Carving her name
Sarah Myerscough is a firm believer that craft traditions have to be reworked to remain vital. As she prepares for Collect 2018, she tells us how Ernst Gamperl, Eleanor Lakelin, John Makepeace, Nic Webb et al elevate craft to fine art, and why she favours 'engaging with older processes in a contemporary way'…
Sarah Myerscough keeps her treasures in a small showroom in a nondescript building a stone’s throw from the Thames in Vauxhall, London. Arranged around the office-cum-gallery are remarkable works in wood by Liam Flynn – vases that are ebonised or bleached, that go with the grain in hypnotic swirls; Ernst Gamperl’s otherworldly totems – wood turned when wet which then bulges or bends beautifully; Nic Webb’s vessels, cracked and fissured and charred on the inside. Most of the pieces have been worked on the lathe. Knots and burls, disturbances in the flow, are celebrated.
There’s more, mostly in wood, but also ceramics and glass. Myerscough represents a collection of over 20 artist-makers – and together they represent a unique and compelling take on what contemporary craft can and should be; not perfect or obviously pretty, nor backward looking, but born of an intimate understanding of material and the cause and effect of craft skills.
The showroom serves a purpose but Myerscough is currently looking for a space that better reflects the work. She did have a gallery proper in Brooks Mews in Mayfair. She moved in 1998 ‘when it was semi derelict and there were no shops,’ she says. ‘Then they cobbled it, added olive trees and made it pretty. I had 1,000 sq ft. An architect designed the interior for me. It was very simple, very nice. Now a lot of art galleries and fashion houses have moved in.’ Inevitably, prettification and smarter neighbours came at a cost. Rents went up and Myerscough had to move on.
Anyway – as for many galleries selling art, craft and design – the real business is out there on the international fair circuit. For a contemporary craft gallery – still a rare and fragile thing – that means everywhere from PAD in London (starting this week) as well as Paris, through both editions of Design Miami/Basel to Design Days Dubai.
It's exhausting and expensive, but at these fairs Myerscough can introduce the work to global collectors of higher order craft. In truth there aren't that many of them, certainly compared to the ravenous ultra rich who maintain the mind-bending buoyancy of the art market, and you have to go to where they are – or even where they are not but might be one day. ‘I probably didn't make any money at Design Days Dubai,’ she acknowledges. ‘People are not really collectors there, they are just interested. But they don't really get the prices. They just say I could go to a local village and get that done for tuppence ha'ppeny. It is hard to know where to start with that.’
Of course, selling 'craft' of the sort that Myerscough does, at the price that she does, is always a hard sell. It needs story, context. Working outside the easier definitions and established price structures of fine art and collectible design, a case has to be made for her pieces. And she has the stories. Craft is good for that. ‘With Nic Webb for instance, he is working in a shepherd’s hut in Kent and is engaged with environmental issues. You can talk about where he found the wood, where he then buries the wood, how be burns it, sculpts. People love that rich context, there is a thirst for it.’
When Myerscough first opened her gallery, almost 20 years ago, she wasn't convinced there was much of a case at all. ‘I had been an art consultant for ages, so I continued with the artists I had been working with. I started with fine art and a bit of photography and sculpture. I loved contemporary craft and sculptural craft but hadn't really thought about showing it in the gallery.’
In 2004 the Crafts Council launched Collect (now grandly tagged the 'The International Art Fair for Contemporary Objects') and Myerscough began to see possibilities. ‘I thought how wonderful it was that they were trying to raise the profile of craft, elevating its status and talking about its context, not just presenting objects but making collectors think about a particular medium and the possibilities of that. I think they just did a really good job in terms of the marketing and capturing the zeitgeist. Grayson Perry had won the Turner Prize in 2003 and everyone was re-evaluating craft.’
The launch of Collect confirmed the new vitality of contemporary craft in the UK and signalled a shift in attitudes. For reasons many and various – the conceptual high jinx of Brit Art, retail concepts relentlessly rolled out everywhere in the same way, a new flattened earth – there seemed to be a new demand, certainly interest in the one-off, the hand-worked, the – if not rough to the touch, then at least tactile.
Myerscough made her move. ‘I had met these wonderful collectors who had big collections of contemporary wood, mostly in the States. I was overwhelmed by the possibilities and the different techniques. But no one had really collected wood here, it was a very niche specialism.’
At that first Collect – and Myserscough has showed at every edition since – she showed turned and carved wood from the US. ‘I wanted to show a huge variety of different processes and types of wood in one collection, to demonstrate that collecting wood was as relevant as collecting ceramics or glass.’ Back at the gallery she started a programme of 11 shows of contemporary crafts a year. ‘I wanted to create a dialogue of different craft techniques.’
And she ramped up her search for the most skilled and imaginative woodworkers she could find. ‘I was working a lot with American makers and then I started to look at Europe and came across Ernst Gamperl in Germany, who was producing beautiful turned wood, really sculptural pieces. That kind of changed everything, because the way he worked really struck a chord with my feeling about craft. There were these clean, simple forms but ambitious, sophisticated and beautifully made. All of those things I completely identified with so it was lovely to represent him.’
A year after Collect launched in London, Design Miami/Basel arrived and ‘Design Art', one-off and limited edition design was the new ‘new thing’. Again, Myerscough saw opportunity, looking to add more furniture to the gallery’s offer – appropriately sculptural and finely crafted of course – by the likes of Jim Partridge and Gareth Neal. ‘Contemporary craft has limited possibilities for a commercial gallery because of the price points. So from a commercial point of view, it was difficult to know how to move forward. That was when I decided to look at contemporary handcrafted furniture.’ The move made her visible to a new set of collectors. The ‘design art’ fairs were doing a grand job of pulling in big-budget collectors who already had sizeable art collections and were looking for something new, or younger collectors alienated by (or squeezed out of) the contemporary art market.
More than that, the champions of ‘design art’ were talking her language, opening up a new conversation about materials and process – something she knew how to talk about. ‘For me, process is a very particular thing. It’s about a very intuitive understanding of material.’
What she didn’t do was chase a market or lose sight of her USP. She has developed – and is happy with – a unique position in relation to contemporary and more conceptual design; engaged but at a certain distance, and with a determination to stick to certain principles. ‘There is very fashionable contemporary design – and I am much more about engaging with these older processes in a contemporary way. It is about a certain aesthetic and about tactility and use of materials.’
That's not to say she doesn't show work that is conceptually daring or challenging. ‘Just because something is beautiful doesn't mean it can't be conceptually strong,’ she says. She represents Peter Marigold and David Gates and Helen Garnac, makers who ask you to work a little harder to see beauty in their pieces.
She is no spoon-carving pre-industrialist either: determined on working only with makers who slave over hot lathes and pop veins manhandling massive hulks of knotted timber. One of her makers, Gareth Neal, has built his reputation on combining computer-aided design and CNC milling with other craft processes.
‘I love curating shows and I love the relationship between objects, materials and processes. That's my creative output,’ she says. ‘I love to put something like Gareth Neal's beautiful collaboration with Zaha Hadid next to a wonderful fluted vessel by Liam Flynn, the carving and the fluting against the CNC cutting. It's just wonderful to see the subtlety and change. Neither one is better or worse than the other; it's just an interesting dialogue.’
Encouraging creative dialogue is another part of her mission; another way she sees contemporary craft moving forward, staying alive and vital. ‘Peter Marigold has been working with Japanese craftsmen from the Hinoki Kogei factory. So you bring that tradition together with his kind of conceptual design. For me that is what this is all about, marrying those things. If you hadn't instigated that process it would never have come about, creative minds coming together,’ she says. ‘That's the thing, it's not singular. It's not about a genius, working on their own; it is teams of people working together. He is doing another project with them, a forest of cabinets made of all these different Japanese woods – all cleft wood. It’s going to look extraordinary as an installation. These woods are very different to European woods, you can't believe the different textures and the rawness of the materials so that is a lovely project.’
Myerscough is also part of that dialogue of course. ‘What has struck me about working with Sarah is that she takes the time to come and see what is going on in the studio on a regular basis,’ says David Gates. ‘This frames our working relationship, because she is aware of work when it is in an early, experimental stage and always seems to take a longer view of where work has come from and how it might develop.’
Myerscough has also been working with the elder statesman of British craft, such as they are, and encouraging a more contemporary turn in their work. ‘We worked with John Makepeace on some chairs to show at Basel. He was wonderful to work with. He picked on one design which was so beautifully simple and organic and about material, using burr wood,’ she says. ‘It was a wonderful re-engagement with his work in a new and contemporary way,’ she says. ‘And people fell in love with the chairs, because the mechanics of the making are so incredibly defined and worked out. They look so fragile but there are steel rods all the way through, which means they are incredibly robust. They look really uncomfortable but sit perfectly in harmony with your form. And that is why that engagement with art and design is so interesting, I think: because you look at something like that and you can think about it in all these different ways.’ In these chairs there is art and craft, design and engineering, formal ingenuity, beautiful materials… And history. ‘All the work he has done with educationalists, with the forestry commission, wonderful architectural projects, that wonderful history that is his – you bring it all into one object.’
One of Myerscough’s worries though is where the next generation of John Makepeaces and Nic Webbs is going to come from; about the broader health and future of craft traditions here. She doesn't, for instance, see a new generation of woodworkers coming through. ‘A lot of courses have closed and there aren't that many woodworkers around. There aren't really students using it as a creative process. Carving is quite rare as well,’ she says. ‘I went to the New Designers show and didn't see any woodworking. I do think more needs to be done to inspire a generation of students to get involved with it and take up these processes that are dying out, in terms of ceramics and wood and glass. These are very are very physical processes that people don't engage with.’
Despite innovations like Collect and London Craft Week, not enough is being done to support craft in this country, she argues. ‘They are so much more supportive in Scandinavian countries for instance, offering financial bursaries to support makers.’
She does though welcome the launch of new craft prizes by Spanish fashion giant Loewe and Radio 4's Women's Hour. ‘Ernst Gamperl won the first Loewe Craft Prize, which was amazing for him. He now has £50,000 which he can use to transform his workshops. Of course it is part of their marketing, but it also great for contemporary craft. And Peter Marigold has been shortlisted for the Radio 4 prize.’
Myerscough is no defender of the traditional for the sake of it, however: no lazy champion of artisanship as an essential good. Craft traditions have to be reworked and remain vital, have to engage and evolve. ‘Handcraft still has these old fashioned associations but there is the opportunity to reinvent that, to say there is real contemporary dialogue and ambition there. You just have to bring it out.’
And in the end, she is an optimist. She has faith in her material and in the remarkable things that can be done with it; in a craftsmanship that seems to work with the grain of the natural world and celebrate the perfectly imperfect. And a faith that there is at least an audience, and a paying audience, who want that in their lives. ‘We have people standing and oohing and aahing and touching and smelling. People notice the split in the wood and the butterfly stitch holding it together, the burn around the rim. Noticing these imperfections is what people want.’
Words Nick Compton
Photographs John Spinks