Get your hands on work by potter and mosaicist Helen Baron and leatherworker Mark Angelo-Gizzi at Grandey's Place Heritage & Craft Centre in Hertfordshire
Down a winding road opposite Great Hadham Country Club lies Grandey's Place Heritage & Craft Centre, home to a collective of some of the finest artists and craftspeople in the UK. In the second of an occasional series, Helen Miller went along to find out more about the Hertfordshire crafters and the courses they have on offer...
Hertfordshire is home, workplace and a source of inspiration to local potter and mosaicist Helen Baron. To enter her large light-filled studio is to be greeted by an almost overwhelming collection of pots, domestic earthenware, tiles and mosaics, all of which are ranged like museum exhibits across multiple shelves and benches.
"The thing about clay," says Helen, "is it is unendingly versatile. And all of the different processes and treatments you can do with clay means you can find your own voice and you can make the thing that suits you, the thing that's most true to oneself."
Born in Much Hadham, schooled in Bishop's Stortford and trained in pottery from a young age by Eric Rankin, who taught at the then Hockerill Teacher Training College, one of Helen's ongoing interests is her Hertfordshire Mosaic Project.
Her vision is to complete, in collaboration with novice crafters, a huge Roman-style mosaic with a centrepiece of large panels depicting East Hertfordshire legends including the blind fiddler of Anstey, the dragon of Brent Pelham and the Old Man of Braughing.
These one metre square panels are still work in progress. However, the surrounding frame – a series of 40 smaller mosaics depicting the birds and animals of Hertfordshire edged by a twisty Roman border – is largely complete. The hope is eventually to exhibit the completed mosaic in an appropriately large space as it could reach 10 metres in length!
Like everything else in her studio, Helen makes all the mosaic pieces by hand, cutting the clay into tesserae with a pizza cutter before firing them in the kiln. Having worked in mosaic restoration after a degree in archaeology, it's clear she's inspired by the past.
"I am drawn to more rustic, more traditional, earthier pottery," says Helen. "I have no real interest in any of the high-end ceramics, like Derby porcelain. Although it's beautiful, you can't see the maker in it. You can see the brilliance of the execution and the skill and the science but you can't see the thumb prints. I want to see the thumb prints."
The closest she has got to finding her own voice in clay is in the "smoke and magic" of pit-fired pots, when the four elements of earth, water, fire and air come together to create something unique; pottery she describes as having "humanity and soul".
She takes pots she has thrown on the wheel and fired in the kiln at her studio at Grandey's Place to a specially dug pit in her back garden. There, she partially submerges them in sawdust, covers the exposed areas with oxides, metals, salt and organic matter, makes a bonfire and fires them in the pit, where the heat-generated chemical reactions within create wonderful stratified effects on the clay.
"I am the reverse of a control freak," says Helen. "I like to let the fire take over. I want the pot to look as if it's something natural, as if it's found its own way. These please me because they've done their own thing. It's the same with children, you know. You bring them up and then you hope they do their own thing."
Across the courtyard in an upstairs workshop, Mark Angelo-Gizzi is engrossed in hand-stitching a piece of leather at his workbench. Rolls of premium vegetable-tanned leather of every colour are rolled up on shelves, ready to be cut and fashioned into custom-made bags, satchels, keyrings and notebooks.
A Londoner by birth but a Hertfordshire man for many years, Mark discovered leatherworking 13 years ago when "all the stars aligned" and his freelance job in computer graphic design gave him enough free time to enrol on a leatherworking course. It ignited an interest which led to a career change. Along the way, Mark became a Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust craft scholar obtaining crucial grants for his training.
"I wasn't looking for shortcuts," he says. "Everything I do is done by hand – the cutting, the stitching and the finishing – using traditional tools and traditional methods. I really love the material. It's got a beauty and a utility that you don't find in a lot of other things."
Three years ago, by now a full-time master leatherworker, Mark took up residence at Grandey's Place, a philanthropic venture set up to help sustain native heritage crafts by providing affordable workspaces and a sense of community in which craftspeople can flourish.
The rural setting inspires Mark, who produces beautifully crafted, practical and unique leather goods here. Each piece is individually stitched by hand with a knotting technique used in saddlery which means that if one stitch fails, the item will not fall apart; something that machine stitching cannot rival.
"What I'm making are heirloom pieces that are made to last," says Mark. "You'd have to really go some to pull a hand-stitched bag apart!"
The traditional skills he uses today are identical to those used for hundreds of years so Mark is ideally placed to take on occasional leather restoration work. He has just finished repairing an intriguing piece of political history: a John Peck & Son carrying case for the ministerial despatch box of William Whiteley, who was the Labour chief whip for 13 years and served in Clement Atlee's post-war government.
The case, embossed with the initials WW and a GR royal cipher, arrived in a sorry state. The handle, top panel and straps had perished, meaning Mark had to replace them with new leather, distressed to match the original case.
"I bought in some London tan," he recalls. "I sanded it down, I stained it, I took it out into the car park and trod on it. I scratched it, I hammered it, polished it, took the polish off, re-stained it; all to try to make it look old but not be old. So the integrity of the leather is still there, really strong, but it looks hopefully 90 years old."
One aspect of his work Mark particularly enjoys is holding regular one-day belt-making courses for beginners. Other short, creative courses are also available at Grandey's Place including: letter carving with Wayne Hart; stained glass with Tom Vowden; hat making with Rose Collins; traditional upholstery with Trisha Anderson and Elaine O'Donovan; marble slip casting workshops with ceramicist Bryony Applegate; pewter casting, resin moulding and basic welding with Daniela Rubino and Lauren Wilson; corsetry with Nadia Dunne and figurative sculpture masterclasses with Poppy Field.
To enquire about pieces for sale by Helen and Mark, and to find out more about courses at Grandey's Place, visit www.grandeysplace.co.uk. Pre-booked monthly tours are held on the first Wednesday of each month but spaces are limited. There will be no tour in January 2023.