Handmade in Herts
PUBLISHED: 10:33 24 June 2014 | UPDATED: 10:33 24 June 2014
© Keith Collie 2012
We may live in a world of high technology and mass production, but Hertfordshire’s very own artisans are proving that passion rather than power tools can keep traditional craftsmanship alive
The first thing you notice when you walk into the studio at Rothschild and Bickers is the heat. Not surprising, when you discover that the furnace, at the very heart of the modestly-sized unit on an industrial estate in Hertford, is kept alight 24 hours a day, maintaining the glass kept inside it at a molten-state temperature of 1,100C. ‘It certainly isn’t very comfortable if we get a decent summer!’ laughs Victoria Rothschild who, with Mark Bickers and their small team, are among Britain’s last traditional glassblowers. From hundreds of similar studios which existed in this country just half a century ago, the number has now dwindled to around just 30. And Rothschild and Bickers is the only one that focuses on lighting.
‘We are glass makers. We want to keep the tradition of the handmade skill alive,’ Victoria explains. ‘There are still quite a few people who want to learn how to do it, but a lot of places are closing down because it’s unsustainable to run as a course; the equipment and the power to run the furnace constantly are so expensive. The best way to learn is to become an apprentice. Two members of our team started as apprentices with us, and we will be taking on another this year.’
It’s not for the faint-hearted. Apart from the often-searing temperature, the equipment is heavy and the work relentlessly repetitive. ‘As with any craft, it’s about the process, the timing, doing things the same way each time, learning to get the details correct. You need dedication. It generally takes about seven years of training before you can be called a proper master glassblower.’
The hand tools used at the company, which has been in business since 2007, are the same that have been used for hundreds of years, and the group sticks rigidly with traditional machinery and techniques. After being rolled into shape on an iron, the glass is cooled slowly in an annealing oven or ‘lehr’ for 24 hours, before cold finishing in the workshop. The piece then goes to the assembly area – a magical place of coloured glass lanterns, a rainbow of flexes and copper and bronze spinnings – where it is incorporated into one of the firm’s beautiful bespoke light fittings or part of its signature pendant collection.
The sophisticated, vintage-inspired designs (which start at £295) have become increasingly popular, with international clients such as Ted Baker, Harrods and Hilton Hotels but also with style-conscious homeowners. And Hertford residents flock to the annual Rothschild and Vickers open days held in December, not only to see the craft in action but to pick up a bargain too.
‘Christmas is the only time in the year we turn off the furnace, to give it a rest,’ Victoria says, ‘and so we have a big clear-out and sell the many samples we’ve accumulated over the previous months. People now want lighting that is high-quality and will last, just like a piece of furniture. We strive to make products that you would like to keep for ever, to grow old with, rather than just trendy objects with passing appeal.’
Walking along a residential street in Bushey, I hear the gentle refrain of a violin curl out of an open window, and I know I’m in the right place. Atelierviolins is a traditional instrument-making and restoration business belonging to Jed Murphy (pictured in his studio, right). From a simple shed in his back garden, Jed designs, builds and repairs fiddles and cellos by hand.
‘I use hardly any machinery, it’s almost all handtools,’ he explains, waving at the vast array of implements hung on the wall and scattered among the wood-shavings on the workbench ‘And I haven’t bought a new tool in 30 years. The only machinery I use is a bandsaw, for the initial rough-cutting work. I don’t like to put too many electrical tools near my violins. Electrical tools generate frequencies, vibrations. My feeling is that might not be a good thing – I don’t know if my wood is ready for that.’
The wood in question is maple for the back, sides and front of the instrument and spruce for the neck – all from Europe. ‘Bosnia is a great source of the finest woods,’ Jed explains. ‘I’ve tried American maple, but European is visually more beautiful, I think, and acoustically better as well.’
Jed has been working his craft for almost three decades, but it’s thanks to Mrs Murphy that he was able to turn his passion into a profession. ‘We were living in London and would visit Portobello Road antiques market at the weekends,’ he recalls. ‘Every week, I would buy an old violin, take it home to my shed and take it apart. Before long, she told me I should do it properly. She found a course in the musical-instrument faculty at the London Guildhall University, and it was the best thing I ever did.’
Today, he hand-builds up to 10 instruments a year. It takes around four weeks to craft a violin, and prices range from £400 to more than £1,500 for professional-standard pieces. He readily admits that time stands still in his workshop, and it’s a painstaking labour of love. ‘Of course there are modern techniques, and it’s important that we know about them, but I still like to work by ear and by touch. That’s how it’s always been for me, and I’ve produced some great-sounding instruments.’
Most of Jed’s customers are professional musicians, including the London Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic and the Adelaide Symphony orchestras. But restoration is what keeps him busiest. A violin which had been reversed over by a car was a challenge, as was another casualty closer to home: ‘I remember I had a lovely violin that I’d made and I’d carelessly placed it standing up against the wall in the house. My wife put her foot through it and it smashed into pieces. I gathered them all into a carrier bag and left it for months. Eventually I decided to have a go at putting it together and in the end there wasn’t a visible crack anywhere. If it’s made of wood, I can fix it!’
As a boy growing up around the beech woods of the Chilterns, Hamish Wynne would spend hours wittling sticks with his grandfather and climbing trees. Today, you’ll still find him in the woods, where he sources naturally-fallen timber to handcraft beautiful bespoke furniture at his carpenter’s workshop on the Gaddesden Estate near Hemel Hempstead. ‘I love trees and much prefer to see them standing rather than felled for man’s needs,’ he explains. ‘I prefer to work with wind-blown English oak, which comes from the Ashridge Estate, the Bowes Lyon Estate at Paul’s Walden and local landowners, tree surgeons and farmers. That way, I know from which tree and its exact location each piece of furniture is made. It’s important to me that each process has a minimal negative impact on the surroundings.’
Hamish holds such respect for his material that it’s only fitting that he employs the purest levels of traditional craftsmanship: there’s no mains power at the workshop (just a generator), which means no heavy-duty machinery. Instead, traditional handtools such as axes, froes, mauls and drawknives are used to hone and hammer. Joints are fixed using the traditional method of shipbuilder’s glue and oak pegs or handmade rose-headed nails. ‘The tools and techniques I use are hundreds of years old and are an important part of our rich heritage,’ Hamish says.
‘I have built a steam box for bending oak rails when making curved benches. I light a fire, made with off-cuts, under an old milk churn that contains eight gallons of water. When it reaches boiling point it feeds steam up through a network of copper pipes into the box that contains cleft oak rails. Holes in the pipes blast steam around the oak at about 90C. This heat has to be kept constant for about an hour to enable the chemical changes which elasticises the rails, allowing them to be bent. You have around 10 seconds of optimum bending time once the oak is removed from the steam box, so you have to work very precisely and quickly.’
All Hamish’s furniture is made to order, and a curved oak bench can take up to eight weeks to make and cost from £3,500. A couple of benches for Take That singer Mark Owen were a different story: ‘Each bench sat six to eight people and took 16 weeks to complete. They were actually too big to carry round to the back of his house, so to complicate matters I had to make them in a way that I could transport them whole, split them in two outside the house, carry them through, then reassemble in situ! But Mark and his wife Emma love them, which is the most important outcome.’
Hamish’s enthusiasm for his craft is certainly infectious, and his monthly workshops, which began in 2012 by public demand, give visitors the perfect opportunity to sample it themselves.
‘I talk about the oak, show people how to use each tool and help them make a platter or stool,’ he says.
‘There is always a roaring fire on cold days and a hearty picnic lunch – all those attending return home satisfied with their day’s work!’