For Love of Craft

Friday 12 July 2019

Helen Esmonde discovers the wonders of working with wood, celebrated by craftspeople of all ages at the inspirational “Celebrating British Craft” exhibition organised by the Guild of Master Craftsmen, in association with Axminster.

I witnessed something extraordinary happening at the Guild of Master Craftsmen’s recent exhibition at the OXO Gallery. A Group of Children gathered round a display of wood turning and were mesmerised, one small boy clutching proudly to a small bowl that had been magically turned before his eyes. Another group were watching Jack and Matthew from the Building Crafts College make a chair from the log they had rolled into the Gallery a few days before. Others, with their back to a sparkling river Thames, stared through the window to watch the process. The ash log had been carefully selected from a coppice wood in Kent to make the legs, and ash from a sustainable forest in the Cotswolds made the seat. All ages were captivated to see the traditional methods that directly linked the forest to an everyday object. A log transformed into the simple beauty of a Windsor chair.

Going further into the gallery I found Peter Benson, working with the finest of wood carving tools, making exquisite miniature animal carvings. He explained that as a wartime evacuee he started carving with a penknife. Asked if he carved any larger pieces, he smiled and said he had made a 2.5 tonne polar bear for the National Arboretum in Staffordshire, but his most valued piece is a netsuke of an old man sleeping over his book, carved from an old snooker ball.

The sound of a whistle caught my attention and I saw a delighted child with a whistle just made by Richard Irvine, author of the engaging Forest Craft, A Child's Guide to Whittling in the Woodland. Two young women were full of laughter as they showed their flowers made of swirls of whittled wood.

There were further sounds of a chisel and hammer from woodcarver Andy Hibbert as he carved the letters for London and OXO into a piece of smoked oak.

A few “do not touch” notices were suddenly blown off some display shelves by a gust of wind. As I replaced these signs, I looked again at the winning pieces of wood turning on display. The more I looked the more remarkable I realised these pieces were. From the Isle of Wight to Northumberland wood turners had entered their work for The Guild of Master Craftsmen’s Wood Turner of the Year Awards. Students from schools across the country, happy and talented amateurs and professional turners had been rewarded at the Awards held at the opening of the exhibition (sponsored by Axminster Tools). The wonders of working with wood were celebrated by craftspeople young and old, ideas were exchanged and a number of people told me the experience had inspired them for the future.

Inspiration did seem to be in the air throughout the exhibition. Students from Waters & Acland Furniture-Making school in Cumbria talked about their work with students from the Building Crafts College in London and created links for the future. Waters & Acland displayed a prize-winning chair, a beautifully crafted lamp and a cabinet with a wonderfully innovative wave design.

Sapphire Hales from the Building Crafts College, has been supported by The Guild of Master Craftsmen and was showing and talking about her carefully crafted tea table. This table cleverly incorporates echoes of the furniture used for traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. As I admired other pieces, created by the students, it was striking how their simple but original designs enabled the beauty of the wood to be the key feature. Designer Oliver Chambers explained to visitors the story of the Herston self–balancing lamp. This lamp combines the best of contemporary design with traditional skills and attention to detail. 

Walking back along the Southbank, I realised this exhibition had awakened something deep in me and all participants and visitors. Working with wood, touching and enjoying wooden objects, and caring for our forests strikes a chord with us all. I know I am not alone in thanking the Guild of Master Craftsmen for bringing together so many craftspeople and well over 3000 visitors who will help to ensure a bright future for British Craft.