April 20, 2014
Robin Wood, craftsman
My interview with Robin Wood, Peak District-based wooden bowl turner and chairman of the Heritage Crafts Association, is in issue of Hole & Corner, out now.
Wood is an important spokesperson for modern craftsmen and women for several reasons, the most interesting one for me being his understanding of how craft works – always worked – in urban settings. He points out that because of the influence of Morris, Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts movement, the idea of “craft” in Britain tends to be seen as rural, or at least opposed to industry. Morris was unfamiliar with industry except for the weaving mills, and assumed all industrial labour was similarly de-skilled and unpleasant. It wasn’t. Industrial culture existed – and still exists – in natural and a rural settings, craftsmanship exists in cities.
As he explained to me, “If you look at the Sheffield tool industry, for example, it was effectively a collective of highly skilled individuals working collaboratively on the tools they were making. It wasn’t industrialised to the extent that it deskilled the job. They were incredibly skilled craftspeople, but the fact that they were working in a town-based industrial circumstances blinded people to that.”
This continues to blind people, some of them people with power that is ill-used as a result. Wood mentions a Sheffield council culture plan that in its 90 pages gives steel only two mentions, neither of them positive. We may have learned to value and preserve our industrial buildings, but in Sheffield there is precious little interest from the authorities in the remaining cutlers whose trade stretches back centuries. It is, as Wood says, like Stratford-Upon-Avon deciding to ignore Shakespeare. Why should craft, even if it is carried out in industrial settings rather than a smithy beside a village green with dancing maidens, be any less a part of life and culture than the arts?
“When I go round the workshops,” he said, “I get these people who are intelligent problem solvers – that’s what craftspeople are – and I’ll say, I want to make this, and they go, ‘hmm…I wonder how that’s been made, I wonder if we can do this… we could try this, we could try that…’ and they work it out. That intelligent problem solving is a very human thing. To me, it takes you right back to a monkey poking a stick at something to get some food; that link of hand and brain. It is part of what it is to be human.”
There is more about this and other aspects of Robin’s work in the interview. You can download a PDF of the feature, which has great photography by James McNaught, in three parts here: