Ann and I first met in 1977 when she was setting up the furniture-making school at Parnham House with John Makepeace, I was in their first intake of students.
Move forward a few years and Ann was divorced from John, and about to move into the old (and derelict) Co-op shop in Arundel. I had a studio in Wiltshire, and as well as trying to make a living, was looking for a way to make a new kind of furniture that was not ‘fine cabinet making’ but something with a bit more ‘Attitude’.
Studio Ceramics and the ‘non-precious’ jewellery movement of the time showed me a possible new way forward. In different ways Ann and I were both moving on parallel trajectories.
The two-seat plank bench, and the warped stool (both included in this sale) were, I thought, the first successful examples of my finding a new language for woodworking. Their surface texture comes straight from the saw milling; the shapes comes from the boards warping as they seasoned; the surfaces were scorched and polished black. They were among the first pieces of furniture that I had finished with
this treatment. I had exhibited this work before, but Ann was the first to buy it, to understand, trust and encourage the qualities I was hoping to achieve, and to commission more - my first footbridge - some of the first bleached vessels - and white painted pieces.
Of course all this is an afterthought. At that time, at the start of my career, it was just brilliant to be paid to collaborate with such an inspirational and clear-sighted friend and patron.
- Jim Partridge, 2023
Ann Sutton met Jim Partridge in the seventies when he became one of the first cohort of students in the School for Craftsmen in Wood, set up her then-husband John Makepeace, at Parnham House, Dorset. As Partridge picked his way through the course, Sutton found that they shared an inclination towards solving problems by taking the concept back to basics and rethinking. In her words, they were ‘cutting out the mumbo-jumbo which our chosen materials had accumulated through the centuries, and re-thinking a solution for purpose which was fresh and simple.’
Later, when Sutton had left Parnham and was working in a derelict, but sound, former Co-op shop, Partridge called to see how she was getting on. She had been camping in the studio for two years. He asked her when she was going to progress with building works on the property, and following her list all that is required for such a large job. Sutton recalls his reply, “Why don’t I do it?” he asked.
“Because you are a furniture maker”, she replied. “I need...”
“If you do all the stuff like finding a good electrician, plumber, and order the skips, I’ll start by taking it back to its bricks…”. It was decided, and the duo began their project.
There were no drawings undertaken during the renovation; just a shared response to spaces and surfaces, and a shared dislike of ‘wood worship’, with a liking for the simplest effective solution to problems of all sizes. They differed on only a few points; Sutton wanted a shelf on the wall over the cooker; Partridge did not. Blackened river reeds were taken out of ceiling spaces, electricity was installed for the first time in the building’s life, and walls were taken back to the original chalk blocks. The work was filthy and rewarding. Barriers were put up by a worried District Council who warned them, ‘You can’t use that space as a bedroom. In case of fire your only access would be through the kitchen. Build a 3-foot-wide fireproof corridor around the edge of the kitchen.’ The pair preferred to build a bridge across the back yard, linking the bedroom with a roof garden off the main staircase, bypassing the kitchen altogether. And so the first Jim Partridge oak bridge was built.
Furniture was necessary. ‘The most expensive part of furniture is the joints’ Partridge said, knowing Sutton’s budget. So they sat down and brain-stormed furniture joints and their purpose. They agreed that some of the best inexpensive furniture was made by students, who used an admirable system of bricks and planks to hold their books. So Sutton’s bookcase was born, which was not only possible for her to move single-handed, but which could be re-purposed, and could be not only stabilised by splodges of Blue-Tac, but also strengthened as the weight of books increased. Sutton recalls Partridge’s wise warning, ‘You might need to buy some new Blue-Tac if you move it’. Planks of oak, and ‘bricks’ of pine, were screwed together making stable units, and scorched to harden the surfaces.
The same system was used in the living room to form supports for the TV and the ever-growing collection of Partridge bowls, but the finish on the oak was now a diluted white household paint. Everything was both economically and structurally sound. ‘Coffee tables should welcome people putting their feet up on them’, Partridge said to her. When the flat was completed, the duo of artists continued to meet to discuss their shared approach to ideas, and at one point Sutton made a solution to soften the seating surface of an oak bench in which padding and upholstery were in one simply-made piece.
From ceramics to glass, silversmithing to jewellery, textiles to furniture making, crafts have played a complicated and multifaceted role in the cultural, social and art historical history of contemporary Britain that has sometimes been overlooked. During the last few decades, the distinctions between art, design and modern craft have become increasingly blurred. Crafts' growing significance was demonstrated over the pandemic, as the number of buyers of contemporary craft increased by over 270% whilst over the last 15 years, craft sales in Britain alone have tripled to over £3 billion.
In particular, its growing importance is recognised by a younger audience keen to invest in physical disciplines, the artists and their stories. In a world often revolving around the impersonal, modern craft objects have become a conduit for the imagination in our homes, and there has been a growing transformation of outlook concerned with the importance placed on the integrity of the material and ideas.
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