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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