by various Arts & Crafts architects, especially by Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker, and even (it seems) by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Philip Clissett was, essentially, a living embodiment of the values of the Arts & Crafts Movement; a time-served craftsman, happy in his work making honest furniture from basic materials with simple tools.

Chairs at the Artworkers Guild

Numerous Clissett Ladderback Chairs at the Art Workers Guild photo: Toothpicnation

The sight of the chairs at the Art Workers Guild inspired the young Ernest Gimson to visit Clissett in 1890, and to spend a few weeks at Bosbury learning how they were made. This experience prompted his own turned chair designs and, from about 1903 until the First World War, he developed a range of rush-seated chairs that were made for him by Edward Gardiner. Although Gardiner abandoned his workshop at the outbreak of war in 1914, he began making Gimson’s designs again, and included a close copy of Clissett’s ladderback chair in the range on offer. This model continues to be made today by Lawrence Neal, the son of Gardiner’s apprentice. It’s still known as “The Clissett”.

Philip Clissett died in 1913 at the age of 96. His grandsons, who had continued the business once Philip was too infirm (he is reputed to have made chairs into his nineties), carried on until the Great War put an end to chairmaking in Bosbury. They never made chairs again. Philip’s interaction with the Arts & Crafts Movement, and the continued popularity of his ladderback chairs, ensure he is remembered to this day. Sadly, James MacLaren, the designer who made it all possible, is rarely acknowledged as his iconic chair design is frequently, and mistakenly, credited to Ernest Gimson. Together, they have inspired a whole new generation of chairmakers.

Philip Clissett in his workshop

Philip Clissett in his Stanley Hill workshop. Photo: Tilley Photography

Tinsmiths would like to thanks Terry Rowell for writing this post for Tinsmiths Cuttings. More details about Philip Clissett, and the wide variety of chairs he made, can be found on his website which is devoted to the history of Philip Clissett

Tinsmiths Ukranian Visit

In a bid to make my lifestyle business provide me a lifestyle that takes me beyond the office I booked a ‘Textiles Tour’ of the Trans Carpathian region of Ukraine.
I have long been fascinated by the culture and folk art of the people of the Carpathian Mountain region and when I saw that Nataliya (Experience Ukraine www.experienceukraine.co.uk) was running a textile based tour I saw my chance to find out more about this region.
My visit was filled with wonder and delight, but I of course realise that the insight that I gained during a one week visit is limited. This posting is a record of my visit, with my own reflections on what I found to be a most beautiful region.

Abandoned farmhouse – completely built of wood including wooden shingles on the roof.

Our first night was spent in Ivano Frankivsk (Stanislav until 1962), a busy and beautiful town with a multitude of churches and lingerie shops! From there our patient driver traversed the very challenging Ukrainian roads across country to Kolomyya which houses a fascinating museum of Hutsul culture and folk art. The Hutsuls are the people who have inhabited this mountainous region for the last thousand years and who have quite a distinct way or life and culture.
The textiles, costume, carving and ceramics traditionally produced in the region are really wonderful. Of course Hutsul folk-art is made from what is plentiful and like mountain dwelling people throughout the world, this includes much wool and wood. With bold sureness of expression, textiles and ceramics display all of the influences which have swept to and fro across this area historically; Austro- Hungarian, Russian, Western European and Ottoman.


After these gentle introductions to Ukraine the market at Kosiv proved to be total immersion. A market in the broadest and most vigorous sense; trading, meeting, eating and drinking in a temporary world which exists for twelve hours every week. With avenues devoted to butter, to cheese, to socks (hand knitted locally), to sheepskins (gorgeous but mainly from Poland), to Lizhnyk (traditional wool blankets, more on these later), to tractor parts, to harnesses, to honey, to….. well just about anything that you might be able to make or gather and that someone else might want.

Our host in the mountains in was Svetlana. With a small holding in a valley alongside a fast flowing mountain river, in recent years Svetlana and her family have invested in a felting mill for the local Lizhnyk weavers to finish their blankets, a fish farm for very small scale raising of organic trout and tourist accommodation in a very comfortable chalet. Generous and super-efficient she produced a series of delicious meals all made from the freshest produce, organised the felting mill and ran her family home.

Olympic standard log stacking!

 

Whilst based at Svetlana’s we found out much more about the local production of Lizhnik. Lizhnik are woolen blankets hand woven with the most minimal inputs of any textile I can think of. The fleeces is carefully sorted into colours and tones, then picked through, then washed twice in the mountain streams. Once washed it is sorted through again prior to spinning. The warps are spun reasonably finely, the weft is spun very thickly and with minimal twist. Most of the women in the village have a loom for weaving Lizhnik and their weaving fits in around milking cows, looking after children and all the other chores involved with running a family and small holding. Many weavers stick to traditional patterns such as ‘Hutsul Eye’, however some are much more adventurous varying traditional motifs with contemporary designs. Once woven the blankets must be felted, for this they are taken to one of the mills like Svetlana’s where they are immersed and tumbled in the pure mountain water for up to 6 hours. The Lizhnik blankets provide a vital additional income to the households in this village and meeting the Lizhnik weavers, and in particular Bogdana and her family who very patiently tried to teach me the basics of Lizhnik weaving was an absolute privilege. Bogdana, her Mother and her son Stanislav made my days weaving enormous fun, we often got rather distracted into English and Ukrainian lessons and this combined with Mama’s amazing Ukrainian hospitality meant that my progress as a Lizhnik weaver was somewhat limited!

Lizhnik blankets being pulled out of the churning mill where they wash and felt for 4-6 hours after weaving

The loom is a feature of most houses in the village.

 

The wonderful weavers who so generously and warmly shared their skills with us. Bogdana is on the left and her beautiful Mum in the centre.

Species rich meadow everywhere!

A walk up to the high summer pastures was a magical diversion from textiles. From the village all the way along our two hour hike up the mountain, the meadows were full of the wildflower diversity now so rare in the UK. Orchids of various types were so prolific as to be common and not at all noteworthy. The farming practices in this region have remained largely unchanged since the early 20th century and this has protected the countryside, preserving amazing diversity in flora and fauna species. For the population this does of course mean considerable hard work; hay is cut by hand, potatoes sewn and harvested by hand, cows and sheep are milked by hand, transportation of hay, logs and produce is mainly by horse and cart. 

Logging pony taking a break.

Once we reached the high pasture we were introduced to the shepherd who with the aid of a couple of dogs looks after 130 sheep for the four summer months that they are grazing up on this pasture. He milks the sheep, making cheese which is smoked in the hut that is also his shelter. The high pastures are like another world even more removed from my own version of normality, the peace and beauty of the surroundings on a warm spring day was really moving.

Our last couple of days offered a complete change of pace in the enchanting city of Lviv. The architecture in the city centre proclaims the cities heritage; the swagger of Austro-Hungarian blended with local influences and those from Poland and Germany. More than any other city I have visited recently it felt like a city that lives and works. Vibrant and busy but without the extreme affluence found in other major European cities which so sucks the life and soul out of city centres.

With so much to see and just a few hours available Nataliya suggested the Andrey Sheptytsky Museum particularly known for it’s very large collection of sacred art as a final treat. It really was such a treat, the Icons were very beautiful and our museum guide was so knowledgeable it was an absolute privilege both to see these pieces and have the benefit of such a wealth of understanding in the history, significance and social context of the work that we were looking at. Religion was not allowed during the Soviet times and the survival of so many of these treasures is a wonder in itself. The museum was founded in 1905 and during the Soviet times the museum authorities successfully argued the case that the Icons should be classified as folk art rather than religious art. This, combined with the efforts of local communities not to lose their precious sacred art through removal and effective hiding of work from churches means that this national collection contains 140,000 pieces, more than a life’s work for the team of conservators who work to maintain and preserve the collection.

Visiting the Ukraine was a leap in the dark for me, I had little idea of what to expect. So thank you Nataliya for showing me so many facets of this stunningly beautiful region, providing many opportunities for me to meet really wonderful people and enjoy extraordinary levels of hospitality. This blog post really does not begin to cover all that I saw and experienced during the trip; the many wonderful meals, the music and dancing, the meeting of minds, the deserted wooden houses, the disturbed hedgehog, the nesting storks, the sublime honey, the profoundly moving church service, the freshness of the food, the new perspective on European history…….and the vodka! I can’t wait for my next trip!
Ukraine is undoubtedly in a tight spot just at the moment, however the country seems so bursting with natural resources, the people so charming, creative and energetic that I wonder how this could be and wish profoundly that positive changes come for the people of Ukraine.

 

Top of the Tree – Chair-maker Lawrence Neal

A sweet, hay-like smell hits you as chair-maker, Lawrence Neal, answers his door. The door opens in to what appears once to have been Victorian Schoolroom, but was in fact the village co-op store. Neville Neal, Lawrence’s father moved his furniture workshop to this large, light room in 1960.

Lawrence Neal's Workshop

A glance around identifies the parts – parts of chairs carefully grouped, tools equally. Handsome, solid machinery to cut and shape and the source of that sweet smell. As Lawrence’s recently lit wood stove cranks up the heat the bundles of rushes stacked in a corner warm. “It’s not my favourite job, but just once a year I pull on my waders and harvest the rushes from the Avon”, Lawrence tells me.

Bundles of Rushes for Seating

To understand how Lawrence arrived at his chair-making career we need to take a few steps back in time to the early nineteenth century: then country chair-makers (usually called bodgers) were common. Philip Clissett (b.1817) was one of the longest lived of these. In 1890 architect, furniture designer Ernest Gimson took lessons from Clissett and over the next thirty years this experience influenced his designs. Gimson became an important part of the Arts and Crafts movement and established a furniture business in Gloucestershire.

Log Burner

Gimson encouraged a young, local man to take up chair-making. Edward Gardiner worked with Gimson and, after the First World War, set up a workshop in Priors Marston, Warwickshire. Neville Neal, Lawrence’s father, became his apprentice in 1939 and took over the business after Gardiner’s death essentially making chairs which can be traced back to Clissett. Here we are in 1966 with a busy chair-making business run by father with son, Lawrence, as apprentice. As the maker at the top of a “family tree” of chairmakers, I asked Lawrence whether any other career had been in the frame, “Not really, it was just assumed. I had been in and out of the workshop throughout my youth and when I reached 15 years it seemed natural to learn more”.

Lawrence Neal's Gimson Fireside Chair

Neville Neal died in 2000 & Lawrence has worked on his own from then on, making spindle and ladderback chairs with rush seats. Now, at close to retirement age, Lawrence really doesn’t know what else he would do with his time “There’s only so many times you can re-decorate the house”, he laughs.

Lawrence Neal

Neville Neal was fortunate to have a child disposed to precision and constancy. Lawrence’s working life has a rhythm and regularity that few experience – he selects a year’s supply oak and ash and harvests enough rush to complete the seats for the 120 chairs he makes annually. His machine tools are circular saw and lathe, his hand tools include cleaver, axe, chisel, draw knife, clamp and spokeshave. In addition he bends wood using something akin to a burco boiler.

workshop-collage

Glancing at the many patterns for chair parts hanging on the workshop wall, Lawrence points out several that he believes began life in Gimson’s furniture workshop. “The designs haven’t really changed, I still make the chairs made by Clissett, Gimson, Gardiner and my Father.” Once you familiarise yourself with these designs you realise why the designs are so constant. The chairs are honest and so well worked out – just the right structure for their weight and purpose – nothing can be added or taken away to any advantage in function or look.

Lawrence Neal Chairs

 

Working from the Wood, an exhibition celebrating the bi-centenary of the birth of Philip Clissett runs from 29th June to 30 July 2017 at Tinsmiths, Ledbury. It features Lawrence Neal’s chairs. Other exhibitors, also influenced by Philip Clissett, will be Koji Katsuragi, Sebastian Cox, Mike Abbott, Gudrun Leitz and Neil Taylor. Please contact press@tinsmiths.co.uk with your name and postal address if you would like to be sent an invitation to the opening. Mike Abbott will be giving a talk on Philip Clissett on Saturday, 15th July at 4pm at The Burgage Hall, Ledbury. Tickets will be made available at www.tinsmiths.co.uk from 1st June 2017.

Hand Tools

Settin’ Off Again – Chairmaker Mike Abbott

Settin Chair and Portrait

Above: an ash settin’ chair, right, Mike Abbott settin’

“I tried retiring in September 2015 – that lasted about six weeks” laughs Mike who has spent a lot of his working life teaching hundreds of people via his courses and thousands via his books about how to make chairs using greenwood.

Jointly founding The Clissett Wood Trust in 1994, Mike worked and taught in the wood, which is close to Ledbury; there he predominantly used a pole lathe to make traditional chairs, in much the same way that Philip Clissett (1817-1913) had in his workshop at Stanley Hill, near Bosbury. Later he established a woodland workshop at Brook House Wood, near Bromyard and continued to run courses in the wood from 2005-2015.

Brook House Wood Workshop

Above: The woodland workshop at Brook House Wood

“Nowadays it’s all about this – the cleave” explains Mike as he splits oak in his workshop to shape on the shaving horse  – a traditional device used for gripping a piece of wood, leaving both hands free to use a drawknife to shave the wood. Later, he shows me cleaving on a large scale with a large section of oak.

Mike was first inspired by the bodgers who worked in the woods of the Chilterns, turning in vast numbers, the components for Windsor chairs. “These days my influences lie further West, in America and in particular with Walden,” Mike explains. In his twenties, he came across a book entitled ‘Walden or Life in the Woods’. The author, Henry David Thoreau, a 19th Century American philosopher undertook a two year experiment to live simply in a self-built cabin in the woods. This encouraged Mike to accept an invitation to visit the USA in 1993, where he was influenced by the chair-makers of the Appalachians, who left their chairs with a simple shaved finish, rather than the more sophisticated, smooth turned finish.

Cleaving and Shaving Oak

Above: Cleaving and Shaping Oak with a Draw Knife held in a Shaving Horse

rosettes and bent legs

Above: Rosettes from County Shows, Chisels above Steam Bent Ash Chair Legs

On the rebound from retirement, Mike has set himself a challenge. To make and document 100 chairs – a sort of limited edition, each one branded with its number. He’s already on number 21 so he may have to come up with another goal.

With enthusiasm, Mike shows me his latest passion the “Settin Chair” a low frame chair with woven seat and steam-bent uprights forming the back rest. I don’t immediately “get it”. I need a demonstration.

We step up the garden to his latest timber-built space, and puts down the chair in its “Out West” natural environment, the veranda. He leans back (in just the way that youngsters in formal dining rooms have been warned against for generations) in a casual, end of day, way. That’s Settin.

Mike Abbott demonstrates the Settin chair

Above: Mike Abbott demonstrating how to sit in a Settin’ Chair.

Mike will be part of our chair exhibition, Working from the Wood at Tinsmiths 30th June to 30th July 2017 – celebrating the legacy of Philip Clissett in his bi-centenary year. Fellow exhibitors are Neil Taylor, Lawrence Neal, Gudrun Leitz (see earlier blog post) and Sebastian Cox. For an invitation to the show please e-mail your name and postal address to press@tinsmiths.co.uk

 

The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

During the delicious, and as retailers frankly frivolous break between Christmas and New Year, I had a belated birthday treat of an outing to the potteries museum in Stoke-on-Trent. The collection of ceramics that it houses is a revelation; whilst describing bountifully the progression of styles and technical advancements within the Staffordshire potteries it ties this with changes in fashion and the political and historic context of the pieces. They include pieces from China, Japan and Classical Greece in the collection which influenced the innovators, who during the 18th century could certainly be said to have been taste makers. The energy of the potteries in the 18th century is inspiring, the pace of change and the variety and quality of the output just jaw dropping.

The revelation was just how many different wares these potteries were producing during a short time window; it appeared that over a twenty year period, in the 18th century, the Wheildon Pottery was producing 5 distinctly different types of ware. In modern production terms that indicates considerable flexibility and a very high degree of skill within the workforce.

I would heartily recommend a visit; explore the fascinating stories and finds of the archaeological digs at potteries sites (downstairs) as well as the wonderful 1st floor gallery brimming with ceramic masterpieces. Thank you Clare for an inspired and inspiring birthday treat!

17th and 18th Century Slipware beauties.

17th and 18th Century Slipware beauties.

Slipware Posset Cups

Slipware Posset Cups

Wonderful 18th century group; engine turned & creamware mug.

Wonderful 18th century group; engine turned & creamware mug.

Wheildon tureen

Wheildon tureen

William de Moragn tile frieze

William de Moragn tile frieze

 

 

We barely scratched the surface of the collection during our 4 hour visit and will certainly be returning when a shot of inspiration and joy are required.

Museum Details:

The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Beshesda Street, Stoke-on-Trent. ST1 3DW

Tinsmiths Slipware Exhibition 9th September – 9th October 2017. Tinsmiths is having an exhibition of the work of contemporary potters who make slipware. We are really excited about this exhibition which will include work by; Dylan Bowen, Patia Davis, Paul Young, Carole Glove and Sean Miller.

 

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Birds by Mark Hearld, Curtains to Calendar…..

Tinsmiths CalendarWe have been producing a letterpress calendar for nine years but this year is really special for us. For the first time we have commissioned original artwork from one of our favourite artists, Mark Hearld.

Mark Hearld at TilleysMark studied at Glasgow School of Art and then at The Royal College of Art;  “Tinsmiths” first experienced his work as printed fabric produced by St. Jude’s. In the intervening ten years we have held biennial exhibitions St. Jude’s artists and sold hundreds of metres of their stunning and diverse fabrics. Our sewing room have made innumerable pairs of curtains, blinds and cushions using Mark’s texile designs, much to the delight of recipients.

The idea of commissioning illustrations for this year’s calendar surfaced when Mark commissioned Tinsmiths to make a pretty complicated curtain for the extraordinarily rich interior of his York house. It seemed a good opportunity for an exchange.

birds

 

Martin Clark, who runs Tilley Letterpress in the neighbouring alleyway here, in Ledbury, has always printed our calendars. During 2016 Martin and Mark worked together to produce some large linocut prints and some smaller hand-coloured line prints  for Tinsmiths’ “Spring Life” earlier in 2016, with this background the two were familiar and comfortable in working together on the calendar.

With a shared interest in British Wildlife we settled on a bird a month with a flock of pidgeons for our front cover. Mark’s twelve illustrations have an energy and fluidity that captures characteristics of each species. Thank you so much this collection, Mark and thank you Martin for the care you took in printing them.

To see more details of the calendar and to order on-line follow this link.

Mark Hearld Birds Calendar

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