By Hugo Burge, Old Bedalian 1985-1990
It was a very special experience to return to Bedales and celebrate the history of the Bedales chair – giving a Jaw to students and other guests, showing our film The Chairmaker and taking questions. After all, this is where my curiosity (and I confess a slight obsession) with rush seat chairs all began. Sitting in those chairs, in that majestic library and under the spell of the wonderful David Butcher (staff 1963-92), wood, design and the Arts and Crafts movement got under my skin and started an unexpected journey. So, what is the history of these chairs? And why have we made a film that we brought to show everyone in the Lupton Hall? What does the chair symbolise when thinking about broader questions of design, longevity and sustainability?
The history of the Bedales chair is an under-told story but sits at the heart of the beautiful Bedales Memorial Library, arguably the ethos of the school and – more broadly – of the Arts and Crafts movement. Designed by Ernest Gimson, the visionary behind the extraordinary library and Lupton Hall that we have all come to love, the Bedales chair not only represents a long multi-generational tradition of making but also is a living tradition that has been under threat. Lawrence Neal has been making rush seat chairs for 50 years, learning from his father – who made them for 61 years, who learned from Edward Gardiner, who was directly apprenticed to Ernest Gimson. It is little known that you can look at many chairs in the library and see who made them by the stamp with their name on. Each chair has a story, a specific maker and embodies hundreds of years of tradition.
So, how did I get involved? Upon leaving university my first significant purchase of furniture was six chairs from Lawrence Neal in 1994 – I simply felt that this was the most accessible reminder and embodiment of the library that I had come to love. More recently, when doing up a house in Scotland which was substantially re-modelled by the leading Scottish arts and crafts designer Sir Robert Lorimer (who has parallels to Gimson and Lutyens) my interest in rush seat chairs grew. This humble chair structure, perhaps the first mass-produced chair in Britain, was appropriated by the Arts and Crafts greats of the time – Ernest Gimson, Edwin Lutyens, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, William Morris, William Burgess, Charles Francis Annesley Voysey and more. So, as my curiosity and our collection grew, I became aware that newly purchased chairs kept having to go to Lawrence Neal to repair and restore. Was there no one else? After all, Lawrence had at least a six month waiting list. I later came to understand that Lawrence might be the last person in Britain making and repairing these chairs for a living, having raised a family on the back of it.
When visiting his history-layered workshop, with his father’s SAS cap nonchalantly hanging on the back of the door, covered in layers of dust, I was struck by the beauty of the place and felt compelled to want to capture it in some way. Then, understanding that this lineage was under threat because Lawrence needed to sell the workshop to retire, and wanting to capture his story and all the history – I agreed to make a film with Falcon Productions. The resulting film has tried to capture the beauty of the chair making, the history of the chairs, Lawrence’s story and the living tradition. At the school, we also unveiled a short additional clip, celebrating the Bedales chair, with Matthew Rice (1975-80) reflecting on its iconic status, whilst David Snowdon harks back to the time he learned to make them in the woods, speaking to its humble origins but noble enduring nature.
The film includes a provocation that suggests that in order to ensure ongoing craftsmanship with such a long history, we need to make conscious decisions to enable its survival, from celebrating the people who make them to deciding which products to buy. The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against the industrial revolution in a period of massive change and wealth creation. William Morris (who inspired Gimson) felt that we needed to celebrate the craftsman,nature and hand-crafted beauty of things that we bought. In many ways there was a tension at the heart of his message since, as a devout socialist, he really became a purveyor of luxury goods to the wealthy. Today, we are experiencing a powerful information and technology revolution, that again is creating a complementary ground swell of interest in locally made things that are sustainable, can endure and have a story. Some great questions came up from students during the Lupton Hall film screening, that asked about the importance of mass-produced machine-made products. How do we find balance in an age of global consumerism? How can we seek sustainability? Clearly individually hand-made things are not the only answer, but they form an important balance and perhaps can also have a lasting impact, in the same way that the Arts and Crafts movement impacted design and furniture making in the 21st century.
So, next time you are in the Library, do sit on a Bedales chair and become aware of its wonderful history, the broader story it is part of and the symbol it represents as a handcrafted creation that is both timeless and subject to considerable longevity (even when exposed to the rough and tumble of school life).
In a cheery footnote to the Bedales Chair story, with the help of the Heritage Craft Association, we have managed to secure two apprentices to learn Lawrence’s craft to ensure that it endures for generations to come. When the apprentices have come of age and Lawrence says that they can stand on their own two feet, the workshops – with all the tools dating back to Ernest Gimson’s time at Daneway, will be moving up to new workshops in the old stables at Marchmont House in the Scottish Borders, so the lineage starts a new chapter that we hope will continue to evolve, inspire and endure.
There is an opportunity to bid for a specially commissioned Library Chair in the John Badley Foundation fundraising auction. See here to browse the auction lots – with new items added.