Keeping your eyes open

by David Burdon

One of the unique features of the SPAB Lethaby Scholarship and a reason for its continuing appeal is the opportunity the Scholars and Fellows have each year to engage with traditional craftspeople across the UK and gain first-hand experience in the understanding and use of materials. An understanding of the material and its properties is an important starting point for anyone working with original fabric on historic buildings.

In a letter to A. H. Powell dated 28 March 1894, the architect Philip Webb wrote:

“If you can get the experience of twelve months or so in a live workshop, and the outlying buildings, you will be saved a constant series of troubles in your future work. It has only been by constantly keeping my eyes open, talking freely wherever possible with all kinds of workmen, and reasoning out the knowledge gained that I have had any professional piece of mind for the last forty years… You too must keep – if you would be wise in future – keep your eyes open. Keeping the eyes shut is just the trap into which regular workmen fall.”

In just the first two weeks of the program, the Scholars have been keeping their eyes open and talking freely with unique craftspeople across the UK.

Hall Conservation maintain a workshop near Greenwich in London. Established in 2009, the company are specialists in conservation particularly with regard to metals. The Scholars and Fellows were instructed on topics as wide-ranging as lead-based paints, lost wax methods of casting, the application of smalt (ground blue glass) coating to metalwork, and the application of protective wax to historic cannons. Under the direction of blacksmith Fellow Joe Coombes-Jackman, everyone also tried their hand at the forge and found a new respect for the ironwork that we will encounter over the coming months.

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Hampton Court Palace is known to many as the home of the most significant collection of Tudor chimneys in the world, their decorative brick spirals a clear display of wealth. What is less well known is that they are in fact all Victorian recreations of the originals, and even these are in constant need of careful repair. Masonry expert Emma Simpson allowed the Scholars and Fellows to get down and dusty in the Palace’s brick workshop as we learnt to cut and rub bricks.

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At the small parish church of St Mary the Virgin in Barnsley, 1985 SPAB Scholar and architect Andrew Townsend introduced the Scholars to roofer Colin Feltham who explained the intricacies of Cotswold stone “tile” roofing. As many of the original tiles are retained as possible, some just in need of re-dressing in order to find their way back onto the repaired roof. As is often the case, the tiles on this church were laid in diminishing courses, from 21-inch tiles at the bottom to 6-inch tiles at the ridge. In the re-roofing processes over the centuries, older tiles thus make their way to the top as they are reshaped each time.

The limestone stone tiles used on many roofs in the Cotswolds are known to those that use them as “presents”, owing to the way the bedding of the stone in the region is quarried, the ground virtually gifting those that search for it with exactly the right thickness of stone required. Scholars were able to quarry stone themselves under the instruction of David Carter from Goldhill Quarry in Crudwell. Using traditional methods still in use today, Scholars quarried and then shaped their very own piece of this 160 million year old “forest marble” into a stone tile.

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Past Scholars and Fellows: Where are they now?

Caitriona Cartwright, 1989 SPAB Fellow, talks about the Fellowship and how she took her craft down an unexpected path.

News_S&F_Caitriona Cartwright1
I got into masonry after studying History of Art at Manchester University. I’d always wanted to use my hands, to be a craftsperson, and was inspired by the study of medieval art and architecture. At university we had a very charismatic lecturer, Dr Paul Crossley, whose enthusiasm was infectious, but it did begin to occur to me that I would rather repair old buildings than study them. Straight after university I started the year-long City and Guilds course in stonemasonry at Weymouth College.

The process of just using my hands is terribly satisfying. I enjoy becoming completely absorbed by the task and having the satisfaction of producing a piece of work. I enjoy carving headstones in particular as my aim is always to make something fitting and, hopefully, beautiful. I hope this plays a small part in the healing process of grief.

I first heard about the Fellowship when I was working as a stonemason at Salisbury Cathedral, a colleague had done it the year before. The most memorable time on the Fellowship for me was the block I spent with John Green, a stonemason based in Ipswich. I was very impressed by him, his quiet confidence and his autonomy. I wanted to learn about stone conservation from him, I didn’t expect to become interested in lettering, but he was working away on a headstone while I was in his workshop and it just turned my head. It was a wonderful opportunity, John Green showed me another way of working with stone.

I’d been quite resistant to lettercutting at Weymouth College because one of the lecturers has said to me early on that as a woman I would probably end up making headstones. That offended my feminist sensibilities as I wanted to work on cathedrals, on building sites.

There have been many favourite projects, memorials especially. I was honoured to be asked to carve several memorials by Richard Attenborough. I’ve also carved a few things for Sir Roy Strong for his garden, the Laskett .

Caitriona Cartwright2
The Fellowship shaped my career in a very unexpected way. As I said, by meeting John Green, I just discovered a new path. It gave me confidence. In a way I discovered my voice. We met so many interesting people and entered into so many discussions. In the end it equipped me with the skills and confidence to become self-employed, and to work on smaller projects that fitted around my children when they were small. Now they have grown up I’m quite happy to carry on as I am!