The Gold Experience
Words Jim Butler
Photographs Brian Doherty
Colin Mullins is many things – gilder, inventor, ‘ideas man’ and raconteur – but it all boils down to a love of process, of doing things the right way: an attitude that has seen him spread his knowledge through the corridors of power – including the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. Not bad for a kid who left school unable to read or write…
What is the definition of a life well lived? Is it the accumulation of colourful tales that one can recount down the pub? What about a journey rich in friendship? A life fired by a furtive imagination and spent creating? Or is it the warm glow that is provided by merely being comfortable in one’s own skin?
However you slice it, Colin Mullins’ life has been little short of extraordinary. He proudly calls himself an artisan – ‘Someone who actually practises their skill to the best of their ability, and passes on that knowledge,’ as he explains modestly. However, as a gilder, an ecclesiastical colour man, an engineer, an inventor, a tradesman, a creative director and much more besides, Mullins’ work could be said to reside in that lofty stratosphere occupied by conceptual artists.
‘I’d say that’s a great word,’ he laughs. ‘A conceptual artist, yeah. It’s a good way of describing my mind and the way I think.’
And yet, despite working on notable projects at Buckingham Palace, Hampton Court, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, Mullins remains resolutely, remarkably and endearingly grounded. On more than one occasion it’s been put to him that his inquisitive mind would be successful in the world of advertising. When he was living in Australia, an acquaintance that worked at arch ad agency McCann Erickson tried to headhunt him as an ideas man. Then, and on subsequent occasions since, he demurred. ‘They thought my concept of visuals and ideas in that world of advertising and marketing was brilliant,’ he recalls. ‘But I still liked that physical touch of powder, of pigment, of gold leaf…’
‘The nice thing about my work is that I don’t know what I’m going to be offered next,’ he continues. ‘When that phone rings it could be anything – from designing a coat of arms to formulating a concept for using glues.’
To wit: when he picked me up from Crewe station on a grey, overcast November morning the day after Donald Trump was named president-elect and thus Leader of the Free World, we took a short drive to the UK headquarters of Bentley Motors. There, outside the company’s Art Deco façade, was a heraldic coat of arms designed and brought to life by Mullins. As for the glue, well, he once wrapped Stella McCartney’s London showroom in dress fabric. ‘They didn’t think it could be done,’ he explains later in the kitchen of his home in nearby Nantwich. ‘I ended up working on an adhesive that recognised substrates [the material onto which a medium – in this case, the dress fabric – is applied]. I blended different polymers and wrapped the various shapes in fabrics.’
Over the course of several cups of coffee he proceeds to weave the magical tale of his life. It takes in underage yarns on Eel Pie Island; dodging mods’ scooters as they were slung from Brighton Pier by raucous rockers; drinking a bottle of Captain James Cook’s wine; pitching an ambitious idea for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games… and all culminating in arguably the greatest dad joke of all time as he explains how he is ‘one of the few men to have touched up the Queen’s organ!’.
All in all, not bad for a sexagenarian who was asked to leave school before the age of 14, being unable to read or write. (Today, he’s a big fan of smartphone technology.)
Colin Mullins talks a lot about knowledge. He places great stock in doing things properly – the way they’ve always been done. For his part, he says he is merely a custodian of these traditions and the knowledge that was passed down to him through the generations. ‘When I drop down dead, hopefully I will have passed some skills onto someone to follow on that path,’ he says. ‘I’m a vessel for transferring knowledge of an old skill.’
He begins to talk about the process of gilding – the art of laying gold leaf – and how it stems from the beginnings of history. ‘It goes back to before Egyptian times really,’ he explains. ‘The Incas were one of the first to use gilding for the Sun God. I just say that I’m carrying on a tradition from that time to now – it’s the same belief they had then that I use now. Using it as an artform. It’s still a process.’Process is another word that peppers Mullins’ conversation regularly. The process of oil gilding vis-à-vis water gilding; the process of analysing work before commencing; applying the right process for the right medium; the process of being inspired and visualising a finished piece.
Unfortunately, Mullins fears that we’re losing these processes – the backbone of his work – and all their acquired knowledge. ‘A lot of the old ways and techniques that were previously handed down from father to son and mother to daughter – there were a lot of women that knew the crafts, some of those illuminated books were done by nuns – have been forgotten,’ he laments.
Incredibly, his love of the process was stoked in the most unlikely of places. That it came as a consequence of being asked to leave school shortly before his 14th birthday – what for many could have been a hammer blow to any creative ambitions – makes it all the sweeter. ‘At first I was ashamed,’ he admits. ‘I couldn’t get into any colleges because I couldn’t read or write.’
But serendipity intervened. His father knew someone who worked at diamond manufacturers De Beers. A new department with the novel title of ‘Research & Development’ was being set up and they were looking for young people to go in. He secured an interview, which was thankfully visual. On the desk in front of him were two pens placed at wildly contrasting angles. One of the interviewers asked him to put the pens exactly parallel.
‘I get up in the morning and I like to think, “come on, let’s make something happen…”
‘I automatically did it,’ he says, the sense of wonder in his voice not dulled by an event that happened half a century ago. ‘And the man said, “You’ve got the job”. It was as simple as that! It proved I had a visual eye. And I think how I work today stems from that.’
That was Mullins’ introduction to the maverick that was Alec Leibowitz. An oft-infuriating character to work for – his interpersonal skills were negligible – he was nonetheless something of a mentor for Mullins. Leibowitz instilled in his young charges an unstinting work ethic and a discipline that meant work was consistently honed until it was perfect. Up to that point, objects that weren’t up to Leibowitz’s exacting standards would be unceremoniously thrown on the floor.
‘It was all about self-reliance I guess,’ Mullins says. ‘Working at something until you got it right. You didn’t know what was wrong with it. You knew roughly how they were made, but you had to get it right. It was all about learning the process. I think it had a great influence on me. It created the creative mind that I use in my work, whether that be historical or contemporary, and whatever way I look at processes and the way I operate.’
He’s quick to provide a timely example. Dorfold Hall, a Jacobean mansion close to Nantwich, asked Mullins to look at a plinth supporting a cast-iron statue. The plinth had snapped in two and was delaminating. He analysed the plinth, took pictures, examined what needed doing, took fragments away and worked out how he would pull it apart and clean it.
‘We have to give our youngsters time to learn properly. It’s not a quick fix. It’s a long journey’
‘That gave me the process,’ he notes. ‘And it all stems from my time at De Beers with Alec Leibowitz.’
It’s this mindset that gave Mullins the confidence to work at Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, the Houses of Parliament and beyond. Once at ‘Buck House’ he began to plant seeds. He wanted to see if there was an opportunity to work there as an artisan. So from restoring artwork, he progressed to using gold leaf on the main organ in the ballroom – (hence ‘touching up the Queen’s organ’).
‘I’m inspired by the other artisans that have been there before me,’ he bashfully recounts. ‘We should respect the craftsmanship. That organ at Buckingham Palace – I had to put a cantis leaf in artwork on top of gold leaf, on a moulding, as part of the work I did. I did a cross on a half circle of a moulding. You try and work that out to be absolutely precise and measured correctly – it’s not as easy as you think.’
Again, it’s Mullins’ attention to detail that really stands out. Listening to him explain the minutiae of gilding is fascinating. He rhapsodises in his robust London twang (with shades of Roger Daltrey) about the drying, the oils used, the enamels, the burnishing and cleaning, the straining, using the right brushes, laying your size evenly (pulling it across the surface in very thin layers) for what seems like eons. He’s mesmerising.
‘It’s a very intricate process,’ he explains. ‘The only thing you don’t do is breath heavily when you lay the leaf. Once you lay it, the less interference the better – so I use a lot of Kolinsky sables [brushes] when laying my leaf, and I leave it as long as possible. The longer the better – as long as it’s adhered correctly. I sometimes leave it up to three weeks, which generally is never heard of – but I go back to what my family taught me and the old ways of doing it.’
It’s the fear of losing this knowledge, passed orally down the generations, that fires Mullins. He believes that without this information gleaned from years of experience, tomorrow’s craftsmen will lack some of the requisite basic skills. This ties into his belief that we need to inspire young people to see creative pursuits as a noble way to make a living – in particular for those children who aren’t considered ‘intelligent’ by today’s increasingly narrow definitions.
‘I do think we’re missing a golden opportunity,’ he sighs. ‘I think a lot of governments – sorry to talk about politics on a day like today – forget the importance of visual experiences for youngsters. And inspiring them. Don’t get me wrong, education is vitally important for youngsters. But I think sometimes it can be done through a visual experience – or what some people call true apprenticeships’.
‘And that’s the other thing I think we’re lacking in this country: a proper apprenticeship scheme like it used to be – and that’s over four to seven years – that might inspire some youngsters who, instead of going to university, can go there and learn a craft, in any field. We have to give our youngsters time to learn properly. It’s not a quick fix. It’s a long journey. Even at the age I am, I’m still learning. And I think that’s important – always keep an open mind to absorb and learn more.’
However, for all the talk of tradition, heritage and doing things properly, Mullins is far removed from being another sepia-tinged, reactionary nostalgist. He speaks with verve and appreciation about modern technology – from 3D printing to iPads – and modern artists such as Banksy. At one point he talks of taking a photo and making a collage on top of it, using mediums such as fabric to transform a 2D piece into 3D. If his astonishing pitch for the 2012 opening ceremony, invoking the glory of steam power and the North, had come to fruition it would have taken Danny Boyle’s extravaganza into another dimension. To his credit, Mullins hasn’t put his staggering idea to bed.
In many senses, Colin Mullins is a mercurial character – he cherishes the skills of the past and then, in the next breath, wildly extols the virtues of the modern world and the white heat of innovation. Ask him what work he’s most proud of and, after a moment’s thought, he chooses gilding the gates of the Duke of Westminster’s gates at Eaton Hall, close by in Cheshire. ‘I spent a lot of time on that – just under two years – and the Duke and Duchess very kindly gave me the time to do it correctly,’ he beams.
‘The process was correct. It was a difficult substrate to go on to because of what the people had done before, but that happens in life. But I did it to the best of my ability and in the traditional way. So I used the old mediums, in the right manner and hopefully the right process. There is a lot of gold leaf on there.’
His journey has taken him from London to Australia – where, as a music fan, he had an unlikely stint as a pioneering DJ, met Ray Charles and, somehow, ended up conducting a light show for Kraftwerk on their fi rst Australian tour (‘They said it was the best light show they’d had,’ he laughs) – and back to the UK again.
‘I think the most important thing I’ve gained on this journey is that you have to keep on learning,’ he acknowledges. ‘I get up in the morning and I like to think, “Come on, let’s make something happen”.’
Consequently, the journey – abandoning that word’s hijacking by reality TV for one second – has been both literal and metaphorical.
‘Yes, it has,’ he replies. ‘Australia, Norfolk Island…’Ah, yes, Captain Cook’s booze. A fitting place to end. He laughs.
‘I don’t know if it was his wine, or if our hosts on Norfolk Island were embellishing it, but they were certainly very proud of these bottles of wine that they said Captain Cook brought with him on his ship. Anyway, we’d all had a few sherbets too many and everyone got carried away and we thought, “we’ll try this”. The first bottle was just a heavy glutinous mass of liquid – it had binded itself together. I can’t remember if it was a port or not. It might have been a red wine and obviously over the years it had fortified. The second bottle, however…’
He stops for a second, and a wry smile appears. ‘Yeah, that tasted good actually.’A life certainly worth living, all right.