Turning Trees into Fine Furniture for the Fireside
"I think one of the most important things for me as a maker is the variety in the work we undertake."
Milton Common marks the intersection of two turnpike roads that were built in the 18th century, where the Aylesbury to Shillingford turnpike road, constructed in 1770, crossed the London to Oxford turnpike near common land belonging to nearby villages Great and Little Milton upon which, so local legend tells, highway robbery became rife. Then, during the Second World War, an area of land close by to Milton Common became a prisoner-of-war camp housing Italian soldiers. Now known as the Camp Industrial Estate, today it’s an altogether jollier place where, as Bates and Lambourne, a group of craftsmen turn local trees into fine furniture for the fireside, and a whole host of other interesting spaces.
“I took A-levels in maths, chemistry and physics,” says Josh Howard- Saunders, “but it was woodworking that caught my interest more than traditional academic subjects. My dad was a doctor by day, but he had a workshop at the end of the garden and was always making things in his spare time, dry-stone walling when he wasn’t building the dining table, and from the time I was small I enjoyed working with my hands. I did a course at Rycotewood College when I left school, and it was still based in Thame, before starting work at Bates and Lambourne as a trainee. Apart from time out to do a degree in three-dimensional design, I’ve been making furniture here ever since.
“I’m most engaged with a project when I understand the rationale and reason for a creation, not just the practical side of what I am doing. I love creating pieces of furniture which include representations of crests, for example in the case of the colleges, or encapsulate symbolic values within the design, however abstracted. “For example, we made a series of chairs for Green Templeton College in Oxford whose crest includes a nautilus shell. Now, the chambers of a nautilus shell happen to be arranged in an approximately logarithmic spiral, their respective sizes following the famous mathematical Fibonacci sequence, so we used this equation to determine the distances between the slats on the back of the chair. No-one looking at the chair would realise there was any connection but it’s important nonetheless, as it makes the furniture unique and particularly relevant to the college. And I suppose it means something must have stuck from the maths A-level, in spite of the U grade!”
Josh designed and co-created the church furniture (a communion rail, font, lectern, paschal candlestick and remembrance book cabinet) for St Christopher’s Chapel in Plymouth, a place of particular significance for the Royal Marines, referencing within the design the Marines’ origins and history, the iconic symbol of the Globe and Laurel, the Commando dagger and their involvement with Gibraltar.
“The base of the font actually includes a block of the stone from Gibraltar’s rock where the marines retain a presence today,” says Josh. “They acquired a suitable piece of stone and, naturally, they sent it by nuclear submarine to Plymouth. For reasons of national security, I wasn’t allowed to know when it would be arriving. If only the Thames was a bit deeper,” Josh laughs, “they could have brought it right up to Cuddesdon Mill for me to collect on my way to work in the morning. The rock was carved with a single cross by Giles Macdonald, churchwarden at St Mary’s Church, Banbury, and an excellent local stonemason who specialises in letter carving.
“Another project I particularly enjoyed was the design of a series of 16 dining chairs, commissioned to celebrate Corpus Christi College’s Quincentenary in 2017: 14 to fit around a fine oak table donated in the Founder’s Room, which was created from the upper part of the original Tudor kitchen about 30 years ago, and another two more chairs to stand guard either side of the altar in the chapel. Each featured a carved animal associated with Corpus: a fox, an owl, a tortoise or a pelican.
“We also make reproductions of furniture and other wooden creations,” Josh continues. “These can be anything from a working replica of an 18th century wooden copper plate rolling press – the centrepiece for William Blake’s studio which was in the William Blake: Apprentice and Master exhibition at the Ashmolean – which we constructed using original drawings from a 1745 publication, to Jimi Hendrix’s chair.
“In 1968 Jimi Hendrix and his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham moved into a flat in 23 Brook St, London – a home he later described as “the only home I ever had”. No. 25, next door, had been home to the composer George Frideric Handel, who lived there from 1723 until his death in 1759, and No. 23 served as the offices of the Handel House Museum until, in 2015, it was restored to its 1968 state as a permanent Hendrix exhibition based on photographs taken at the time, including one of Jimi himself sitting in a particular type of Windsor chair [a chair with a solid, usually shaped, wooden seat which forms the central connecting element for all the other components jointed into it], known as the Smoker’s Bow.
“We were asked to make a replica from the photos, and the photos we received detailing the chair were almost perversely entertaining: although they were clearly promo shots of Hendrix, for understandable reasons of picture copyright they had been cropped to exclude almost all detail except the rather obscured chair on which he is sitting. Apart from a ringed and languid guitarist’s hand here and a fragment of flowery shirt there, it was as if the shots had been taken, not by a music fan but by a furniture obsessive. An understandable perspective, from our point of view,” laughs Josh. “And when we’d finished, the only difference between our version and the one in the photos, is ours didn’t have Jimi Hendrix sitting on it.
“I think one of the most important things for me as a maker is the variety in the work we undertake. We might be making a jewellery cabinet or a house for a pet tortoise, an octagonal frame for a plaster owl, a huge 30-bay bookcase for the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, or 150 stackable chairs for St Mary Magdalene Church in Woodstock – oh, and our ‘cutting edge’ chandeliers out of old bandsaw blades: mustn’t forget those! Also, over this last year we have taken to doing our own steam-bending for Windsor chair components, such as arm bows and crinoline stretchers. It’s very Heath Robinson – a big insulated box, some metal straps, baler twine and an industrial wallpaper stripper, outside under the trees – no better way to spend the afternoon.”
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