Words Craig McLean
Photographs James McNaught
It takes Lawrence Neal a good few days – and a lifetime of experience –to make the traditional rush-seated chair designed by Ernest Gimson in the1890s. But when Neal retires next year, this endangered heritage craft will live on, thanks to an entrepreneur who first encountered them in his school library…
Nailed to the wall by the front door of the old, pre-War Co-op in the village of Stockton, Warwickshire, is a dusty engraving and an accompanying piece of text.
Very agreeable to go on a chair mending tour,’ begins the passage, just legible behind glass clouded with decades of wood motes. ‘What judges we should be of rushes and how knowingly, with a sheaf and a bottomless chair at our back, we should lounge on bridges looking over at osier beds.
This is an extract from Charles Dickens’ The Uncommercial Traveller – a series of sketches and reportage that appeared in his journal All The Year Round, founded in 1859.
‘Among all the innumerable occupations that cannot possibly be transacted without the assistance of lookers-on, chair mending may take a station in the first rank,’ writes the author. ‘When we sat down with our backs against the barn of the public house and began to mend, what a sense of popularity would grow upon us. When all the children came to look at us, and the tailor, and the general dealer, and the saddlers, and the groom from the great house, and the publican, and even two skittle players… what encouragement would be on us to plait and weave!’
Next to it, another clipping, is a photograph of two gentlemen craftspeople at the Royal Dairy Show in Olympia, London, 24-27 October 1961. ‘An exhibit organised by the Rural Industries Bureau on behalf of the many thousands of small country workshops in England and Wales,’ runs the caption.
Here in Lawrence Neal’s studio, nine miles from Rugby, history lies in the grain, the piles of shavings, the stacks of worked wood, the clots of cobwebs. There are no crowds of ‘lookers-on’, not even a stray skittle player. Nor is there the sense of kinship of ‘thousands of small country workshops’. There is, though, a firm sense of tradition – one drawing down through Dickens’ observations of an ancient British craft, and through the attendance of Neal’s father and grandfather at an agricultural show six decades ago.
Lawrence Neal makes rush-seated chairs. It’s an old village craft – the Heritage Crafts Association dates it to the 17th century –requiring ash, bulrush, and infinite skill and patience. He makes an average of 120 a year in batches of eight to 12 – it takes a good few days to make one chair – each selling for between £280 and £500. The rush-seated chair is furniture as everyday heirloom, a robust piece of craftsmanship handed down through families and generations, filling libraries and parlours, dining rooms and lecture halls. Anywhere people gather to learn, listen, talk, eat, they may sit on one of Lawrence’s handmade creations – sturdy pieces of utilitarian art that will last decades, if not centuries.
You might say there’s no rush. But at the same time, there is. Lawrence Neal is The Last Woven Rush Chair Maker. The HCA classifies the craft as ‘endangered’. Not many makers are doing what Lawrence is doing, and perhaps none are doing it with the generation-spanning heritage that he embodies. And, one year and one day from our meeting on the penultimate day of February 2019, on the occasion of 67-year-old Lawrence’s retirement, this workshop will close.
The age-old tradition of ash-and-rush chair making was revived in the early 19th century and revered by the Arts and Crafts Movement. Lawrence is a fifth-generation artisan, the repository of 200 years of experience. No measurements or designs are written down; everything is in his head, and his fingers. He cuts the plants from the rivers, fells the timber in the woods and makes his chairs in this workshop. From rush to tree to, well, human backside, he’s a complete cycle of creativity. The furniture maker as life improver, bending and shaping the natural world into elegant, practical comfort.
‘I’ve always liked using hand tools. I used to get in trouble for damaging things with hammers and chisels. Once I took some sandpaper
to the Welsh dresser…’
Over a mug of tea, Lawrence explains that ash ‘is the best and strongest wood for making chairs. It’s quite flexible, and doesn’t break easily at all.’ He mills the rounds of ash here in his workshop, splitting, sawing, turning, chiselling, shaving and sanding them down into the finely wrought spars, rails and legs required for his chairs.
As for the seat: the common bulrush isn’t, as most people think, ‘that thing with the brown top on. That’s the reed mace. These have a little seed on top. It’s a round rush, not a flat rush. When it dries it’s nice and soft and it twists easily – and it’s very strong when it’s twisted together.’
Lawrence gathers his rushes from the River Avon, nine or 10 miles away, stepping in with his chest waders and his large slashing hook, cutting at the end of June or beginning of July.
‘But you’re dependent on decent weather. If you get too much rain, the river’s too deep. But last summer was ideal for rush cutting. Although it was a bit hot.’
The seven-foot lengths of rush are brought back here, where they’re dried in stacks on the fence surrounding his small yard. After some mental arithmetic – he’s had no reason to think about this before – it’s decided that each chair might require around 2,500 feet of rushes. ‘But you’re throwing quite a bit away.’
It’s a design that’s tried and tested and true, one whose lineage he traces back to country chairmaker Phillip Clissett (1817- 1913), ‘who was making chairs down in Herefordshire,’ begins Lawrence as we sit out at the back of his workshop. ‘Ernest Gimson apprenticed himself to Clisset,’ he continues, ‘to learn how to make chairs, and then brought it back to the Cotswolds, where he was living at the time, and started making chairs there.’
Gimson (1864-1919) was an architect and furniture designer who would go on to become one of the leading lights of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Grade I-listed Gimson’s Memorial Library at Bedales School in Hampshire is a wooden wonderland, filled with rush-seated chairs.
As Lawrence writes on his website: ‘Gimson’s aim was to prove that well designed and skilfully made chairs that can be produced by village craftsmen and be comparable with the best work of the old chair makers. The combination of English woodland timber and rushes create a unique, light but strong and lasting piece of furniture, with an honest, unassuming beauty.’
After Gimson, the tradition was carried on by Edward Gardiner. He worked at the local family sawmill in Gloucestershire and was persuaded by Gimson to start making chairs. When the sawmill business relocated to Warwickshire, Gardiner moved his workshop with it. After a pause necessitated by the First World War, chair making resumed in the Twenties. ‘He eventually opened up a workshop at Priors Marston, which is a few miles from here. And my dad was apprenticed to Gardiner in 1939, when he was 14.’
After Gardiner died, Neville Neal moved here to Stockton in 1960. The old Co-op was derelict; Neville bought it for £250, and turned it into this workshop. Young Lawrence was never far away.
‘I’ve always liked using hand tools. If I wasn’t helping Dad here in the workshop, I was doing something at home. I used to get in trouble for damaging things with hammers and chisels. On one occasion I took some sandpaper to the Welsh dresser. I thought it needed sanding down!’
He was groomed to follow in his father’s footsteps and, leaving school at 15 in 1966, he started working with his dad straight away. It wasn’t what we’d call a formal apprenticeship. ‘My dad didn’t do a lot, really. He just used to say, “Turn those”, or “Make these”. There wasn’t a huge amount of instruction. Just practise, really.’
Neville Neal retired in 1992 (‘but he’d come back and do some rush seating from time to time’), leaving Lawrence to carry on alone. ‘The solitary nature didn’t bother me too much,’ he reflects. ‘I suppose in the winter it can be a bit grim, shut inside. And if you’re doing rush seating all the time, that’s the most tedious part, the slowest bit. It takes five or six hours to do a seat properly, weaving and twisting.’
At least he was busy. The demand, he says, has been constant down the decades, Gimson’s designs withstanding the vagaries of fashion. ‘The whole time I’ve been doing it, there’s only been a couple of times we’ve been a bit short of work. Now we have seven or eight months’ work on order. It’s usually pretty steady.’
Most of his chairs are destined for the southeast, ‘and quite a bit to the Cotswolds. They tend to be fairly well-off people, mostly. Quite a lot of interior design companies now buy the chairs. The biggest order I’ve been involved in is 67 chairs for a hotel in Shrewsbury. That’s quite a lot. ‘You get the odd single chair order, but mostly they’re sets of six or eight. We’re just making a set of 12 for somebody, actually. They must have a big dining table.’
Bedales is one of his regular customers. ‘There’s loads in there because Edward Gardiner made a lot for the library. Nearly every year I make a few. And there’s a lots of ex-pupils of Bedales buy our chairs, to remind themselves I suppose,’ he chuckles, ‘of sitting on them at school.’
Hugo Burge is one of those ex-pupils. ‘My love for rush-seated chairs comes from spending a lot of time in Bedales library, where I would defy anyone to not let wood get under their skin and into their soul,’ says the 47-year-old co-founder of digital investment fund Howzat Media. ‘And at the heart of that extraordinarily beautiful building is the rush-seated chair.’
The businessman is a patron and custodian of the Arts and Crafts tradition. It’s a passion that finds form in the art that fills Marchmont House. It’s a 50,000 sq ft, 18th-century Palladian mansion 40 miles southwest of Edinburgh that Burge and his father have painstakingly restored from its most recent incarnation as a care home. In 2018 the Burges won the Historic Houses/Sotheby’s Restoration Award.
‘The first bits of furniture I bought after leaving university were six seats from Lawrence,’ recalls Burge. ‘And as we were doing up Marchmont it was clear to me that the rush-seated chair was a symbol of something incredibly important in craftsmanship, and the heritage of craftsmanship in the United Kingdom.
‘It’s an icon of the Arts & Crafts Movement, appropriated by Gimson, by Lutyens, by Baillie Scott, by Voysey, by William Morris himself. This chair represents something very special.’
Such is Hugo’s passion for Lawrence’s work that he was determined the Warwickshire village artist wouldn’t, in fact, be The Last Rush Chair Maker. So he’s funding an apprenticeship programme at Stockton. On the day I visit, Sam Cooper, 26, from London, and Richard Platt, 23, from Worcester, sit with us in the sunshine, carving spoons – a hobby that was their route into chairmaking.
Last spring, both saw a Facebook posting from Robin Wood of the Heritage Crafts Association, advertising two places working with a rush seated chair maker. Forty-odd applicants were whittled down by Wood and Burge, then Neal interviewed around a dozen here. Sam Cooper and Richard Platt made the cut.
Naturally skilled woodworkers both, they’re learning at the master’s knee in Lawrence’s final year of full operation. Then, on 1 March 2020, 60 years after Neville Neal opened in his workshop, Cooper and Platt will relocate Lawrence Neal’s business to Scotland, to the Marchmont estate. There, Burge is busy converting a garage space into a chairmaking workshop six times the size of the Stockton premises. His plan is for it to become, ‘a central anchor for a small community of makers at Marchmont. I’m very excited about building an Arts & Crafts-style community – with, at the heart of that, this Gimson legacy.’
And what will the craftsman himself be feeling a year from now, when his skills move onwards and northwards, in the hands of two twentysomethings who will become the sixth generation of rush-seated chair makers?
‘I will be wondering a little bit what it’ll be like when I’m not coming here every day,’ Neal says, with a soft, rueful smile. ‘It had been preying on my mind what was going to happen – I didn’t want this tradition to end. So I’ll also be quite relieved that it is going to carry on. Forever, hopefully.’
To paraphrase Dickens: it seems that chairmaking may again take a station in the first rank.