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.
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 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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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 [email protected] 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.
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.
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.
Above: Cleaving and Shaping Oak with a Draw Knife held in a Shaving Horse
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 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 [email protected]
We 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 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.
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.
Sign-writer Hannah Sunny Whaler’s exhibition “Fairground” in “Little Tinsmiths” shows her incredible control of a simple sable brush and traditional enamel paints to create some very uplifting artworks. Hannah lives and works in Bristol, studied Illustration at Falmouth College of Art and originally hales from Malvern. She usually works to a client’s brief, painting shop signs in most part. For this show she has taken time “off the street” and painted stand-alone signs on mirror and board, using traditional letterforms, scrolls and flourishes and she has thought hard about the phrases and embellishments used traditionally in Fairground and Circus. The result is an explosion of colour and ornament, evocative of the 19th century. Several of the works on show are painted on glass, both mirrored and clear. This gives the painted areas another dimension, adding a “real” drop shadow to the clear glass pieces which are set into a simple metal frame which is easily hung on the wall.
We asked her why, when signage is so readily available at the click of a mouse, are her services so much in demand? “When I paint a sign for a business or for an individual there is a level of involvement that brings the process to life. Standing on a ladder, communicating an idea, the character and personality of the shop and its keeper simply makes a connection with passers by – immediately and in the long term. I think that shopping centres and the built environment have become stale, with signage mostly being impersonal and flat. Humans yearn to see the mark of another – especially if it is, in colour and style, uplifting. I think that’s why I’m so busy.”
To see examples of Hannah’s work, look on-line at Hannah’s area on our website or best of all, make a visit 10-5pm Tuesday to Saturday at 8a High Street, Ledbury, Herefordshire HR8 1DS 01531 632083, for more information about Hannah see our earlier Blog “Signs of the Times”