It’s official: traditional crafts are back in vogue. The V&A’s quilting exhibition, which opened on March 20, is the museum’s most successful to date in terms of pre-booked tickets. More than two million of us watch Monty Don’s BBC2 programme Mastercrafts each week and, with the help of avant garde artists such as Grayson Perry, crafts such as pottery are solidly back in the mainstream.
It’s estimated that they employ about 88,000 people in Britain and contribute £2.9 billion to the economy each year. However, according to those on the inside, the future of these ancient skills is in jeopardy, due to a lack of Government recognition. Specialised courses are being pulled from the curriculum, and the prohibitive cost to a craftsmen of taking on an apprentice (from £18,000 to £28,000 per year) means that many traditional skills will die out with the current generation of practitioners.
The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) last week pledged to lobby the Government and work to halt that decline. It specifically aims to help fight the cause of those skills, from coppicing to thimble-making, which fall outside the remit of the Crafts Council (primarily concerned with contemporary design) and groups such as English Heritage, which preserve objects, rather than methods. ‘These skills are part of our national identity, and yet this “living heritage” is barely recognised,’ says the HCA’s Chris Rowley. ‘In countries such as France, traditional crafts are supported and celebrated for their “Frenchness”.’
He points out that the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which argued for ‘creating conditions that will encourage artisans to continue to produce crafts of all kinds, and to transmit their skills and knowledge to others’, was signed by some 120 countries-but not by Britain.
‘Much of our history is underpinned by our traditional crafts, from surnames such as Potter, Thatcher and Turner, to the history of a specific area,’ adds Robin Wood, HCA chairman. ‘A complete local-history identity can be demonstrated in one traditionally made Lake District basket.’
The HCA has two main goals: to raise awareness of the importance of traditional crafts, and to fight for financial support for apprenticeships and training programmes. ‘These are thriving businesses, and there are people who want to learn how to do them,’ says Mr Wood. ‘The problem that must be tackled before it’s too late is how to transfer the knowledge between generations.’
End of engravers?
British engravers are still seen as some of the best in the world, with a large proportion of international clients, but there’s only a handful left. Samantha Marsden (right) is, at 41, by far one of the youngest and one of very few women. ‘I think I was one of the last to do an apprenticeship during something of a golden era,’ she says.
The daughter of a gunsmith, she always wanted to be an engraver and, after a stint at art school, was lucky enough to be offered an apprenticeship with one of the best names in the business, George Lukes. ‘He was looking for someone to take over and so financed the apprenticeship himself,’ explains Mrs Marsden. ‘It takes at least five years to learn the craft, and, today, that’s simply not something I could afford to offer. There are a few bursaries available to help apprentices, but this excellent system has slightly fallen by the wayside in favour of university for all.’
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