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In the Maker’s Hands – Crafts Alive 2023

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The Gloucestershire Guild presents a unique and staggeringly beautiful experience ‘In the maker’s hands’, the Crafts Alive five-day festival at Rodmarton Manor from 13 to 17 September 2023.

Crafts Alive is a project borne out of a passionate belief in demonstrating the huge social value of the Arts & Crafts movement and in creating something well made with access to all.  

The quotation carved into the wall at the front of Rodmarton Manor which tells of “A time there was, ere England's griefs began. When every rood of ground maintained its man”, describing another time when the crafts were part of daily life before industrialisation, machine production and the growth of the cities left the countryside poorer.

At Rodmarton Manor we have the opportunity of perpetuating the ambitious ideals of its creators and its relevance for the Guild and so many others today, a need which is greater than ever before: 

  • to strive for a society that provides worthwhile work in humane conditions for everyone. 
  • to preserve, promote, educate, celebrate, and inspire excellence in crafts both traditional and modern.
  • to involve and help those who suffer hardship, economic & social deprivation, disability, and humanitarian displacement. 
  • to educate and work in the best ways to safeguard the planet.
  • to demonstrate how community working and the extraordinary community of the Gloucestershire Guild can achieve so much good in the world.

The house was commissioned by Claud and Margaret Biddulph and designed by the Arts and Crafts Movement architect, Ernest Barnsley. It was built between 1909-1929 using local materials – stone and wood – and the project was very much a community enterprise, providing employment and training for local people in traditional building crafts. It became a hub for creative activity with people from Rodmarton village coming to take part and enjoy music, plays, puppet shows in the main rooms which were also used to run craft workshops for new skills such as embroidery and woodwork.

Furniture was made for the house by the architect, by his brother Sidney Barnsley, and by Peter Waals, the former foreman of Ernest Gimson’s workshop, all important figures in the British Arts and Crafts movement. To supplement their contribution the Rodmarton Woodworking shop was set up under the direction of Ernest Barnsley with Alfred Wright as its foreman. Peter Waals was one of a number of local makers who ran craft workshops at Rodmarton. All the architectural and domestic metalwork was made on site in the smithy run by Frank and his son, Fred Baldwin. Both the woodworking shop and smithy at Rodmarton survived for decades – the latter only closed in the 1950s.

The sculptor William Simmonds made a Punch and Judy theatre and a set of puppets for the Biddulphs. This commission included classes for local people to work the puppets. Simmonds’ sculptures are now known worldwide – ‘The Farm Team’ and other examples are part of the Tate Britain collection. Alfred and Louise Powell, pottery decorators for Wedgwood were based nearby. They painted pottery and furniture for the house. Their friends, Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher, screen-printed fabric for curtains. William Rothenstein, another local acquaintance, introduced the young mural artist Hilda Benjamin to the Biddulphs. She decorated the house with her fresco paintings and galvanised the local women to produce an outstanding series of applique panels featuring local scenes. Their group, the Rodmarton Women’s Guild, met in the house on a weekly basis.

The legacy and utopian vision of Claud and Margaret Biddulph lives on in the Gloucestershire Guild’s extraordinary community with their inspiring vision for skill and the future creating a new festival, ‘In the maker’s hands - the tools of our trade’. This is particularly important in 2023, when The Gloucestershire Guild is celebrating its 90th year.

The Guild was founded in 1933 by many of the makers involved with Rodmarton including Peter Waals, Phyllis Barron and Norman Jewson who completed the building of the house after Ernest Barnsley’s death in 1926. Other notable founding members were the potter, Michael Cardew; the ornamental blacksmiths, Alfred and Norman Bucknell; the silversmith George Hart; and the spinner and weaver, Rita Beales coming together to promote their crafts alongside more traditional basket-makers, saddle makers, blacksmiths and leatherworkers. Despite being a cohesive and self-supporting organisation, the Guild has always looked outwards, taking their exhibitions to a wider audience in the UK and worldwide, inviting experienced designer-makers to take part in their shows, and using their skills to inspire and support young makers and students.

Many notable figures have contributed to the Guild’s longevity and continuing reinvention including the modernist architect Oliver Hill who, with the help of Guild member Gerry Carter, persuaded the Guild to adopt a more creative and artistic approach to its exhibition displays in 1955. The potter Tony Davies helped the Guild establish its first retail outlet in Painswick in the 1980s while leatherworker and current Chair, Val Michael, played a major role in moving the Guild shop to Cheltenham in 2013, within the footprint of the newly extended Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, now known as the Wilson. While at this venue, the organisation was able to run regular workshops, hold demonstrations and displays which related to the museum’s Designated Arts and Crafts collection, and organise a year of activities bringing craft activities and established makers to Gloucestershire schools. The Guild now has a thriving shop in the vibrant Montpellier area of Cheltenham.

As the direct successors of the original craftsmen and women who contributed to one of the finest Arts and Crafts Movement houses in the country, Guild members will create some outstanding contemporary craftwork exclusively inspired by Rodmarton Manor. Their work will respond directly to the interior settings and the theme, ‘In the maker’s hands – the tools of our trade’. This builds on the approach of the 2021 Festival, for example, mosaic artist Cleo Mussi created four large summer fire guards for the beautiful fireplaces in the grand dining room and reception rooms, one of which houses the collection of Punch and Judy puppets. For this space Cleo created Toby, Mr Punch’s dog as a pair of ‘Fire Guard Dogs’ and, in the other rooms, large bountiful baskets. 

Working in partnership with the Biddulphs has provided privileged access opportunities rare in any other circumstance, and a private visit in November this year was arranged for guild members to spend the day at Rodmarton Manor to draw and to be inspired so that they could make site-specific new work. This quite unique re-imagining of an historic setting has been permitted through the generosity and trust of the current 4th-generation owners, John and Sarah Biddulph, who put away many of their original Arts and Crafts pieces and other personal belongings so the contemporary works can be sensitively placed in the domestic setting with the expertise of our freelance exhibition curator.

The 2023 festival builds on the responses of visitors to the previous events in 2018 and 2021. Our aim is to create a greater synergy between the history of the site and debates around current craft practice using the theme of ‘In the maker’s hands - the tools of our trade’. We want to promote an understanding and appreciation of craft practice and encourage more people to get involved. Crafts Alive enables us to do this both through our community work leading up to the festival and at the festival which provides a safe, friendly, and inclusive location. 

Our theme will be carried through five key aspects of the programme:

  1. A greater appreciation and interpretation of the site of Rodmarton Manor – an exemplary building of the Arts and Crafts Movement. It was created by local architects, designers and makers and has continued to foster local creativity and community engagement. The house and its garden are also rooted in the land and farming traditions around Rodmarton.
  2. Finding new ways of showing contemporary Arts & Crafts outside of gallery spaces, created by local artists and designers, supports our ethos to foster local creativity and relevance in the wider community.  Wider engagement across art forms around the theme ‘In the maker’s hands - the tools of our trade’ The Guild is encouraging work to be made based around the theme to which its members will respond with new work made specifically for the project and the site.
  3. Working with partners and community groups in the county, with the majority based in Gloucester at Gloucester Cathedral, The Friendship Café sewing studio in Gloucester, the Museum in the Park in Stroud, and the Nelson Trust Creative Hub in Stroud, we will be running tested craft-based activities, giving a creative release for people, some who are facing perhaps the hardest times in their lives.  The project and workshops are carefully designed to draw participants into exhibiting work and other workshops involvement and taking part in other activities as part of our festival events.  Opportunities for children and young people are integral to our programme and the sustainability of the Guild.  
  4. We will bring new and exciting work to Crafts Alive by involving non-Guild, internationally established artist-makers whose practice we admire and would like to engage with. This will create a wider reach for the Guild’s activities and a greater engagement with craft communities and audiences. The experience gives them the opportunity to consider different approaches to their practice as well. 
  5. Considering current interest on Craft Practice and Heritage we will organise an extended programme of events which would interrogate the idea of ‘In the makers’ hands in relation to current and future craft practice. This would be done across these areas:
  • A programme of Expert Talks focusing on crafts and the tools of the trade in both a historic and contemporary context.
  • A craft drop-in tent for all ages working on a major Flag Installation.
  • Interactive Demonstrations activities to include Guild practitioners as well as craft skills associated with the Heritage Crafts Association
  • Makers’ reels (short films) leading into and promoting Crafts Alive with inspiring short interviews with makers about their favourite tools and why well -made crafts are good for the environment
  • Building on our downloadable online resources such as the ‘Village Produce Show’ creating craft for schools/young people

Addressing climate change:

Our aim is to encourage as many people as possible to appreciate and purchase British-made crafts, made using low environmental impact methods. We will be emphasising the use of natural, locally sourced materials and the skills of makers and linking these to the approach of the creators of Rodmarton Manor. We will work with inclusions from nature from the surrounding landscape – wood, stone, linen, cotton, wool, brass, copper, leather, glass, paper etc – walking in the footsteps our predecessors.

In conclusion:

Crafts Alive is more than a festival, it is also a means of raising awareness to the value of good craftsmanship. Above all, it is about the sustainability of the Guild, ensuring it continues to work with communities to be relevant and inclusive in its 90th year.

The true worth of the festival is beyond measure, providing the means to sustain the Guild and its members, through and following Covid, both financially and spiritually. Crafts Alive has shown us how important the arts and its loyal community are for its makers, for all those taking part, and for the wider community and society.

All project data will be gathered, monitored, reported, and shared and we will use this to measure the success of our engagement with all partners and groups, and will work with our partners to do this.  All marketing insight will be captured. Ticket sales, booking details for talks & workshops and visitor numbers will be recorded.  Participatory artists & audiences will be asked to provide feedback on evaluation forms or evaluation 'trees'. Outreach elements will use a variety of methods of evaluation including photographic documentation and will be evaluated by the ongoing partnership, particularly with Gloucester Cathedral. Guild members have the opportunity of further work with hard-to-reach groups leading up to the 2024 Gloucester Cathedral summer exhibition to include work exhibited by the craftsmen and all groups they are working with, all inspired by the Cathedral.

An end of project meeting will take place with the Biddulphs & activity leads to share feedback & identify any issues to address. A final evaluation document will be produced by the Project Manager and members of the Guild team. 

John Rothenstein wrote: “A hundred people doing as the Biddulphs did would have gone far to transform the face of rural England”.

As the creators of Rodmarton Manor and its “social experiment” gave many individuals the opportunity to learn and to practice a craft to a level at which they could take great pride and to live and work as part of a community, so the Guild actively continues with this work with a passion