Last September I was invited to speak on craft at the V&A for the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust
The transcripts have just been put up online as a PDF here
Or if you would prefer to read as plain text without pictures I’ll copy my bit below.
Art, Craft, and Design:
Cross-overs and Boundaries
in the 21st Century
Glenn Adamson: Good morning, everyone. Thank you very much for coming here to the V&A on
a very nice autumn morning and it is a real pleasure to welcome you and also my co-panellists. We
are going to have two panels this morning. The first, which you are about to hear, is going to address
the question of preservation of traditional craft skills: what is happening with them today; whether
we are in a state of crisis or, indeed, whether we are in a state of Renaissance surrounding craft skills;
tacit knowledge; and the know-how of the hands. The second panel is going to address a related topic
which is, effectively: what do we do with these skills once we have preserved them, whether they are
taught in art schools, whether they are taught in guilds, in traditional apprenticeship situations or,
indeed, taught online via YouTube videos; how do these skills get deployed; and what can they be
made to do in an art or design or craft context in the 21st century.
First we will be turning our attention to this question of preservation and our three panellists are
ideally suited to speak to that theme. To my immediate left, we have Tanya Harrod, my great friend
and colleague who edits The Journal Of Modern Craft with me, and will be well known due to her
many writings, notably including The Crafts In Britain In The 20th Century, the finest history written
in the subject area. Also the immediately forthcoming biography of Michael Cardew, the great British
potter, often active in Africa in the 20th century, which we are all eagerly looking forward to coming
out from Yale University Press very soon. Then we have Sir Nicholas Goodison, one of the great
patrons in Britain of the crafts, and, indeed, other art forms as well, former chairman of both the
Crafts Council and the National Art Collections Fund, and, indeed, a great friend of us here at the
V&A. It is a real honour and pleasure to have you here, Sir Nicholas. Then, finally, we have on this
first panel Robin Wood, who is first and foremost a wood turner and artisan craftsman in his own
right, and speaks very much from that perspective, but also has taken a leading role as an advocate
for crafts preservation in the 21st century in his capacity as chair of the Heritage Crafts Association
(HCA). I know we have other representatives from the HCA as well here today and they really
are taking the forefront lead in the cause of finding and preserving not only rural crafts, but also
So what we are going to do is first hear from Robin for about twenty minutes about his own work
and the activities of the Heritage Crafts Association and then we will have a response from Tanya,
followed by thoughts from Sir Nicholas and discussion, and then, of course, we will have an
opportunity for you in the audience to ask questions. So, first, Robin, please take it away. Session One: Plea for the
preservation of craft skills by
Robin Wood, with responses
by Dr Tanya Harrod and Sir
Robin Wood: Thanks very much for that. I may not look like it today but I am a craftsman, and this
is not my normal habitat. This is where I live in Edale in the Peak District. And this is my workshop
which is the last building before you heading out onto the open moors on the Pennine Way. Inside
that workshop, I turn wooden bowls on a foot powered lathe. Now, as we go through this talk, I have
brought along various props. I find it very hard to talk about craft without craft objects. So at the front
area, we have various craft objects which will be passed around through the audience and you will
see various things coming up. There are a couple of my bowls, some scissors and various other bits
and bobs. I turn my bowls in a very traditional way, on a foot powered lathe. As you will see, my lathe
there is almost identical to this one, which is the first good illustration of a bowl turning lathe from
the thirteenth century, and is virtually unchanged today. It still works, actually. I do not use it for any
other reason; it is just a very efficient way of making wooden bowls.
My original inspiration for doing this was this guy, George Lailey, who was always known as the last
bowl turner. He worked at a tiny village called Bucklebury near Newbury. He used to be Bucklebury’s
most famous inhabitant, although he has rather been eclipsed by Kate Middleton now. He died in
1958, and when he died, his lathe and his tools went to the Museum of English Rural Life at Reading.
Thirty years later, I came along and saw them and thought, “What a shame that nobody’s doing that
craft anymore.” I set about trying to reinvent the skills or rediscover the skills. That started with
having to learn the skills of blacksmithing because you need very special tools. Turners always used
to forge their own tools. They had to learn to forge and harden and temper tools first. I made myself a
set of tools, built a lathe, and, five years, later I was turning bowls at a reasonable rate. As I was doing
all this, I was working for the National Trust as a forester at the time, but after five years I gave up
the day job and became a full-time turner. I have done that for sixteen years now, primarily making
functional, fairly humble sort of bowls and plates for daily use, which not many people do nowadays.
Most turners concentrate on more arty stuff. I find that I get a buzz out of people using the work.
When I get a letter from someone who has eaten their breakfast from one of my bowls every day for
ten years, then I have a real connection with that person, which is very difficult to put into words.
Through the work that I have done, through that period, I have met a lot of other really talented
craftspeople doing traditional crafts as well, and I want to share some of those. This is Owen Jones,
the last swill basket maker. This is one of his baskets on the table at the front, which I think is an
iconic design, and it is a very traditional basket of the Lake District. It is made out of oak whereas
most English baskets are made of willow. This is the only basket made of oak and you have to boil the
oak for eight hours and then, while it is still hot out of the boiler, you can tear it down into thin strips.
It becomes pliable and you can weave it into an incredibly strong basket. As I say, it is an original
basket of the Lake District. If you ever see a picture of a basket in a Beatrix Potter book, it will be one
of these. Owen’s been the only person making those for twenty years now and if he gets run over by
a bus that is swill basket making gone. This is Adam King, who is one of only three or four besom
broom makers left working. He is one of the youngest traditional crafts people that I know, actually,
but he got into it because his dad does it, too, and he started going around fairs with him when he
was ten and has carried it on. This is Jerry Atkinson, the clog maker, the last proper clog maker in
England, who still uses the clog knives, and hand cut clog soles, and that is very important. Most
clogs nowadays are just machine cut with a sole out of kiln dried beech, and they do not fit your foot
in the way that clogs used to do so they get a bad name as being uncomfortable, but a well-made clog is a fantastic thing. I have a pair of his clogs that I have been wearing for ten years and they are still
going very strong. They are wonderful things, but again, it just seems a shame there is only one when
there could be more.
So, knowing all these people, I then have to pose the question whether these traditional crafts are arts
or heritage? It is possibly a fairly meaningless question but it is an important question because of the
way that funding and support money comes down into this area, and there are two prime funding
streams – arts and heritage. In the arts, for the last thirty, forty years or so, what has tended to be
recognised as being good has been the innovative, the new, the modern. Perhaps Marcel Duchamp’s
Fountain was the point at which, whether the artist made the work and how well they made it was not
important. It was that the idea is what is central in art— innovation, new. This quote from Kim Evans,
Director of the Art Council, makes the point very clearly, that for the last twenty-five years –this was
a letter she wrote to me in 2000—the innovative has been prioritised over the traditional in the visual
arts as a whole. So, if you have set out to do the very best possible work that you can in a traditional
field and you find that within that field, the innovative is always going to be prioritised over that
traditional, that always sets you at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for grants, or whatever.
Instead of the innovative favoured over the traditional, I would like to see a level playing field where it
is excellence that is judged. I will give some examples. This is David Bedford, a hand engraver, and the
sort of work that he does, he has been hand engraving for nearly sixty years. One commission that is
a good example of his work: he engraved Charles and Camilla’s wedding rings, and he engraved their
signatures miniaturised on the inside of their wedding rings. An incredible skill level. His work is not
innovative, but it is his own style and everyone within hand engraving will recognise it as his style. It
is not the same as what has been done before.
There is also another whole area of crafts which have been overlooked, that do not fit within the art
spectrum. They are what I call the industrial crafts, so scissor making in Sheffield, for instance. In fact,
all of the cutlery trades in Sheffield, which some people might think is an industry and not craft at all.
William Morris kind of railed against industrialisation of craft, but when you actually go into these
workshops, you realise there is an incredible amount of craft skill going on there. It is just the same as
the stuff that I do in my workshop.
Oftentimes, these craft industries are associated with towns, or towns grew to be where they are
because of the crafts and the industries that were there. Walsall is still the world centre of saddle
making. There are twenty-five saddlers in Walsall Yellow Pages, all employing between five to ten
saddlers. It is still the sort of place to get the very best saddles made in the world. Stoke, obviously, is
synonymous with pottery. In Stoke, some of the pottery has become industrialised to such an extent
that the skill’s taken out of the job altogether, but for some there is still a lot of hand skill involved.
Probably the best throwers in the country work in Stoke rather than in the studio pottery tradition.
The skill level there is incredible. Interestingly, Emma Bridgewater, who spoke at the Heritage Craft
Association spring conference at the V&A in March pointed out that quite a lot of the companies in
Stoke outsourced their production to the Far East about ten years ago. The ones that did have tended
to fair badly, whereas the ones that stayed in Stoke and concentrated on keeping the skills, are actually
doing much better. Some of them, Spode, for instance, have recently relocated back to Stoke to make
use of the skills because it is the skills that people are wanting. Northampton, obviously, is famous for
shoes. I think this shows also that the world values English quality and heritage as a brand. Church’s
employ over four hundred people and they have been bought out by Prada. They were bought out ten
years ago and they have expanded considerably and very successfully marketed that as a brand.
English quality and craftsmanship is something the world wants, so perhaps instead of looking at
these things as arts, we should be looking at them as heritage. In the UK, heritage is looked after
by English Heritage, and their full name is the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission,
which gives you an idea of their remit. They are not going to be interested in what I would call living
heritage, the traditions. I mean, they are interested in it, but it is outside their remit and they cannot do anything within this area. That sets us apart from much of the rest of the world, where heritage is
taking a wider view.
Here is an example of the effect of that—this is Portland works in Sheffield. Nearly 100 years ago, in
1914, this was the first place in the world where stainless steel was made into cutlery, and a couple
of years ago, it was bought by a property developer. It still functions as craft workshops. There are
lots of cutlery people still working in there, along with artists and musicians. It is rented out as cheap
studio space. It was bought by a property developer who wanted to convert it to flats and evict all the
workshop owners in there. English Heritage did not object to that because their only interest, their
remit, extends as far as the building. The fact that there are still people forging tools inside there has
no relevance to them whatsoever. So these skills have no protection.
As I say, the picture is very different internationally. A lot of people will be familiar with the situation
in Japan where their best traditional craftspeople are recognised as national living treasures. They
have similar schemes in Korea and the Czech Republic, in France and many different countries. I am
confident that position will come to the UK and we will eventually recognise living heritage, but at
the moment we do not.
So, just to look at the way some of these businesses exist. One of the characteristics is that many of
them tend to be sole traders. This is a recent survey, which is just about to launch, which says that
seventy-eight percent of the sector is sole traders. This is Trevor Ablett, one of the last and youngest
pocketknife makers in Sheffield, aged seventy. One of his pocket knives is going around the room,
actually. He makes between 50 and 100 pocket knives a week. It is a very viable business. For a seventy
year old, he has very low overheads. He makes a very good living, but when he retires, that business
is going to fold. Folks always say, “Why does not he take on an apprentice?” But if he is a sole trader,
than if he takes someone into the workshop and starts training them, then that time he invests in
trading, he is not making, and it is very difficult to make a living.
This was a good friend of mine, Trevor Austen, who sadly died a couple of years ago. He was the last
rake maker, making rakes out of locally sourced coppiced ash. He sadly got motor neurone disease
and did not have time to pass the skills onto someone else so that business, which was a viable
business—he was making a good living from it exporting them to the States and Japan, even—that
business just folded.
Oftentimes people say young people are not interested in doing that sort of work. They want to do
something more interesting. They do not want to work hard and get their hands dirty, but that is
simply not the case. This is Alastair Simms, the last Master Cooper. There are actually four brewery
coopers working in Britain. You become a Master Cooper when your first apprentice passes out. So
he is the last Master Cooper. He got a lot of press a couple of years ago, and off the back of that press,
he had a thousand people writing to him asking to be his apprentice, unsolicited letters. So there is
a strong demand at the moment. There are a lot of people who would like to do what is perceived as
fulfilling work, even if it is not particular well paid.
I believe the situation at the moment in the crafts is perhaps a little bit like the alternative food
movement was maybe twenty-fire years ago. Twenty-five years ago, I was into self-sufficiency, organic,
locally sourced food and it was regarded as being cranky, alternative, just not of any significance or
relevance, really. But over that past twenty-five to thirty years, it has become absolutely mainstream,
and I think that the traditional crafts have the opportunity to do the same. Maybe we will not make
all of our stuff by these methods in the same way as we still get most of our food through industrial
farming, but I could see five or ten percent of our things in our home, our clothing and furniture.
People are much more interested in knowing the story behind their stuff and knowing it does not
come from a sweatshop the other side of the world, and it is not going to end up in landfill in a couple
of years’ time. So, that is part of the message of the Heritage Crafts Association. What we are doing is we are trying
to tell the stories behind the way stuff is made. I took Jon Henley from The Guardian to see Trevor
Ablett and he did a lovely story on him. Off the back of that, he got a six-month waiting list for his
penknives, which, again, shows there is very strong demand. If people get told the story behind the
products, they want to buy them. There is a strong market for it today. When I go and see Trevor now,
I have to wait six months for my penknives as well.
This is Mike Turner, the last riddle and sieve maker. I went to see him three years ago, he was aged
sixty-four, and he told me he was going to retire in six months’ time. That would have been a craft
going back to the Middle Ages which would have died out, but we got him a lot of publicity and on
the back of that, he got full order book, for a start. There was a local man, Damian Banmore, who
decided he would like to be a sieve maker. He spent six months working alongside Mike and then
bought the business off him. He has now expanded the business so that they are employing two more
people. They are exporting and lot to the States. They are selling through Highgrove Farm Shop. It
shows that these businesses do not have to die out. They have a viable future, if you can get over that
problem of passing the skills from one generation to the next. Here is Damian working.
Savile Row, again, is a tremendous success story for the high-end luxury end of the craft world. When
you go to Savile Row, you see the glitzy top shops on the top floors but the basements are full of tailors
hand making the clothes. About ten years ago, that was threatened. A lot of folks were saying it is
not sustainable to use premises with such high rates to do this sort of work, and it was threatened.
There were very few young people, very few young apprentices, but the Savile Row Bespoke group
were formed to address that situation and successfully marketed bespoke tailoring. They set up new
apprenticeship schemes and a pre-apprenticeship scheme with Newham College. Now they have lots
of young tailors coming in to the Row. And although a Savile Row suit starts at £3,000, they have a
very healthy demand, particularly in the export market.
Sometimes with these crafts, the actual original purpose of the craft ceases to have a function in the
twenty-first century, and that is the case with these. These are Cornish pilot gigs, and a Cornish pilot
gig dates from the age of tall ships. When a tall ship came into port, it needed a local pilot to take
it in who knew the way into the port, and the first pilot out of the ship got the job. They designed
these very, very fast rowboats to get the pilot out there as fast as they could. Obviously, when the age
of sail died, there was no more demand for the Cornish pilot gigs. In the ‘70s, this guy, Ralph Bird,
reinvented the pilot gig. He invented a sport of gig racing, which had always gone on a little bit but
he built it up. Now there are 150 gig racing teams all around the Cornish coast and around the Scilly
Isles. They have regular meets, all through the summer. It has become very much a part of the local
cultural heritage. Although they are not used for the original purpose, that is a good example of
finding a new purpose which is preserving the skills and heritage of that trade.
We have been very lucky with the Heritage Crafts Association to attract some very high profile
patrons and supporters. John Hayes, sadly former Minister of Skills, has been a really, really strong
advocate for crafts. And also our president, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, has been a really
strong advocate for crafts. It is very important to have these high profile people putting the message
out there for us. Perhaps more important is getting the message out through popular media. We have
worked a lot with various TV companies over the last three years, from Monty Don’s Mastercrafts,
John Craven’s Britain’s Heritage Heroes, the Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm programmes. Alex
Langlands is one of our patrons. More recently, this one is Paul Martin’s Handmade Revolution which
Glenn is going to be featuring on. That is the one we are most excited about just at the moment. It is
a new series which is going to be coming very soon. It focuses on the future of traditional crafts and
the skills involved in a very positive way. I love the name and I think, to me, it sums up everything
that I would like to say about where traditional crafts are. We are on the brink of a revolution, and the
future is going to be handmade. Thank you.
Glenn Adamson: Thank you very much, Robin, for an inspiring and beguiling tour through the traditional crafts of the country. We are now going to have, as I mentioned, a response by Tanya
Harrod, and then we will have some general thoughts about what Robin has put before for us this
Tanya Harrod: That was an inspiring talk by Robin and we agree on a great many things. So, I think
that made me feel I have the license to think outside the box a little bit on this matter of maintaining
craft skills. First, the bad news. I want to read a passage from Herbert Read’s Art and Industry of
1934, written at a time when debates about the loss of skills did not have the urgency they have today.
This passage is right at the end of his book about when he reflects on skill: “we must remember that
the creative faculties of man are constant. From time to time, they disappear underground and reemerge to flow in different channels. New arts arise to take the place of old arts—the novel replaces
the drama, the cinema, the music hall; and if we have lost the peasant craftsman, we can find a very
good substitute in the modern painter. If it is objected that the modern painter is not quite the same
thing, that his naiveté is conscious and sophisticated, then it must be pointed out that aesthete’s
imagination for peasant pottery is equally self-conscious and sophisticated, and bears no direct and
organic relation to the production of that pottery. All attempts to revive such types of art, lacking
economic and practical justification, end in artificiality and crankiness. The economic law is absolute,
and healthy; it compels the human spirit to adapt itself to new conditions, and to be ever creating new
forms. It is only when sentimentality and a nostalgia for the past are allowed to prevail, that these
forms cease to evolve in conformity with the aesthetic values.” What Read is saying is that objects
made in any kind of spirit of nostalgia will be aesthetically unacceptable.
Well, this is tough talk and perhaps it is surprising that someone who ended up an anarchist believed
the economic laws to be “absolute and healthy”. I am going to say there is a kernel of truth here, that
skills disappear and re-emerge, as Robin so beautifully made clear. Skills survive or are revived when
they are needed. Perhaps the best example is the conservation movement in this country that has
been crucial to the survival of a great many pre- or early industrial building skills, but the roster of
buildings and things we deem worthy of conserving is always going to be unstable. One wonders
whether William Morris, the founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, could
ever have envisaged that we would be fighting to save early nineteenth century terraces. We find
ourselves fascinated by sash windows and shutters, the sort of thing he thought was dull and selfreplicating and soulless.
Perhaps this is a slightly grim conclusion, but it can be argued that fashion and taste are central to
the survival of skills. Skills cannot be preserved in a vacuum. But I want to look a little bit at why
we do not necessarily agree with Herbert Read on this matter of the absolute and healthy nature of
economic law. both for reasons that are logical, and also subjective and emotional. I want to look
at two points that relate to what Robin has been talking about. Design flourishes best in a making
culture. If we want good design, we should not abandon skills lightly. Secondly, skills may not be
economically necessary but are, in some sense, good for us and enrich us as individuals and as
The first point, that skills should not be let go, works at several levels. For a designer, access to a range
of skills and workshops where things are made acts as a creative inspiration. The best example I can
think of is the designer Jasper Morrison who, when he was young, designed something called the
Wing Nut chair. The technology behind that was actually a laundry box maker that he came across
in the back streets of London. Indeed, looking round London at various small workshops, artisan or
workshops in the backstreets, gave him an awful lot of inspiration as a contemporary designer. You
might also think of the Campana brothers, the Brazilian designers, who self-confessedly are inspired
by the street culture of Brazil, by the construction of shanty buildings.
I think the exhibition on at the moment at the V&A, the Heatherwick Studio exhibition, again
testifies to the importance of living in a making culture where inspiration can be derived from a vast
range of products, from rolls of the zipper to expanding fencing, even to Heatherwick’s childhood memories of Play-Doh. Finally, another show at the V&A, ‘Power of Making’, was a marvellous
testament to the way in which designers are attracted by an endless range of making skills. ‘Power of
Making’ made that affection and need strikingly clear.
I want to move on to a darker need, a reason why we all want to maintain skills. This is to do with
a fear in catastrophic outcomes. I am venturing into the world of science fiction. The fear we might
suddenly find ourselves Robinson Crusoe-like trying to rebuild a modicum of comfort and safety
by hand as an industry of one is a theme that has run through the twentieth century. You only have
to think back to H.G. Wells’ War in the Air, Cicely Hamilton’s extraordinary book Theodore Savage,
or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and J.G. Ballard’s weird novel Concrete Island. Concrete Island
is, as much as anything, about the impersonal environment we have created for ourselves and the
realisation that being civilised is an extremely fragile construct. Nowadays, one of the most obvious
fears or threats is the mantra “when the oil runs out.” I think it is easier to grasp as a concept than
global warming. It goes directly to our day-to-day needs and it is set out in books like The Long
Emergency by James Kunstler. It is there, lurking in some of the passages of Matthew Crawford’s
bestseller, The Case for Working with Your Hands. These kinds of existential feelings of helplessness
surface in the most unlikely places.
I was reading the Sun newspaper, I am not quite sure why, and there was a little article on what the
writer called ‘dad skills’, ‘Have we lost our dad skills?’ He listed them as knowing how to wire a plug,
put up a shelf, iron a shirt, bleed a radiator, change the engine oil in a car. And then he reflected back
on his father who could actually install a whole central heating system and build a racing bicycle.
Unimaginable skill, a skill people feel is slipping away.
This leads onto my second point, that craft skills are, in some sense, good for us and enrich us as
individuals and communities. I am always going back in time, but when J.B. Priestley was travelling
round England in 1933 writing a sort of ‘state of Britain’ book, he visited a great number of factories
and workplaces. He found the happiest working area to be the six towns that make up the city of
Stoke-on-Trent. He noted, “I have never seen people in any industrial area that look more contented
during their working hours than these Staffordshire folk,” and the reason he gave was that this is an
industry that is still a craft. And Priestley, with an eye to the future and righter than he knew, said,
“We ought to strive to keep this industry alive at Stoke, even if it means spending a little more on a
plate, or a cup, or a saucer.”
Well, sadly, we did not feel we would spend that little bit more, and although Robin has talked in a
very positive way about Stoke, I think we would all agree it is not the great place it once was. It is not
the community it once was. The absolute economic law meant the making of ceramics has largely
moved to the Far East. I think that means people are beginning to wake up to the fact that craftwork
creates relationships, whether it be in Wedgwood’s Etruria factory, or a knitting circle, and that
making sure a child has a laptop is not quite the same as making sure a child knows how things work,
that a child maybe can fix things and have some kind of agency over the world of goods. There is a
lot of what I would call low-level symbolic crafting which almost segues into relational aesthetics or
craft activism, where people come into relationships with each other by making, whether they go on
a course with Robin Wood to learn how to turn a bowl, or join a mass-knit-in, or grow vegetables on
an allotment, or compete to appear on Paul Martin’s forthcoming Handmade Revolution. This is not
always making of a high order, but it may be necessary for our emotional health.
So the arguments for retaining and keeping skills are obvious, even if the outcomes are unpredictable.
And I think that we can agree that Herbert Read’s healthy economic law does not answer all our
needs, even if it appears to make perfect sense to many colleges of art who are busy closing material
based courses. I think we have come to realise and agree with the point that Herbert Read also
made that the creative faculties of mankind are, nonetheless, constant, and how we reconcile these
opposites—economic law and our constant faculty for making—seems to be what QEST is all about
and what Robin Wood is all about, and what the Heritage Crafts Association is all about, and this gathering today is attempting to investigate.
Glenn Adamson: Thank you, Tanya for that marvellous and cogent piece of reasoning, which I think
both responded to what Robin said in a very sensitive way and also complicated the feelings that you
might have and thoughts that might be running through your head as you speculate on this question
of the traditional. Sir Nicholas, could I ask you to offer some comments about what you have heard?
Sir Nicholas Goodison: I would like to thank QEST and the V&A for putting this conference on.
I think it is an excellent thing to have done. I would like to thank Robin for his very lively and
stimulating introduction and Tanya for saying all the things that I was hoping to say. That does,
fortunately, enable me to truncate what I was going to say, as we must move on.
Given my commercial background, I would like to take a broad economic view of these matters.
We must never forget that it is the market that dictates whether an economic activity is going to
survive or not. History is full of businesses that have succeeded and businesses that have failed, but
the ultimate failure is due to the lack of a market for their products or services. That applies to large
businesses, small businesses, to businesses—to use Wedgwood’s distinction—that are producing
batch useful ware or high-quality ornamental ware, or mass-producing useful ware. There is no
distinction between businesses when you are considering the market. The economic scene dictates
what happens. And what really matters is quality. Quality sells. You made the point about excellence,
and I have a lot of sympathy with that. If you cannot achieve quality, you are unlikely to compete with
We therefore need, of course, to encourage craft skills because craft skills are at the basis of a huge
number of manufacturing techniques, and craft skills include knowledge of materials and knowledge
of techniques. We need more maths, physics, technology design students and fewer students studying
media studies. So, the word quality is what I pin everything on. If a small craftsman produces works
of quality, he is more likely to achieve a market than if he is not doing so. It stands to reason.
Broadly speaking, I have a lot of sympathy with Robin. I have one slight concern. This word
‘preservation’ worries me a bit. I prefer sustaining or encouraging. Preservation has a slight hint of
ossification in it. It is rather like when you are trying to restore a room in a historic house and you
are faced with the predicament with which date to restore it to. Whatever date you restore it to, you
are ossifying it. You are choosing a particular frozen date. I do not think that is the nature of craft
skills. Craft skills evolve. Tools change, tools develop. Very few carpenters and woodworkers do not
use electric drills today. Materials change. New materials appear. Craft skills are a moving target. I
think when your Arts Council lady says she is prioritising the innovative over the traditional, she is
recognising, to some extent, the fact that skills do develop new forms of art and in new ways. And I
think we should encourage that, too. I am glad you wanted a level playing field and not to prioritise
the other way. Even in traditional craft, tools change and materials change. So the word preservation I
query, and I would much rather sustain and encourage.
The main point is that craft skills are fundamental to all forms of making and designing, whether
you are talking about what we know traditionally as craft, or whether you are talking about highly
technical pumps or aircraft technology, in both of which this country excels, or bridge building, in
which it also excels, or the small object. The word I want to see more of is quality.
Glenn Adamson: Thank you very much.
Robin Wood: Can I come back on a couple of things?
Glenn Adamson: Can I just frame that question to you in a specific way, Robin, because we have
heard a lot from the two panellists and we have had a lot of challenges and complications suggested
in response to what you have said. I want to focus the question in a particular way, which is about the question of innovation of your own activities.
This struck me when we saw the picture of the Guardian photographer with his extremely new
camera, stuck into the face of this traditional craftsperson. It is something I have been thinking about
because of being on this television show we have both been on, Paul Martin’s Handmade Revolution,
airing the second week of October, BBC TWO. Available on iPlayer. Of course, what is happening
with the Heritage Crafts Association and the talk you gave us this morning is a highly innovative,
indeed, an unprecedented combination of social networking technology, the mechanisms of celebrity
–Prince Charles, for example—traditional craft skills, and the media landscape that all those media
studies students are learning to navigate. This seems to me to be a key source of the power of what
you are telling us and I wonder how you respond to the suggestion that you are at least as innovative
as you are traditional.
Robin Wood: Can I come to that question of innovation versus preservation last? There are two other
things I would like to talk about first. First off, I loved Tanya’s bit about wiring the plug. My dad is in
the audience today. He is capable of wiring a house. He is incredibly skilled in many ways that I am
not. I managed to leave school with a grade A in A-level physics without being able to wire a plug,
which I think is pretty good going. That just shows a decrease in a certain skill set.
I would like to pick up on Sir Nicholas’ point and the point raised in Tanya’s reading about the crafts
only surviving and should only survive if they remain economically viable. I surprisingly agree with
that. I do think that it is wrong to keep things going falsely when there is no use for the end product.
But we can, as some of the examples I showed, keep finding new products that have a meaning today
for the old skills and reinventing these things. That is what traditional craftspeople always have done.
Now finally to come to the preservation question. I do not know where the word ‘preservation’
came in. It was not one that I used and I would never use it. I totally agree with Sir Nicholas that
crafts should always be evolving, using the old skills to provide and produce something that has
relevance today, but I would disagree that they are necessarily safe if left entirely to market forces.
Within many of our other things, we have support networks to promote. The art world, for instance,
has a huge support network to promote. These traditional crafts do not have a support network to
promote them. It makes good business sense to market what you have got, and there is a tremendous
opportunity here to market heritage Britain. There is a survey that this sector has been mapped. It has
not been published yet but the sector as a whole generates 4.8 billion GDP of British economy which
is huge and there is no investment in marketing that at the moment, which is a tremendously lost
opportunity. When these things die out, it is not because they are not viable. They are viable. As I said,
seventy-eight percent are sole traders. When these people get to the end of their working life, if they
do not pass their skills on to the next generation, that business is going to fold, whether it is a viable
business or not. At the moment, we do not have a mechanism for passing that viable business from
the one old boy or old girl who is doing the job to the next generation.
Glenn Adamson: I think that question gets back to Sir Nicholas’ point about quality because we can
all agree that quality is what we want. The question is how we build a bridge to get to that place. Of
course, that is what QEST is all about, what the V&A is all about as well. Session One: Discussion
Glenn Adamson: Could we turn to the audience and have some questions?
Mark Henderson from Savile Row Bespoke: Robin, to everybody who has spoken, congratulations.
A lovely way of setting up this conference and discussion. First of all, I wanted to say I am convinced
that the market will find a way. Robin referred to his early revolutionary interest in growing his own
vegetables and being self-sustaining. I am sure that the area you are working on and craft in general
will win and come through.
I wanted to ask you about the use of digital, in particular, for preserving skills because one of the
things that struck me the other day—I happen to be a QEST trustee— was when we were listening
to somebody who was describing how she had rediscovered grinding stones in order to make
traditional inks, and that is something that could easily have disappeared but, in fact, is now unlikely
to disappear. I was thinking about the opportunity to preserve all this information digitally, to collect
it digitally and whether in fact that will be a significant part not in just preserving but in passing on
the skills that exist.
Robin Wood: I think that everyone who works within the field would agree that the very best possible
way to learn skills is passing it from one skilled craftsperson direct to the other as you are doing with
Savile Row Bespoke and the mentoring and apprenticeship programs there. We have this problem
with seventy-eight percent of these businesses being sole traders where that is not an easy situation
because for a sole trader, if you take an apprentice into your workshop, it changes your whole
routine. Oftentimes, their business is not big enough to pay an apprentice or to take the time out
from production work in order to donate the time to the training. In those situations, I think a digital
archive has a place.
I put a proposal together about ten years ago now for a digital archive and started looking for funding
for it, particularly for skills where we knew craftspeople were on the way out, for instance Trevor
Austen, the rake maker. I wanted to get that recorded so that some of those skills could be passed on,
or there would be something. When I started trying to learn bowl turning, if there had been a film of
George Lailey, it would have helped me enormously. You would still lose a lot of the subtle nuances
that you do get when you get direct transition, but you would save some of it, and I think there is a
place for it.
I would temper that with a note of caution in that oftentimes filmmakers go in and think it is a
question of pointing a camera at someone doing the job, and they will manage to capture what is
important. It is not that easy because when someone is just doing the job, the difficult bits just happen
without you seeing that they are happening. My ex-wife did a Ph.D. in the transfer of tacit knowledge
and recording that with digital technology. I could share that Ph.D. thesis with you. It is quite
interesting, but it is not straightforward.
Glenn Adamson: Another question.
Debate Attendee: I am a design student at Goldsmiths making lots of things. Right now, I have a
bunch of embroidery in my bag. My question is, as much as passing these skills from person to
person is the best way to do it, I do not think we can escape the fact that the majority of people are
going to be turning to sources such as YouTube, which I think is a digital archive that already exists
for all sorts of numbers of skills. When is the balance going to shift, or will it ever shift, from being the
craft of producing teaching aids for a digital marketplace rather than trying to balance the two? When
is it going to be that we will be working to teach a stranger that we will never see as hard as possible,
and then how to make that marketly viable? Robin Wood: There is an awful lot of people working in digital that are questioning how you make
it viable. The Guardian still have not worked out how to monetise their website. It is very difficult. It
is easy to get a lot of hits. It is easy to share knowledge. I have actually uploaded a lot of information
about my craft on to YouTube—films of me turning. I have got people who have learnt from those in
Japan, in the States, in Sweden, in Germany without ever having seen me, and quite a few of those are
now professional turners, doing what I do, so it is possible. But making it financially viable, if you can
work out how to do that, I would like to know.
Corrine Julius: I am Corrine Julius and I am a journalist and broadcaster so I am making in a slightly
different way. This is not really a question but it is to go back to the interest in making and if people
are going to appreciate making, they also have to do it. I just wanted to mention a scheme which really
relates to what Tanya is saying, which is being launched tomorrow by Daniel Charny, the curator
of ‘The Power of Making’, which is called ‘Fixperts’. This is a scheme by which he is going to put
people in touch, at the moment, with people who have particular needs related to illnesses like MS
with people who fix things and who create things. The relationship is going to be filmed and used in
tertiary education and, eventually, in secondary education. It is trying to get the excitement of trying
to solve things. It is getting people to see there is a problem and just maybe I could fix it, so that your
father could have taught you to fix something and all of those skills. When people get that excitement,
then they start to appreciate it. It is also a question of using some of the skills your members have and
transferring them, which is the second part of this conference, as to how those are used. I have always
felt there was some tension because of this competition for funds between the heritage branch and the
arts branch, and I think that is a shame. Really, we should all be pushing in the same direction.
Glenn Adamson: Thank you very much for that comment. We only have time for one more question.
Amanda Jones from the Crafts Council: Congratulations on your conference. We had ours yesterday
and I am still a bit shell-shocked because it was fundamentally something that a lot of us, including
me, made. I just wanted to actually pick up on what Robin said but to pick up more directly on what
Corrine said. I do not think it is or should or can be a competition. I think there is a continuum.
All things are valuable, but certainly Robin’s point about the fact that things need to be sustainable,
I think everybody has said is key. Yesterday, at our conference, we had two references to bespoke
tailoring, and we had a bespoke tailor who absolutely is working in a tradition that stretches as far
back in tailoring as it can go. He was taught it by somebody who tailored until they were ninety
and is no longer with us. He is now working with Professor Roger Kneebone. They are talking
together about how pattern cutting and surgical cutting can influence and help each other, and I
think that is as much a part of the continuum and that is as much a part of helping things to survive
as preservation, which I think we all agree is not necessarily the best word, but it is all important in
making the right people take notice of important skills.
Glenn Adamson: That seems like a wonderful place to leave it. I am sorry we do not have enough time
to continue but there will be, of course, time for conversation afterwards with all of our speakers. Can
I ask you to help me thank our first panel of speakers?