Keeping craft alive

How the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust is offering a lifeline to skilled artisans keen to ensure more traditional practices can continue to thrive

Art and Design 14 Jun 2021

Watchmakers Craig and Rebecca Struthers
Woodcarver Amelia Crowley Roth
Goldsmith Kayo Saito
Milliner Deirdre Hawken

For years, craft was seen as art’s inferior relative. Paradoxically, it was only when artisan skills were vanishing at an alarming rate that we began putting a real value on them. The Heritage Crafts Association’s 2019 Red List of endangered crafts could be a metaphor for the slow but inexorable dissolution of our heritage and traditional way of life – lacrosse stick and cricket ball making are among others on the extinct list, while those we are losing include bell founding, scissor making, flute and piano making, damask weaving and parchment making.

Enter QEST, the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, a charity providing craftsmen and women with desperately needed scholarship grants to continue training and learning their skills from ageing masters or at institutions such as the Royal College of Art, or Williams & Cleal Furniture School in Devon. QEST was founded in 1990 by the Royal Warrant Holders Association on the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday, and today there are more than 600 alumni who have benefitted from these scholarships, to the tune of £5 million. QEST continues to award 30 or 40 scholarships a year and even in lockdown QEST managed to raise £300,000 and award 37.

Whip maker Mary Wing To
Whip maker Mary Wing To

I speak to QEST’s CEO Debbie Pocock just as the charity has spent a week interviewing 64 out of 250 candidates and awarding 26 scholarships of between  3,000 and  18,000. ‘These might not seem like huge amounts but they’re life changing. No donation is too small,’ Pocock says. ‘It’s tricky as we’re not a charity dealing with children, animals or healthcare but people do realise that if we lose our cultural heritage, it will have a dire impact on our creative industries.’ The charity’s patron is HRH The Prince of Wales and The Earl of Snowdon is vice patron. Both wrote introductions to QEST’s glossy book, A Celebration of British Craftsmanship, published in 2018.

Looking through the book, I notice how many sculptors and artists stand alongside embroiderers, bookbinders, calligraphers, blacksmiths, basket makers, glassblowers, signwriters, typefounders, wig, clog, thatch or braid makers, armourers, farriers, charcoal burners and cordwainers – to name just a few of the 100 crafts represented in the book. So, one of my first questions to Debbie Pocock is: what differentiates craft from art? ‘The line is increasingly blurred,’ she says, ‘but it really comes down to the materiality of craft. Something crafted is the creation of a physical object made from materials using hands and brain. It’s perhaps more based on learned skills and technique than art and there continues to be snobbishness around it, but the idea that only artists express feelings and emotions or have vision doesn’t seem right. All the craftspeople I know put their hearts and souls into their work.’

“Craft is no longer annexed to the realm of the quaint, it is a vital, vibrant part of our future culture

If it sounds like QEST is supporting such a hugely eclectic range of crafts for the sake of keeping some quaint traditional skills going, think again. ‘They all need to be commercial and sustainable and always at their core is a non-negotiable high level of excellence and quality,’ insists Pocock. ‘Even if there is a dwindling need for a skill, like harness and collar making for heavy horses, if there is still a viable commercial need, we will look to support it. She points to other obscure skills QEST has supported, giving scholarships to Robert Walker, who works in verre églomisé, the process of glass to produce a mirror finish, and Katherine Huskie, a glassblower who wanted to incorporate neon into her practice and so needed very specialist training.

Many of Britain’s specialist colleges and courses, particularly in sculpture, have closed so our craftsmen are leaving for courses in Florence and Pietrasanta. It’s a gloomy picture but there are encouraging initiatives to retain our skilled artisans here. Hugo Burge is a businessman boosting arts and crafts in the Scottish borders, by giving talented artisans space and resources at his base in Marchmont House. Make, a branch of Hauser + Wirth in Bruton, and Messums, a Wiltshire-based gallery focusing on the best craftsmen globally, are also bringing craftsmanship to a much wider audience.

Sculptor Tom Merrett
Sculptor Tom Merrett

More than 90 per cent of the 600 QEST Scholars are still practising their craft, some now renowned as world leaders in their field, like saddler Helen Reader, set to become president of the Master Saddlers Association in the autumn, or the well-known potter Julian Stair. Woodturner Eleanor Lakelin applied for a QEST Scholarship to work to scale and now has a piece in the V&A. Book and paper conservator Edward Cheese is now the accredited conservator, specialising in the care and repair of western manuscripts and books, at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. Rebecca Hellen, an art conservator, has recently become the specialist advisor for paintings conservation at The National Trust. ‘The career trajectories of our alumni really inspire aspiring Scholars,’ says Pocock. ‘From an applicant’s perspective, they provide a great example of what you can achieve.’

‘When people talk of biscuits or crisps being “hand-crafted”, it’s a shame because we must never dumb down or lose the true meaning of craft or craftsmanship,’ she says. ‘Running through our ethos is always our insistence on excellence but to sustain that excellence our craftsmen need to keep training and evolving. That might mean travelling to Bruges to train with a master in heraldry or calligraphy, or a silversmith learning enamelling to add to their skill set and broaden their abilities and output.’

Craft is no longer annexed to the realm of the quaint and curious. It is increasingly being recognised as a vital, vibrant part of our future culture, but it needs support. QEST has also collaborated with the Prince’s Foundation on a building arts programme examining how craftsmanship and traditional skills can be applied to the built environment. Based at Dumfries House in Scotland, the course involves architects, timber framers, stained glass specialists and stone masons among others, establishing how they can best work together.

‘It’s all very exciting but a constant emotional roller-coaster,’ laughs Pocock. ‘I’m so moved by our Scholars’ stories, passions and commitment. It’s so important people respond to that with their support so these skills can flourish and remain part of Britain’s cultural heritage.’

One such story comes from award-winning sculptor Thomas Merrett, who used his 2014 QEST Garfield Weston Foundation Scholarship to attend a sculpture workshop at the Florence Academy of Art. It taught him sustained focus and in 2016 he returned to Shoreditch with a body of work that might otherwise have taken him years to complete. He told his story at the 2018 A Celebration of Craft, QEST’s annual fundraising dinner at the V&A and completed his clay torso live for auction, to be cast for the winning bidder. He’s now teaching the next generation of QEST Scholars at City & Guilds.

Decorative artist Melissa White
Decorative artist Melissa White

Another intriguing tale comes from the late traditional whip maker Dennis Walmsley. He had never taught anyone before but, keen to master this very specialist skill, Mary Wing To begged him to take her on.

Eventually, thanks to a QEST Leathersellers’ Company Scholarship, he did, teaching her all about preparing the cane, plaiting and braiding the leather around the core and the collar’s silverwork. She did not intend to make whips for a living but when Walmsley died, she says, ‘I did not want his amazing skillset to disappear. When you know how to handle such a distinctive, versatile material, the possibilities are endless.’ Now a renowned leather artisan, designer and whip maker, Wing To founded her London-based studio, Whip in Hand, making bespoke whips and now works for Chanel, overseeing its leather goods, shoes and costume jewellery.

Another scholar proving the longevity of her skill is goldsmith Kayo Saito. Exhibited as one of Goldsmith Hall’s Rising Stars in 2007, Saito’s work is inspired by plants, trees and the natural world. Known for the exquisite delicacy of her creations, as fragile as paper, her 2016 QEST Scholarship allowed Saito to work with the natural form of semi-precious stones, cutting, carving and polishing them. Among others, she learnt from Charlotte De Syllas, an early QEST scholar, and is now adapting her workshop to evolve and handle stone as well as metal.

Passing on such specialist skills is a key component of QEST’s mission. Husband and wife watchmakers Craig and Rebecca Struthers won a design innovation award for their first collaboration on a rock crystal pendant watch. They are among just hundreds of specialist workers who remain in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter – in the early 1900s there were 30,000. A QEST Johnnie Walker Scholarship allowed Craig to learn vanishing skills from master Adam Phillips, nearing retirement. The Struthers are now making their own in-house watch movement, the first to be created in Birmingham for more than a century, inspired by one of the first machine-made English watch movements from 1880, picking up where late 19th-century British watchmaking left off.

Elsewhere, with a background in designing costumes and sets for West End shows and the Royal Opera House, milliner Deirdre Hawken is one of four QEST Scholars funded to study couture millinery with Rose Corey MBE, the Queen Mother’s former milliner. Inspired by the beauty of food, Hawken’s playful creations were displayed in a solo exhibition leading up to Royal Ascot 2018 in Halcyon Days, then in The Royal Exchange. Her hats are in the public collections of the V&A, the Kyoto Costume Institute and the Met in New York.

A Celebration of British Craftsmanship, photographed by Julian Calder and written by Karen Bennett with a foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales, is available to buy for £50;