Written by Lizzy Hippisley-Cox
This year, the William Morris Craft Fellowship celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, and since its genesis in 1987 it has given over 100 craftspeople working on historic buildings the chance to step away from the workbench/scaffold/microscope and go behind the scenes of a great many recent and on-going conservation projects across the UK. Every year a group of three or four Fellows are chosen to travel together, guided and hosted by the architects, surveyors, engineers, conservators and craftspeople working on these fascinating projects.
Back in 1987, the Fellowship was designed to give young, established craftspeople in, or soon to be in a position of responsibility and authority, a good solid grounding in the conservation philosophy enshrined in the SPAB Manifesto of 1877. Today it also has the added benefit of providing Fellows with a very broad view of the professional heritage landscape, and the opportunity to speak freely and candidly with other craftspeople, professionals and enthusiasts about the state of conservation in the UK. The programme actively encourages engagement with the Fellowship’s elder sister, the SPAB Lethaby Scholarship, established in 1930. The Scholarship is distinct in that it has its own traditions, and recruits largely from the fields of architecture, structural engineering and surveying. Despite having all come to the field of building conservation from different training backgrounds, there is always plenty of common ground and good ‘fellowship’, and strong friendships are forged during the year of adventures.
Last year I was fortunate enough to secure a place on the Fellowship, the second stained glass conservator in the programme’s history to do so (but not the last!). I had become interested in the work of the SPAB during my studies at the University of York, and later at the York Glaziers Trust when I worked alongside several Fellows at the Minster. During the Fellowship I travelled for two blocks of nine weeks with two stone masons and a slater and rough-caster (historically a twinned craft). We also spent about a third of our travels with the Scholars, and between us we covered the length and breadth of the UK, with additional visits to France, Ireland, Italy and Cyprus. Visits varied from tours of huge multi-million pound European Regional Development Fund and Historic England projects such as the redevelopment of Flaxmill Maltings in Shropshire, to clambering up on a tenement roof in Glasgow to see first-hand the challenges of endangered historic buildings crafts in an increasingly apathetic and profit driven building industry. We spent time learning to build kilns and burn lime in Wales, tried a variety of building hand-crafts, and got lost on many a winding country road, seeking out the most interesting buildings and craft workshops in the UK.
At the final stage of the journey, Fellows can choose to hone in on particular skills they would like to develop, and take longer placements with professionals and craftspeople. Many themes arise during the travels, and in particular the issue of traditional and authentic craft materials and their availability appealed to me. I used some of this time to explore the craft and manufacturing processes of the materials of stained glass. I visited a glass paint manufacturer in France, saw lead extrusion and milling, and spent time at English Antique Glass near Redditch, which is sadly the last place in the UK to produce flat mouth-blown antique or ‘cylinder’ glass. The sourcing of appropriate traditional materials, and the introduction of modern materials for conservation repairs was a very interesting theme for me, and I recognised a great deal of disparity across the building crafts.
I would thoroughly recommend the Fellowship and Scholarship to anyone who is passionate about their chosen field, and wants to completely immerse themselves in the built heritage community for a year. The travel and time commitments, and even the site visits themselves can be challenging, but the reward is a unique opportunity. The programmes are able to condense years of experiences, information and encounters into a brief, but very formative window at the early stages of a person’s career. I have since started a conservation studio, Eden Stained Glass in Cumbria, much better informed and inspired than I could have imagined this time last year.
It is thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Churches Conservation Trust, and the kind support from the York Consortium for Craft and Conservation that I was able to undertake the Fellowship, for which I am incredibly grateful. Enormous thanks are also due to the hosts that we visited on the tour, many of whom are York Conservation Alumni and I hope will be reading this!