We’re good at making furniture. We’ve made more lovely things over the past three and a half decades than there are screws in the screw-box. Stack all the lovely things on top of each other and climb to the pinnacle and you could see all the way to Powys Castle where once grew the Oaks that provided the planks that now form the pews that support the parishioners of St Thomas of Canterbury Church in Goring on Thames. However, so keen are we to get on with making something else when the last one was finished that we often forget to make proper record of what we made before.
So, in an attempt to put right this oversight, my colleague Diane (camera, trigger-finger, and virtual rolls of 35mm celluloid) and I (Granny’s battered vintage Harrods suitcase full of mostly unnecessary lighting equipment) went for a day’s meanderings through the quads, naves and stairwells of Oxford. In a packed itinerary we began with a particularly pleasing triptych of work in colleges at the Old Radcliffe end of the Woodstock road: Somerville, St Anne’s and Green Templeton. In the library of Somerville College, somewhat startled by the early appearance of a Christmas tree (in November, dear reader!) we found both refurbished and new chairs, then stalked the dining hall for our replacement versions of their existing chairs. It was good to find that a) they were hard to pick out of the crowd (sign of a good replica), and b) when found they felt as solid and squeak-free as the day we delivered them.
Then it was across to St Anne’s College, past numerous of Barbara Hepworth’s sketches, and into their dining hall to snap the single biggest batch of work it has ever been our good fortune to make: 300 chairs with upholstered seats and 50 stackable tables, all in Ash and all (notwithstanding a fair few years of three meals a day) looking in really good shape. Didn’t manage to find my late Aunt Mibs’s chair amongst the throng (St Anne’s student C.1960), but you can’t have everything. And so, we hot-foot across the road to Green Templeton College’s Kawasaki Room where one of our biggest ever one-piece tables (15ft x 6ft) has a happy home, surrounded by 16 lovely chairs. Built in prime Oak, the table top has a Black Walnut inlaid representation of the ‘Rod of Aesculapius’ (two snakes fighting over a walking stick, to the uninitiated – often seen on medical paraphernalia). This emblem is the central component of the college crest, flanked by nautilus shells. These shells are a naturally occurring example of the mathematical Fibonacci Sequence, where the two previous number add up to make the subsequent one; 1,1,2,3,5,8 and so on, which we used as the inspiration for the spacings in the ladderback of the chairs.
Moving swiftly on, we returned to the faithful steed (a ten year old Suzuki Swift) and straight down the Woodstock Road to St Peter’s Church, Wolvercote. Unfortunately we were too early for the adjoining cafe, finest lemon drizzle cake in the region, but the furniture was all present and correct and camera-ready. Here in 2013 we repaired and repolished the original pews in the central nave, as well and making new stackable pews and other incidentals designed to blend with them in the north aisle, and accompanying music stands and clergy chairs. Worth the price of admission alone, St Peter’s is also home to the tallest cupboard we have ever made. Where else were they going to keep the ladder for changing the roof lights?
Mustn’t dawdle, back in the car, back into town, and along to Mansfield College. Here, overlooking the quad’s grassy knoll which is surmounted by a striking Anthony Gormley statue (complete with, according to Cherwell online magazine, a ‘gravity-defying penis’), we take pictures of a bookcase, a window seat, dining tables, and chairs both new and refurbished, all of which were well-behaved and did not defy gravity. Then, a hundred yards further on, we park on Saville Road – a snip at £5 for 3 hours – it’s twelve o’clock and we’re due in the Founder’s Dining Room, Corpus Christi College. Sadly not for a slap-up feed, but as with the rest of our itinerary the furniture’s excellent: a table base inspired by the mediaeval roof beams and fourteen high backed leather-clad armchairs complete with attendant totem animals; pelicans, tortoises, foxes and owls. The college president’s wife told me on a subsequent visit that sitting in them made her ‘feel like Lady Macbeth’, which I thought best to consider a compliment.
Over the cobbles of Merton Street, past very fine noticeboards by yours truly in Merton’s Lodge, down Logic Lane, straight across the High Street (mind that bus!) and up the steps of Queen’s College. We stuck our heads round the door of the dining room, but our chairs there only get to come out for parties, and today was not a party day. Never mind, the library was open, and the ever-welcoming librarians put the kettle on and rolled out the biscuit barrel. Photo opps here include the new chairs and reader tables, a book returns cabinet, and restored original chairs and tables with red leather panels in the tops, designed in the 1840s by Charles Robert Cockerell, professor of architecture at the Royal Academy. Also, a large exhibition case that has the good fortune to spend its days in the magnificent Upper Library, a room so glorious that it features on a list of ‘The Top Ten Libraries You Must See Before You Die’. Nine more to go then I can shuffle off…
This suitcase is getting heavy, so after restorative tea and biccies (thank you again, O most hospitable librarians in Oxford!), we’re back to the car via Bodleian Library shop window – lovely desk lamps and chairs – out of town and off up the M40 to our last port of call, the church of Saints Peter and Paul, Stokenchurch. Here there are many links to Bates and Lambourne. We have made benches in the churchyard and the company of CR Bates (Richard Bates’ grandfather) built the lychgate in 1946, in memory of the members of the Stokenchurch Choir who lost their lives in the Second World War. In 2013 we made the stackable pews, pew fronts and nave table for the church’s internal refurbishment. Brief glitch when we found the door locked, but a quick phone call brought a kind vicar in a tracksuit with a key in hand. Once inside, it was great to see everything looking so well used, whilst being in such good order.
Eight hours, eight different projects in different settings and styles, all looking well seated in their respective homes, some looking a bit older, but all still looking good, well-loved and cared for. Can’t ask for much more than that, now can we?
Thank you to all the bursars, librarians, porters, churchwardens and vicars who let us into their domains with our camera and vintage suitcase, it is much appreciated. The full results will be appearing in due course on our website once it has had a long overdue overhaul in early 2016. In the meantime, may I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year. If you are reading this in 2016, I hope you had a good one.
Josh H-S 20 Dec 2015