We love learning about the rich history of Somerset, so when we heard that local artist Kate Lynch had written a book all about traditional crafts in Somerset, we knew that we had to learn more! Here’s our fascinating interview!
Could you briefly introduce yourself and your book ‘Craft: Somerset Portraits and Voices’?
This book is the result of two years visiting traditional craftspeople in Somerset, remarkable people keeping ancient craftsmanship alive in our digital age. I made paintings and drawings of them at work and recorded conversations in which they tell stories about their lives, their work and their old tools.
What inspired you to write/draw traditional craftspeople of Somerset?
I have been making paintings and drawings of people working in rural Somerset for twenty years. It started when I met the willow growers and basketmakers on the Somerset Levels where I was living, and found a rich seam of exciting subject matter visually,and also learnt about the fascinating history of basketmaking going back to prehistoric times and willow growing in Somerset.
There were 3000 acres of willows planted here for all the baskets that were needed in Victorian England for factories, transport, hotels, postmen, farming and domestic use. There were hundreds of basketmakers locally and I met several who had learnt the trade as teenagers in the 1940s and 50s. Basketmaking had been important during the two World Wars with pigeon baskets needed for pigeons used for communication and airborne panniers needed to drop supplies from the air.
So what happened was, I was making paintings and drawings and collecting stories and I found I loved documenting this old farming and craft work. And I completely fell in love with Somerset life. And it went on from there. I made other studies of shepherds, beekeepers, farmers and now I have focused on traditional crafts, something very dear to my heart.
What do you think draws the people of Somerset to these traditional crafts, especially in this digital age?
Some of the crafts are familiar – thatching, basketmaking, stone carving, weaving, potters, blacksmiths and farriers, but it is always amazing to go backstage and see people working at close quarters, using tools that often go back centuries. Even if the craft seems familiar it is like time-travelling being in someone’s workshop watching their fine skill, the knowledge in their hands, their patience. One is in slow time. They may have a few time-saving devices but mostly it is age-old handcraft.
Other crafts I have featured are really rare – the horsehair weaving in Castle Cary, for example, or the handmade papermaking in a mill powered by a waterwheel on Exmoor. But these people are finding markets for their craft and with the internet they can often reach an audience which enable them to continue.
There are loads of interesting people featured in ‘Craft’ – could you tell us about one or two of your favourites?
I have mentioned the horsehair weaving by John Boyd Textiles and the papermaking by Two Rivers, both fascinating. In my book you can read about the history of both. I have enjoyed meeting Jonny Tapp, a brushmaker. He has taken up the craft recently and is one of the few people making brushes and brooms in the country, keeping an old skill alive.
Steve Overthrow has revived the ancient craft of sieve and riddlemaking and steams hoops of wood in his workshop, often weaving the mesh by hand. Remarkable. I loved being up on the wild Mendips watching Kevin Toal building dry stone walls – he is passionate about the craft and teaches dry stone walling. It was very special too visiting Becky Dunnett and witnessing the magic as fibres twist into a church bell rope.
Your drawings are so stunning! Why did you decide to use Somerset willow charcoal? Was there anything particularly difficult about capturing these craftspeople in your work?
Well the charcoal I use is made from the same willow the basketmakers make their baskets from which is a lovely connection. It is made by Musgrove Willows in Westonzoyland, who also give me charcoal for the workshops I do in schools and communities. It’s a wonderful medium.
I have also made some of my drawings and paintings on Two Rivers paper, handmade from cotton and linen rag. They still beat the rag in the old mill in Roadwater using the waterwheel for their power, but they have recently moved the papermaking itself to East Quay, Watchet, a fabulous new arts development, where you can see them making it. It’s great paper. I make sketches in my sketchbooks, then make paintings, pastels or large charcoal drawings back in my studio on the Somerset Levels.
We’re so excited to see your exhibition at the Somerset Rural Life Museum! Can you tell us a little more about that?
The exhibition of all the artwork opens 26 March to 5 June at the Somerset Rural Life Museum, Glastonbury. For me, it’s probably the result of almost three years work. It’s my tribute to the fine craftsmanship. My great grandfather was a Victorian farrier and our family has always respected craftsmanship and practical work. My brother is a furniture maker and our son is a traditional green oak timber framer and carpenter – he features in the exhibition and book.
There are 30 craftspeople featured and there is a short film of a few of the craftspeople working which will play in the gallery during the exhibition. Some of the words of the people will accompany the pictures. But there are more words in the book. The full colour hardback book will be available for purchase in the Museum and at other outlets in the county. All the paintings and drawings are in the book together with interesting stories from the craftspeople about their lives and work.
You can also preorder ‘Craft’ on Book Depository!
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