Carefully crafted and a favourite of Queen Victoria, a Winsor and Newton paintbrush is a work of art in itself, says Clive Aslet, as he reports from the firm’s factory.
Fortnum & Mason, Morecambe and Wise, steak and kidney — these are some of the great partnerships of British life. another, to those of artistic bent, is Winsor and Newton (www.winsornewton.com), the firm that began in 1832 as a clever collaboration between a chemist, William Winsor, and an artist, Henry Newton.
Their development of paint in tubes arguably changed the course of art: could there have been the en plein air of Impressionism without it? ‘Your business, Winsor, is to make colour. Mine is to use them,’ replied an ungracious J. M. W. Turner after it was observed that some of his tints might prove fugitive and museum curators have been regretting his stubbornness ever since.
Colour, however, was not the only thing the company made. It also supplied Queen Victoria with brushes. They had silver ferrules and ebony handles. Her favourite size was 7. This came to be produced in a range called Series 7. Series 1–6 may have gone by the wayside, but Series 7 remains a crown jewel among brushes. And best of all, it’s made in England.
Originally, Winsor and Newton operated from Rathbone Place, off London’s Oxford Street. Then in an artists’ quarter, this was where Newton lived. since 1946, the brush-making business has been located in Lowestoft in Suffolk, in what had previously been a Victorian brewery, although the site is also remarkable as having been that of the Lowestoft Porcelain works, active from the 1750s.
The reason the brush enterprise transferred from London was labour. It was difficult to find workers after the Second World War and brush-making is still a craft in which many processes are done by hand. It can take 18 months before a recruit has mastered the stages involved in producing a Series 7 brush. A stable workforce is, therefore, essential.
Happily, Richard Llewellyn, originally from West Wales and now operations Business Development Director of Crown Artist Brush Ltd, whose parent company, Colart, owns the Winsor and Newton brand, has found it. A decade’s service is little more than an eye-blink. Several employees have been at their benches for 25 years and 40 is not unknown: the supervisor, Bob Harrod, has been at the factory since 1969. However, at the other end of the age spectrum, the company also runs an apprenticeship scheme to attract new blood.
The appeal of the job probably doesn’t depend on the charms of the shop floor, which has something in common with the cigar factories of Havana, except for the absence of a desk for the reading of revolutionary literature. There are few frills, only an atmosphere of intense concentration as the ladies (nearly all the brush makers are women) work their magic. Dexterous fingers perform actions that I sometimes can’t see without the help of a magnifying glass. magic? I’d be inclined to call it a miracle.
A really good brush is fat in the middle, so that it can carry plenty of colour, but comes to a fine point at the top, allowing the artist to apply the most delicate of dabs. these qualities are the property of animal fur; synthetic filaments may be all very well for some purposes — painting with acrylic, for example — but the finest watercolour requires kolinsky sable, so each Series 7 starts with a tail.
There’s a bag of them — washed, but still smelling a bit ferrety — at the beginning of the process. Each once adorned the rear of an Asiatic weasel — Mustela sibirica (which, despite the name, isn’t at all the same animal as Martes zibellina, the pine marten used for sable coats). The kolinskies come from Siberia and Manchuria, where they’re trapped during the spring, under a regime that is CITES (an international treaty drawn up in 1973 to protect wildlife from over exploitation) accredited.
Sable brushes are still made from the same ingredients as in Queen Victoria’s day (except for improvements to the adhesive), using identical methods.
Michelle is grading the hairs, which involves cutting the fur off the tail, as close to the root as possible, then combing out the wool that lies next to the skin — only the guard hairs are used in brush-making. Hairs that are blunt or turned must be discarded and the good hairs must be separated into lengths. This is done by gathering them up and rolling a ruler over them — hey presto, they’re lined up in order. Obviously, big brushes need long hairs — but don’t think that it would be any good cutting them down for the little brushes. Each size of brush must be made from hair at its natural length.
The hairs leave Michelle’s desk in small cardboard tubes about the size of a cigarette and will pass across five further desks before leaving the factory as finished brushes. However, that only happens after they’ve been boiled, ironed and left to sit for some while to remove static.
Some very small hairs have reached Sandra’s desk, which has a big magnifying glass to one side and a powerful lamp to the other. she’s making size 00 — not the very smallest the company makes, but, at 7mm long, a little shorter than some eyelashes.
Try as I might, my eyes cannot see — or my mind compute — how she can, with a practised twist, get the hairs to go obediently into the metal tube (not actually the ferrule at this stage) known as the cannon. Those of us who find it difficult enough to put a single thread through the eye of a needle can only watch in awe as these many hairs obediently slide into the cannon, without a single one going astray.
This isn’t the only piece of dazzling dexterity that Sandra will perform on each of the couple of hundred brush heads that she makes each day. There’s an enormous spool of linen thread on her desk, one end of which she holds in her teeth. Having rolled the hairs to form a domed middle and tapered tip, she’ll take a length of the thread and neatly tie her minute bundle of hairs. A quick lick brings the brush to a point, the brush head is checked for length and it’s ready for gluing. Note: some grades of brush are only glued, but the very best are tied as well.
It would be wrong to say that machines are absent from this factory. there are some, which are small and specialised, often specially made for the company or otherwise cunningly adapted. Gluing — the application of blobs of adhesive to the end of the nickel-plated brass ferrules (only Queen Victoria got silver) that now contain the hairs — is done in batches. There is also a machine that crimps the ferrule onto the birchwood handle by means of a sharp squeeze.
Finished brushes, in their livery of lacquered gloss black, are shuffled onto a little conveyor belt, like soldiers on parade, before being stamped with their size number and logo in gold. there’s little point in taking mechanisation further: the numbers in which the different types and sizes of brush that are made here are too small. Besides, Bob is firmly convinced that old methods are the best. ‘I’ve been here 47 years and we’ve tried many, many ways of making brushes — shaping canons, machines, all sorts of things,’ he explains, ‘but when it comes to the premier product, Series 7, we just can’t do it any other way.’
Would turner have approved? David Lamarche did. Some years ago, he wrote a letter after acquiring a Series 7 size 12, whose spring was ‘very much like a small feather skipping on water… I imagine that you were probably singing in your heart when you made this particular brush as it seems to have been blessed in some way’.
The framed letter now hangs in a factory that confers a blessing on every brush that it sends out into the world — that of tradition, experience and skill.
Winsor & Newton are running an exclusive competition to win a personalised Series 7 brush, find out more information here.
For more information about the company visit: www.winsornewton.com