Breathing new life into old at Grandey's Place Heritage & Craft Centre
Up on a hill to the south-west of Bishop’s Stortford lies a hidden treasure. Grandey’s Place Heritage & Craft Centre is home to a collective of some of the finest artists and craftspeople in the UK. In an occasional series on the array of talent on our doorstep, Helen Miller went along to find out more...
Patience, precision, attention to detail – just some of the words the craftspeople of Grandey’s Place use to sum up the qualities needed for their work.
From ceramics to millinery, figurative sculpture to custom leatherwork, the tenants here have trained and educated themselves to the highest levels of their respective craft. Among them are five experts in vintage restoration, who spend their days breathing new life into old.
My first stop is the workshop of Tom Vowden, who specialises in the conservation of historic stained glass. It is a day of early autumn sunshine and showers, and Tom’s double-height mezzanine studio is suffused with light from the floor-to-ceiling windows, showing off some wonderful examples of his work.
On the far wall is a library of jewel-coloured glass sheets, ready to be transformed into new designs or used to repair old. On the table in the centre of the studio lies a stunning Tudor-era panel depicting Philip II of Spain, which Tom has been commissioned to clean and restore.
Looks, however, can be deceptive. What we actually have here, Tom explains, is an elaborate imitation dating from about 1920, which a north London homeowner commissioned to complement some genuine Tudor panelling procured from the now demolished Enfield Palace. So how could he tell?
“The glass is actually in quite good condition. With medieval glass you see corrosion forming on it. And in this case, where they’ve painted on it, they’ve put dots on and rubbed away bits to make it look a lot older than it is. So, all of this looks like it’s weathered over hundreds of years but actually the artist has purposely done that to try to make the viewer think it’s a Tudor piece.”
Spool back ten years and you would have found Tom on scaffolding 80ft above the ground removing stained glass panels for restoration from the Great East Window of York Minster. Conservation work on the window, the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in Britain, took a decade and Tom spent three years on the project learning his craft, thanks to an apprenticeship with the York Glaziers Trust.
“It was really exciting to see the panels in a level of detail that nobody else quite does. You’d see little things such as thumb prints within the paint on the windows... so you’d realise that that’s 600 years old and the original artist had done that and it really puts you in touch with the person who previously worked on it.”
Patience is the watchword for Seth Kennedy, an antiquarian horologist who specialises in conserving antique pocket watches. He occupies a compact first-floor workshop where the visitor is greeted by a riot of fantastical machinery.
Seth covers all aspects of servicing and restoration of watches dating from the 17th to the mid 20th century, repairing complicated mechanisms to function as they would have when first made. The oldest pocket watch he restored dated from 1670, but with so much watchmaking knowledge lost over the centuries, learning on the job to rediscover past skills has been key.
“Watches were made not by one person but by whole groups of specialists who would each do their own little thing, and obviously now you don’t have any of that. So, you have to learn three, four dozen people’s trades to, in essence, be able to restore a watch.”
Seth shows me some of the heirloom pieces he has restored, sometimes fashioning minute replica components when restoration proved impossible. A particular joy of his work, he says, is getting to see the intricate beauty of the watch mechanism that no one else sees. Nowadays, he takes photographs to share with clients before closing the inner workings away.
“It’s a wonderful thing when you take an object which might have been inherited but stuck in a drawer for a couple of generations even, and then you can restore it and give it back to its owner in full working order. The sense of achievement and satisfaction from doing that work is always great.”
Seth also practises the craft of engine turning, a hand-powered, semi-mechanised process in which precise, delicate and repetitive patterns are engraved onto metal using a rose engine lathe. It was a technique frequently used to decorate watch cases from the late 18th century onwards and is used by Seth today to engrave his own replacement cases.
However, both watchmaking and engine turning are in serious danger of extinction. In fact, Grandey’s Place was set up in 2019 with the express purpose of sustaining and nurturing the UK’s native heritage crafts. On an individual level too, Seth takes his responsibility for passing on his skills very seriously and recently took on a part-time apprentice.
Across the corridor from Seth’s studio drifts the sound of a violin. Its source is the workshop of Anja Kuch, a luthier specialising in the repair and restoration of violins, violas and cellos, and who also carries out work on the instrument collection of the Royal Academy of Music.
Billeted around her workshop are injured instruments in various stages of repair and, on her workbench, a stunning English-made Joseph Hill cello, dating from the mid-18th century, which she has nearly finished restoring. Anja is also working on a late 17th-century violin – a major project she had put to one side until she felt she had developed all the necessary restoration skills to do it full justice.
“I’ve always liked fixing things,” she says. “I get really great satisfaction out of it and seeing, literally, an instrument heal up. You have a scratch or crack on it to repair and it’s like healing a wound. It’s very satisfactory.”
Anja, who is also a semi-professional violinist, undertakes all types of work including competitively priced “instrument MoTs” to make sure everything is in excellent working order and minor corrections such as regluing a seam or fitting a new bridge. Prices range from £40 for a simple sound post adjustment (carried out like keyhole surgery through the f-shaped sound holes at the front) to thousands for a complete restoration.
Her goal is to ensure any instrument, old or new, sounds as good as possible. Whatever the size of the job, it’s all in a day’s work for Anja, who sums it up like this: “I like problem solving. That’s the thrill of it in a way, thinking 'Yes! I’ve done it!'”
Back on the ground floor, Grandey’s resident upholsterers Trisha Anderson and Elaine O’Donovan share a mezzanine studio which is bursting at the seams with vintage sofas and armchairs. Working as The Crafted Upholstery Collective, they are on a combined mission to bring tired but beautiful furniture back to life using both traditional and modern upholstery skills.
“I think attention to detail is probably the most important thing,” says Elaine, “because the difference between an upholstered piece and a really well-upholstered piece is the small details... in the pattern matching of your top fabric, you can really tell a high-end piece from a high-street piece”.
The materials they use depend on the age of the furniture. Modern pieces are reupholstered with foam and a fire-retardant barrier cloth. However, furniture that predates 1950 is classed as “traditional” and can be upholstered with traditional materials that are in themselves naturally fire-resistant.
Traditional upholstery is built up in layers on the furniture frame and typically includes a layer of coarse hair-like coir (a by-product of coconut) for the base stuffing, which will then be covered with a tough fabric such as hessian and skilfully stitched down. Then there will be an all-important layer of fine stuffing comprised of “mixed hair” (primarily hog hair) for the comfort factor before that is encapsulated in cotton calico ready for the top fabric.
“Because it’s built up in layers, you need to develop specialist skills in stitching because you have to use that to form the shape of the pad that you’re creating,” says Trisha. “The stitching is really important, it gives [the upholstery] strength and it forms the shape you want. It’s almost like sculpting. You’re trying to follow a frame in the same way that you might if you were sculpting a figure.”
Elaine agrees. “For me the really beautiful work is done underneath because if you see a piece in the raw with all the stitching it really is a work of art.”
They both say that one of the most satisfying parts of their job is challenging the notion of the “throwaway society” and, rather than consigning old furniture to landfill, restoring pieces so they will last for decades to come.
In a sense what unites all the vintage restorers of Grandey’s Place is the desire to give beautiful objects a new lease of life; to preserve a piece of history using the centuries-old skills, tools and techniques of the craftspeople who have gone before them.
* Pre-booked tours of Grandey’s Place are available. Many tenants offer short craft courses: www.grandeysplace.co.uk.
* Nine Grandey’s craftspeople, including Tom and Seth, are Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) craft scholars: www.qest.org.uk.