Capturing lives of craftsmen

David Morgan Rees reflects on Yorkshire's heritage of skill, knowledge and experience and its relevance to today's world of work

When I came to live in Yorkshire in 1965 and discovered its amazing variety of landscape and people I quickly became aware of a fascinatingly rich and diverse traditional craft activity which still supported country life and, less obviously, cities and towns. I met characterful and talented individuals who made an incredibly wide range of products – farm carts, wooden gates, dry-stone walls, hayrakes, baskets and agricultural ropes, thatched roofs, fishing boats, furniture and cricket bats as well as clogs, brassband instruments and those remarkable "little mesters", the Sheffield cutlers. There were still individuals who lovingly made peg-rugs, fisherman's ganseys and Swaledale patchwork quilts in the original way.

I learnt about the historical background of this crafts tradition. Traces of primitive craftsmen have been found in lonely Celtic burial mounds or in Roman encampments. But it was not until after the Norman Conquest that there was any true flowering of craftsmanship in Yorkshire. A major influence was the arrival in the 12th century of that remarkable religious order, the Cistercians, who built the great abbeys of Fountains, Rievaulx and Jervaulx, employing many skilled craftsmen to do so. There was a corresponding crafts tradition founded by the paternalistic medieval guilds in centres like York, Pontefact and Wakefield. But collective, rigid work practices ended guild influence as their inflexibility could not adjust to new, emergent capitalistic merchant systems in cities and towns.

Yet country craftsmen continued to provide essential, sustainable self-sufficiency in remote villages in the Yorkshire Dales or North York Moors at the mercy of poor communications and seasonal weather. Blacksmith, joiner, tinker, potter and wheelwright provided their services to their landlords and also by barter between their equals in the village. This remained largely unchanged until well into the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution.

In my spare time at weekends and on holidays in the Seventies, I set about photographing Yorkshire's remarkably widespread tradition of craftsmanship I chose black and white images because they emphasised the shape and texture of the objects being made more graphically than colour, which can be a distraction. I used a 35mm SLR camera rather than large format equipment which gave an interesting rawness to the enlarged print. Without using a flash I stuck to a 28mm lens which allowed me to include an impression of the environment in which the individual worked.

I soon realised the importance of what I was doing. Some craftsmen were nearing retirement age and had no-one to follow them. Urban craftsmen were in danger of being turned out of their rented premises to make way for new developments in city centres like Sheffield.

Looking back I now realise what debt I owed to those two remarkable people, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby, particularly their trilogy of Life and Tradition books and whose lifetime work in words and images is the basis of the Dales Countryside Museum at Hawes but whose books are now sadly out of print.

The project produced many delightful and memorable experiences. As if I was being allowed to meet members of a secret society, I was passed from one individual to another, who were each only too happy to talk about their craft once they understood my genuine interest. A chance meeting with a beesom maker in Pickering led to a real character in the wilds of Gillamoor in the North York Moors who made shepherd's crooks as well as staffs for archbishops and bishops. A ropemaker introduced me to a coble builder in Whitby. He explained how he sought and picked all the wood himself. A waggon maker in East Yorkshire passed me on to an old blacksmith in a small village whose 250-year-old smithy was as delightful as his name, George Twiddle. As a mark of respect and gratitude I made a particular point of giving each person I met one of my photos.

Some individual meetings stand out. I remember one Wensleydale stone-waller, Geoff Lund, used to working on his own in all weathers.

Watching him at work high on a moor above Kettlewell and listening to his trenchant and cogently expressed views I realised he was far better informed about world affairs than I was. He was part of a dynasty of wallers since the Middle Ages whose handiwork both defines the Dales landscape and secures farmers' livestock and crops.

As well as individual self-reliance there can be great team-spirit among craftsmen. The Sissons family, for example, at Beswick-in-the-Wolds in East Yorkshire were a proud family of wagon-builders and wheelwrights. When I met them three generations were still working together – Percy, his son Cyril and his grandson Bernard. A prize exhibit in their yard was a four-wheeled East Yorkshire wagon capable of carrying four tons, built in 1890 by a previous member of the Sissons family and decorated in yellow and red with as much brio as any piece of fairground equipment. This represented the pinnacle of the wagon-builder and wheelwright's crafts. I treasure one occasion when I watched Percy, Cyril and Bernard hooping or putting the metal tyres on wooden wheels – heating up the metal, hammering the tyre into place on the wheel and then drenching the hot iron with water to prevent the wood from burning while the metal noisily contracted to the correct fit.

As the project developed I came to regard the craftspeople I met as "privileged people" because of their strong motivation and obvious personal satisfaction. Fortunately there are still a number – not many – around to preserve the traditions. Making objects for practical use rather than decoration, they work by hand with wood, stone, metal, leather and fibre from start to finish with the simplest of tools, using eye and intuition more than exact rule. They have skills, techniques, standards and values which are no longer common in manufacturing industry and which defy the rational approach of the engineer or industrial designer.

What can we learn from them as individuals which is relevant to the world of work today? As well as control from raw material to finished object, the close link between maker and user is crucial. Many factory or office workers cannot easily see the relevance or influence of their own work. The end use is usually remote or unknown. But the majority of craftsmen usually know their customers well and often regard them as personal friends. They are able to discuss details with them while the job is being planned and executed. A relationship develops as the object takes shape.

There is mutual respect. The craftsman knows that the customer expects quality and skill. But the satisfaction when the job is completed is deep on both sides. How different from the situation where the only contact which most of us have with manufacturer or supplier is via the telephone or the internet

For those of us who choose to buy from craftspeople there is the realisation, which has existed over the centuries, that there is a unique quality and worth about each handmade object as well as the deep pleasure gained from design exactly matched to practicality. Many can be modest and shy of publicity, fearful that exposure may swamp them with orders which they cannot fulfil.

I have also found that the craftsman's approach to his work creates a state of mind which is both relaxed and yet keenly absorbed. Many of the craftsmen I met and listened to talked fluently and wisely not only about details of their work but of ideas and affairs in much wider context. They are intensely interested in the work of other craftsmen and go to considerable lengths to learn about other materials and techniques. Most craftsmen are remarkably free from stress and seem to live to a great age in health and happiness.

A great deal of dignity and pride in our work today, sadly, has been lost because of the effects of cutbacks, new technology, fierce and often ruthless competitive pressures with an increasing fragmentation of responsibility and standardisation of routine in office or factory. If only we could add fresh significance to people's working lives maybe there could be greater personal satisfaction and happiness. Is this just being sentimental and unrealistic? Hopefully we can learn something from the privileged people. Sheffield Hallam University have agreed to take all my photographs for safe-keeping.

A selection of the images by David Morgan is now available on line at via Google.

YP MAG 22/1/11