‘Dex­ter­ous fin­gers per­form ac­tions I can’t see with­out a mag­ni­fy­ing glass’

Care­fully crafted and a favourite of Queen Vic­to­ria, a Win­sor and New­ton paint­brush is a work of art in it­self, says Clive Aslet, as he re­ports from the firm’s fac­tory

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Fort­num & ma­son, more­cambe and Wise, steak and kid­ney—these are some of the great part­ner­ships of Bri­tish life. an­other, to those of artis­tic bent, is Win­sor and new­ton (www.win­sornew­ton.com), the firm that be­gan in 1832 as a clever col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween a chemist, Wil­liam Win­sor, and an artist, Henry new­ton.

their devel­op­ment of paint in tubes ar­guably changed the course of art: could there have been the en plein air of Im­pres­sion­ism with­out it? ‘Your busi­ness, Win­sor, is to make colour. mine is to use them,’ replied an un­gra­cious J. m. W. turner af­ter it was ob­served that some of his tints might prove fugitive and mu­seum cu­ra­tors have been re­gret­ting his stub­born­ness ever since.

Colour, how­ever, was not the only thing the com­pany made. It also sup­plied Queen Vic­to­ria with brushes. they had sil­ver fer­rules and ebony han­dles. Her favourite size was 7. this came to be pro­duced in a range called se­ries 7. se­ries 1–6 may have gone by the way­side, but se­ries 7 re­mains a crown jewel among brushes. and best of all, it’s made in Eng­land.

orig­i­nally, Win­sor and new­ton op­er­ated from rath­bone Place, off Lon­don’s ox­ford street. then in an artists’ quar­ter, this was where new­ton lived. since 1946, the brush­mak­ing busi­ness has been lo­cated in Low­est­oft in suf­folk, in what had pre­vi­ously been a Vic­to­rian brew­ery, al­though the site is also re­mark­able as hav­ing been that of the Low­est­oft Porce­lain works, ac­tive from the 1750s.

the rea­son the brush en­ter­prise trans­ferred from Lon­don was labour. It was dif­fi­cult to find work­ers af­ter the sec­ond World War and brush-mak­ing is still a craft in which many pro­cesses are done by hand. It can take 18 months be­fore a re­cruit has mas­tered the stages in­volved in pro­duc­ing a se­ries 7 brush. a sta­ble work­force is, there­fore, es­sen­tial.

Hap­pily, richard Llewellyn, orig­i­nally from West Wales and now op­er­a­tions Busi­ness Devel­op­ment Direc­tor of Crown artist Brush Ltd, whose par­ent com­pany, Co­lart, owns the Win­sor and new­ton brand, has found it. a decade’s ser­vice is lit­tle more than an eye-blink. sev­eral em­ploy­ees have been at their benches for 25 years and 40 is not un­known: the su­per­vi­sor, Bob Har­rod, has been at the fac­tory since 1969. How­ever, at the other end of the age spec­trum, the com­pany also runs an ap­pren­tice­ship scheme to at­tract new blood.

the ap­peal of the job prob­a­bly doesn’t de­pend on the charms of the shop floor, which has some­thing in com­mon with the cigar fac­to­ries of Havana, ex­cept for the ab­sence of a desk for the read­ing of rev­o­lu­tion­ary lit­er­a­ture. there are few frills, only an at­mos­phere of in­tense con­cen­tra­tion as the ladies (nearly all the brush-mak­ers are women) work their magic. Dex­ter­ous fin­gers per­form ac­tions that I some­times can’t see with­out the help of a mag­ni­fy­ing glass. magic? I’d be in­clined to call it a mir­a­cle.

a re­ally good brush is fat in the mid­dle, so that it can carry plenty of colour, but comes

‘Dex­ter­ous fin­gers per­form ac­tions I can’t see with­out a mag­ni­fy­ing glass

to a fine point at the top, al­low­ing the artist to ap­ply the most del­i­cate of dabs. These qual­i­ties are the prop­erty of an­i­mal fur; syn­thetic fil­a­ments may be all very well for some pur­poses—paint­ing with acrylic, for ex­am­ple —but the finest wa­ter­colour re­quires kolin­sky sable, so each Se­ries 7 starts with a tail.

There’s a bag of them—washed, but still smelling a bit fer­rety—at the be­gin­ning of the process. Each once adorned the rear of an Asi­atic weasel—mustela sibir­ica (which, de­spite the name, isn’t at all the same an­i­mal as Martes zi­bel­lina, the pine marten used for sable coats). The kolin­skies come from Siberia and Manchuria, where they’re trapped dur­ing the spring, un­der a regime that is CITES (an in­ter­na­tional treaty drawn up in 1973 to pro­tect wildlife from over ex­ploita­tion) ac­cred­ited.

Sable brushes are still made from the same in­gre­di­ents as in Queen Vic­to­ria’s day (ex­cept for im­prove­ments to the ad­he­sive), us­ing iden­ti­cal meth­ods.

Michelle is grad­ing the hairs, which in­volves cut­ting the fur off the tail, as close to the root as pos­si­ble, then comb­ing out the wool that lies next to the skin—only the guard hairs are used in brush-mak­ing. Hairs that are blunt or turned must be dis­carded and the good hairs must be sep­a­rated into lengths. This is done by gath­er­ing them up and rolling a ruler over them—hey presto, they’re lined up in or­der. Ob­vi­ously, big brushes need long hairs—but don’t think that it would be any good cut­ting them down for the lit­tle brushes. Each size of brush must be made from hair at its nat­u­ral length.

The hairs leave Michelle’s desk in small card­board tubes about the size of a cig­a­rette and will pass across five fur­ther desks be­fore leav­ing the fac­tory as fin­ished brushes. How­ever, that only hap­pens af­ter they’ve been boiled, ironed and left to sit for some while to re­move static.

Some very small hairs have reached San­dra’s desk, which has a big mag­ni­fy­ing glass to one side and a pow­er­ful lamp to the other. She’s mak­ing size 00—not the very small­est the com­pany makes, but, at 7mm long, a lit­tle shorter than some eye­lashes.

Try as I might, my eyes can­not see—or my mind com­pute—how she can, with a prac­tised twist, get the hairs to go obe­di­ently into the metal tube (not ac­tu­ally the fer­rule at this stage) known as the can­non. Those of us who find it dif­fi­cult enough to put a sin­gle thread through the eye of a nee­dle can only watch in awe as these many hairs obe­di­ently slide into the can­non, with­out a sin­gle one go­ing astray.

This isn’t the only piece of daz­zling dex­ter­ity that San­dra will per­form on each of the cou­ple of hun­dred brush heads that she makes each day. There’s an enor­mous spool of linen thread on her desk, one end of which she holds in her teeth. Hav­ing rolled the hairs to form a domed mid­dle and ta­pered tip, she’ll take a length of the thread and neatly tie her minute bun­dle of hairs. A quick lick brings the brush to a point, the brush head is checked for length and it’s ready for glu­ing. Note: some grades of brush are only glued, but the very best are tied as well.

It would be wrong to say that ma­chines are ab­sent from this fac­tory. There are some, which are small and spe­cialised, of­ten spe­cially made for the com­pany or oth­er­wise cun­ningly adapted. Glu­ing—the ap­pli­ca­tion of blobs of ad­he­sive to the end of the nick­elplated brass fer­rules (only Queen Vic­to­ria got sil­ver) that now con­tain the hairs—is done in batches. There is also a ma­chine that crimps the fer­rule onto the birch­wood han­dle by means of a sharp squeeze.

Fin­ished brushes, in their liv­ery of lac­quered gloss black, are shuf­fled onto a lit­tle con­veyor belt, like sol­diers on pa­rade, be­fore be­ing stamped with their size num­ber and logo in gold. There’s lit­tle point in tak­ing mech­a­ni­sa­tion fur­ther: the num­bers in which the dif­fer­ent types and sizes of brush that are made here are too small. Be­sides, Bob is firmly con­vinced that old meth­ods are the best. ‘I’ve been here 47 years and we’ve tried many, many ways of mak­ing brushes—shap­ing canons, ma­chines, all sorts of things,’ he ex­plains, ‘but when it comes to the pre­mier prod­uct, Se­ries 7, we just can’t do it any other way.’

Would Turner have ap­proved? David La­marche did. Some years ago, he wrote a let­ter af­ter ac­quir­ing a Se­ries 7 size 12, whose spring was ‘very much like a small feather skip­ping on wa­ter… I imag­ine that you were prob­a­bly singing in your heart when you made this par­tic­u­lar brush as it seems to have been blessed in some way’.

The framed let­ter now hangs in a fac­tory that con­fers a bless­ing on ev­ery brush that it sends out into the world—that of tra­di­tion, ex­pe­ri­ence and skill.

‘I imag­ine you were singing in your heart when you made this par­tic­u­lar brush

Most of the steps to cre­ate a Win­sor and New­ton brush are per­formed by hand: se­lect­ing suit­able hairs from an Asi­atic weasel (far left), sort­ing the hairs for length (cen­tre left) and ty­ing them ready to be placed into their fer­rule (left)

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