In Memory of Bert Marsh - Part 1 archive

Thursday 15 September 2011

In the first part of this special tribute, Ray Key shares his memories of the late, great Bert Marsh

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Many of you will know that Bert Marsh sadly passed away on 22 May this year. Bert was greatly respected by woodturners around the world and was hailed as "The Grand Master of Woodturning."

Bert's work has been displayed in galleries around the world and collectors include the likes of supreme ceramist, Lucie Rie and the great David Pye.

His loss is felt by many, and we thought that it would be wonderful to catch up with some of the people who have had their lives touched by Bert. Here they share their stories and tell us how they have been influenced by him in many different ways.

Ray Key

On May 22 2011 the world of woodturning lost one of its finest exponents and greatest characters. He was my closest and dearest friend in the woodturning world; we shared and did so much together over 26 years

His talents were exceptional, his understanding of material and form were second to none, and he was a perfectionist in what ever he did. He was a legend in his own lifetime and left his mark wherever he went.

Woodturning was the beneficiary of his talents almost by default; it was his serious heart issues of the late '70s and early '80s that forced him out of his job he loved as a senior lecturer at Brighton Polytechnic. There he helped design the degree course he taught in wood, metal, ceramics and plastics; his knowledge was wide and wood his real true love.

His book Bert Marsh Woodturner is a seminal publication - almost biographical - chronicling his childhood, education, military exploits and previous careers, plus much more. He was a skilled furniture maker; he studied greatly and had many letters after his name, but modesty meant he seldom used them.

I first met Bert in 1985; I had an exhibition at the British Craft Centre (now Contemporary Applied Arts) and my wife, Liz, was with me. Bert came up from the basement and said, "You don't know me, I'm Bert Marsh" adding "not bad." We had instant rapport; we had a shared deference and a healthy irreverence towards those we encountered and much else in life.

Competitions

I was well aware of Bert's ability as a turner as I had been judging his work for a number years; he swept the board in all the competitions he entered. The show organisers were worried as entries fell; I suggested they made him a judge, which they duly did.

Judging

From then on he and I judged together for over 20 years at major shows everywhere. His impartiality and ability to appreciate all nuances in the tuning field was to be applauded, his knowledge unsurpassed.

I offer this example: we were judging a set of John Ambrose yew ladles. Bert said he has done well with these; there were no sanding heat checks. One thing worried him though, purple markings, which I dismissed as something common in yew. On we went; suddenly he said we are going back to those ladles, "Thought so," he said. That purple is caused by PVA glue. Nothing got past him; the glue sent the yew purple and in so doing helped disguise the heat checks. If you were a winner in a competition and Bert was a judge, your piece had been well scrutinised, I can assure you.

AWGB

Bert attended the two meetings in 1986 and 1987 held at our home prior to the formation of the AWGB, and he also attended the first Seminar. He never held office but played an active part in many of the early shows where the AWGB raised money for various charities; he would often help price and display. He was one of the selectors of an early AWGB Exhibition held at David Woodward's 'From the Wood Gallery.' He was the selector of the 100 objects from the 1997 Seminar Instant Gallery that made up the AWGB 10th Anniversary Publication. It was on his insistence that each piece had its own page; instead of a show catalogue we had a major book. The book contained 101 pieces as Bert had not selected one of his own, I asked David Ellsworth to go and select one.

He was an official advisor to the AWGB for a number of years.

He certainly should have demonstrated at more than one of the AWGB Seminars and been the Guest of Honour much earlier, he chose to decline both offers on a couple of occasions. In a way he had a bit of a love hate relationship with the association for a while.

This was around the millennium time; he was having health issues again and life became difficult for a time. Around this time our friendship cooled for a short while; I dropped him a line saying we were like two geriatric kids. He phoned soon afterwards and our friendship became even stronger than before.

One of my greatest pleasures was in 2009 when at last he was the AWGB's Guest of Honour at the bi-Annual Seminar where I had the pleasure of presenting him with an AWGB Life Membership plaque. As I told stories against and about him he feigned embarrassment. Afterwards he got on my case for not telling certain stories. As I told him, I could have gone on for hours as there were so many.

It quickly became the Bert Marsh show, until that time I don't really think he realised the depth of the affection in which he was held by the woodturning community.

2am that morning he was telling a group outside my bedroom window how to cut the tree to get the best grain configuration. Soon after he was banging my door saying he wanted to talk to me - he got short shift. I told you he was a character.

RPT

He attended many of the RPT's craft meetings; he much enjoyed the convivial lunches and the events afterwards were often orchestrated by him.

He didn't suffer inane conversation or comment easily. On one memorable occasion for the third year running the Register's tie on tags were being discussed. One turner was lamenting he couldn't tie the labels on his bowls; Bert helpfully suggested he banged a nail in the side. This was greeted with howls of laughter and total disdain by the affronted turner. He had an impish wit.

The Blackfriar was the watering hole after the business of the day was concluded; he became the pied piper of these outings and fun and merriment guaranteed. A meal at his favourite Italian restaurant with opera singing waiters or a nearby Chinese was the order of the day.

Many a person arrived at their home destinations to find public transport shut down for the night due to the lateness of the hour; an expensive taxi ride was required.

Worshipful Company of Turners

Bert embraced with gusto his involvement with the Worshipful Company of Turners; he had judged their bi-annual competitions for years. In 2002 he and I were granted their Freedom by Presentation - an honour quite rare. Later that year he took the Livery and attended many of the events organised by the company.

Livery dinners and lunches particularly were to his liking, I was his guest on more than one occasion, and he was in his element. He had an ability to communicate with anyone as he treated the road sweeper or a Knight of the Realm in just the same way.

On one occasion he was seated next to a Knight of the Realm and enquired if he should call him Sir, the gentleman concerned said, no he could call him Bill, Joe or whatever. Bert's response was, "Well you can call me Sir." This was just typical of him and one of the reasons he endeared himself to so many.

When he was made a Freeman, he pointed out to the old Beadle the damage to the architrave he had done with his staff, as he banged this to gain the call to enter the court. The Beadle looked up and embarrassed said, "I didn't realise I had done so much damage." Of course he hadn't; this activity had been going on for 400 years.

Another time Bert arrived late for dinner and waited outside the banqueting hall for the possession of the Beadle, The Master, The Lord Mayor and the Wardens to pass. The Lord Mayor noticed Bert and stopped to speak to him holding up proceedings. All were puzzled on how he knew Bert; they had met previously at the Guild Hall. The Company had commissioned Bert to make a presentation piece to commemorate the millennium. He was introduced to the Lord Mayor then; he must have made some impression for him to remember him - again typical.

Woodworking publications and shows

It is not commonly known when Woodturning magazine was started, but it was Bert who they turned to for guidance. In fact he found himself unwittingly being interviewed to be its first editor. He was an adviser to the magazine for years.

When Practical Woodworker launched the NEC Woodturning Show in the '90s, it was Bert who was turned to for advice. He had considerable input into who was invited to demonstrate, etc. He said little about these involvements - he was essentially a modest and shy man - I know the shy bit might surprise a few, but it is true.

He demonstrated at many of the major shows, Wembley, NEC, Axminster to name just a few, and judged competitions at them all.

I well remember one Bristol Docks Woodworker Show where he and I were judging; there was an impressive line up of judges for other competitions including Alan Peters, etc.

The previous year lunch was taken on a moored restaurant boat; Bert was not impressed with chicken in the basket. This time he noticed there was an al a carte restaurant on the boat, that's where we headed with the blessing of the then editor. When the bill came said editor turned ashen; I am sure that lunch took care of the entertainment budget for a couple of years.

Axminster was his favourite show; many a social evening was to be enjoyed there after some serious judging and demonstrating.

'Ready, Steady, Turn' was a feature. Here you turned against the clock, and the pieces made were then auctioned to raise funds for the Devon Air Ambulance Service. Bert's pieces always fetched the most money. On one memorable day he was turning away and about to start sanding when I appeared behind him, with some 40 grit sandpaper. There must have been 200 people watching him, uproar followed. We did some terrible things to each other over time, all in good natured fun.

Over the years we became a bit of a double act being described at various times by various people as Laurel & Hardy, Morecambe and Wise or Tom and Jerry - the latter was the way I thought of us.

This was started by my wife, Liz. For several years Richard Raffan, Dale Nish and Bert stayed at our house when the NEC Show was on, each day I drove us all there and back.

Bert and I were always joking and taking the Mickey out of each other; it was all getting a bit much for Richard and he was telling Liz of our banter. She said to him they are like Tom and Jerry. On the way home that night Richard says to Bert that was who we were like. Bert gets home and says to Liz: "You know what that cheeky so and so said? Ray and I are like Tom and Jerry!" Liz never did own up; she let Richard take the blame.

Exhibiting craft fairs

Bert loved to show and sell his work; he loved people and his fellow craftsmen. He encouraged and almost mentored some of those just starting out. It took him back to his teaching days imparting his expertise to students and encouraging their skills. Any show you did would find him in the embrace of some lady; these were either ex students who thought the world of him or good customers. His innocent little boy lost look worked every time, they all wanted to mother him, and I used to tell him they should smother him.

He was almost ever present from the mid '80s at Chelsea Craft Fair, later followed by Origin; Art in Action was a favourite also. He was selected for quality events nation wide; however, he would often show at small one day charity fairs; these were places you wouldn't have expected to find him.

For the most part he was extremely successful at all events; he built up a considerable following and loyal cliental, plus an impressive mailing list. One mutual customer had 150 pieces when he died at a young age; it is not often you find a collector like that for wood in the UK.

Evenings at such events were the time for fun, a meal or picnic, certainly a drink; he loved to orchestrate these evenings. Punting was a love; on the Isis for Art in Action and the Avon in Bath, one year he fell in the Isis only to see his wallet with all his takings, including cheques and credit card slips bobbing on the water, which got his attention. He was a good swimmer so no problem. That night his room was like a Chinese laundry but with notes, cheques and credit card slips hung out to dry.

I was reminded in the USA just recently of Bert's sense of fun and love to shock by Stony Lamar; he was saying how sad he was to hear of his passing. When he recalled going into a bar with Bert and him asking the barmaid if she knew how to make a 'screaming orgasm.' He loved to do things like that; this all started in the '90s in Bath, we were doing some failing show.

Bored, a few of us - one, a young jeweller went to a cocktail bar - he was much taken by the names.

Last year in November I was doing a show and he phoned me; opposite me was the same young jeweller some 15 years later. So I handed her the phone to speak with him; it wasn't long before her cheeks coloured - I knew in an instant what he had said. All innocent fun but his impish humour still prevailed despite his health problems. There are legions of stories I could recall similar to this.

USA showsp

Bert showed a number of times in New York and San Francisco at trade shows; here he had even more fun. One restaurant in New York saw him get all the dinners dancing and on the same night him get engulfed by hundreds of toilet rolls in the Gents. It could only happen to Bert.

Again there are legions of stories here to tell, so many that I could quite literally write a book on his exploits. Many of the best were when I wasn't with him - did I have restraining influence on him? I think not.

On numerous occasions I cried with laughter and almost fell off my chair as he regaled me with stories of his exploits over the phone. He was something else.

Exhibitions

His work was exhibited and appreciated around the world; particularly in the USA. The Del Mano Gallery in Los Angeles showed his work constantly; he had more One Man Featured Artist shows there than any other turner.

One of his proudest moments was an Exhibition in 1998 at the San Francisco Craft & Folk Museum. Simultaneously in another gallery space the internationally renowned ceramists Lucie Rie and Hans Coper's work was being shown. His exhibition attracted a bigger audience; he was also very proud that Lucie Rie owned three of his bowls.

His work was shown at leading galleries across the UK and could always be found at Contemporary Applied Arts. He showed alongside some of the biggest names in the craft world throughout his life.

He was respected by all those who knew him: he was a leader in his field for over 25 years.

Disrespect

Over the years we were unmercifully disrespectful to each other; it was a point scoring game we played. When I look back I did some terrible things.

One year there was a review in one of the leading newspapers of the Chelsea Crafts Fair saying his stand was like an 'oasis of calm.' I showed up next day with a flower arranger's oasis and placed it on his stand. It was a while before he noticed.

He supplied David Lindley for years and he always said his bowls and vases were not for use, which of course they weren't, as they were so delicate.

I had great pleasure in telling him one day he had become a maker of bowls for use; he screwed his face up as he did when exasperated and asked what I was talking about. I told him I had just walked past Lindley's and all his bowls were full of pot pourri - he was not amused.

Both the above are mild but one prank I played on him had such an effect that he stopped making his tiny little branchwood laburnum bowls for about three years. Then one year he sent me one in the post for Christmas; he started to make them once again then.

Ribald irreverence

Just recently I came across a card from our late great shared friend, Keith Rowley. This was congratulating me on becoming a Freeman. He noted that the Rt. Hon. Member from Brighton had been similarly honoured.

Keith commented Bert had been a 'Freeman' for years as he always had to buy the drinks.

Bert's, 2010 birthday card to me summed up our friendship. It said: "In these politically correct days, some would call you a person of experience or a wise citizen... but I say b*****s, you're just old. A hand written disclaimer followed saying Mary had nothing to do with the selection of this card. The b*****s is most fitting; he use to say it was a lovely rounded word, which he used many times as we traded insults on the phone.

Generosity

Bert was always generous but in his latter years he gave even more. He was always generous when he demonstrated, making sure the supplier of his wood was in receipt of a good bowl.

He donated pieces to the AAW and the AWGB Auctions to raise funds for educational initiatives.

At the AWGB Seminar in 2009 a piece from the late Tony Witham was not available to auction. It had been Tony's wish that funds raised would go to Macmillan Nurses.

Bert stepped into the breach and offered to turn a bowl similar to the one auctioned the previous night on the onion live auction. It was duly bid up to £500.

Early this year he sent two pieces for the AWGB 2011 onion live auction; I asked why so early and he said I might not make it to then. I guess he had sixth sense.

The last two years

Bert had a severe heart attack on January 17 2010, from which he never really recovered. He contracted a number of various ailments and virus problems in the latter part of 2009 which certainly weakened him. Although seemingly recovered they must have taken their toll; the heart attack that followed was the final straw.

His son was moving house and Bert was in the thick of it helping with building repairs and moving goods and chattels. We use to josh when he or I phoned, "Is that Bob the Builder or Burgess Hill Removal services?"

On Monday January 18 2010 at 9am I had a telephone call from him, in a jocular mood I said, "Is that Bob the Builder or Burgess Hill Removal Services?" "No," he said, "It's Bert from his hospital bed on his mobile phone; I have had a heart attack." My response was don't joke with me about such things; it was then that realisation struck home.

He had almost died; paramedics rushed him to hospital straight to theatre for emergency surgery. He had been described for years by the medical profession as a living miracle as his triple bypass was way back in the early '80s.

From that day on we were in constant contact; in fact in the first six months there were only three days when we didn't speak. Right through to the end we spoke three or four days a week. If I was overseas it was text message time. He didn't text but he got my messages.

Liz and I visited several times; I stayed with Bert and Mary a number of times as we attended WCT dinners during this time. We didn't just talk about his health but every thing under the sun; we put the world to rights many times - sorry we screwed that up.

He was a true friend, a remarkable man who didn't just impact the turning world, but the craft world in general. Many didn't realise the depth of his knowledge as he loved to joke; he was dismissive of those who couldn't see beyond this facade. He could be extremely serious; he had forgotten more than most will ever know. His work is some of the most copied, but no one quite hits the mark.

It is the subtle nuances that he understood, a true understanding of the material. Much of what he created was done with passion and came from the soul. Doesn't it show? I am going to miss him beyond belief, but I have so many treasured memories to look back on. Thank you Bert, for being my friend.


Woodworkers Institute

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Woodturning , Bert Marsh , tribute , Ray Key