Paul Felix has spent over forty years photographing traditional craftsmen and women across Britain. The best of these photographs appear in a new book The Book of Forgotten Crafts, which reveals the fascinating history of British craftsmanship in a series of interviews with leading crafters at work in Britain today. Here Paul explains how he became involved.
“Crafts have always been in my family; both my grandfathers worked with their hands, one with brick and stone and the other with wood, and so did my father. They would say they saw themselves as tradesmen rather than craftsmen – it’s a fine line where one stops and the other starts. l remember my father making a very fine model of a sailing warship, cutting and carving the wood and even making the cannons and cannon balls. I didn’t follow him. Instead l became a press photographer working on national daily newspapers in London. After a few years l moved on to magazines and colour supplements. l found myself on assignments photographing craftsmen all over the country and I became fascinated by their work. My early memories of watching my father in his workshop gave me an ability to appreciate the finer points of their work. As newspapers and magazines changed to focus largely on the world of celebrity, crafts and stories about real people were pushed off the pages; but I continued to seek out and photograph traditional craftsmen whenever l could find them.
In 1999 Tom Quinn and l produced the popular craft book “Last of the Line” published by David & Charles. This generated some interest in the craft movement, and most magazines that cover country matters now like to feature crafts. This can only help the craftsmen and women of this country, each of whom has a very special skill, and a love of what they do. But they need the all the help and publicity we can give them.
With Siân Ellis and Tom Quinn, my long-time collaborators and fellow crafts fans, I have been meeting and photographing some of the best craftspeople in the country. Now we’ve produced “The Book of Forgotten Crafts” and, with the help of David & Charles, l hope and believe we can promote craft in Britain and around the world.
I never fail to be impressed by the commitment of craftspeople, their unrivalled knowledge, their tremendous skills, and the intense passion they have for what they do. In most cases they are continuing a long tradition that stretches back into the mists of time, often using the simplest of tools and methods that would have been familiar to their counterparts centuries ago. That’s not to say that in some cases they have not taken advantage of modern technology; however, that does not stop the products they make from being thoroughly hand crafted. My father showed me the way, just as the previous generation had shown him.
I think we are so lucky to have this large pool of craftspeople in this country – we could have filled this new book twice over! Now, I just hope we can support them, particularly by buying their goods. After all, a man making suits of armour has a very small customer base, but then he only needs one or two orders each year. By contrast, importers of cheap goods are only interested in large quantities, and quality may not be a priority.
Craftspeople in this country can – and do – supply very high quality merchandise that you only get from handmade products, using only the very best materials. Over recent years people in Britain have got into the mindset that cheap is best, and they are perhaps reluctant to pay extra for good quality.
Another of the problems many craftspeople have is the difficulty of charging a realistic rate for their time, which tends to make their business uneconomic. One craftsman I knew, who made fine fishing rods, felt unable to charge a sensible rate, and a few weeks after l photographed him he decided to shut up shop. I’m sure his customers would have paid a little extra. It’s a great loss to see all that skill wasted. However, some craftsmen have moved with the times, and do charge the going rate, while others run courses on their crafts, which have become very popular with the public. These have the benefits of providing craftspeope with income, giving them pleasure of passing on their skills and hopefully inspiring a new generation.
I hope that The Book of Forgotten Crafts will encourage more people of all ages to take an interest and get involved, and that it will re-kindle a desire for beautiful, handmade objects – and that the public will learn to appreciate their true worth.” Paul Felix, February 2011
The Book of Forgotten Crafts: Keeping the Traditions Alive by Paul Felix, Siân Ellis and Tom Quinn
Foreword by Robin Wood, Chair, Heritage Crafts Association
978 0 7153 3831 5 256 pages colour photographs throughout
Buy now at an excellent discount from RUBooks