Let’s get leathered
Bringing treasured leather heirlooms back to life is painstaking work. Matthew Dennison meets the Anglesey man with magic hands
Matthew Dennison meets the man breathing new life into treasured heirlooms
I’M the best-kept secret in London, someone told me last year,’ Martin Ashworth remembers. In his Anglesey workshop, London feels a long way away. The lanes that weave their sparse tracery across this south-western corner of the Welsh island are lined with patchy thorn bushes; new fronds of green fern push against the skeletons of last year’s cow parsley. Beyond sloping fields lies the sea.
Inside the workshop, sited in converted outbuildings, a solid-fuel Aga, made in 1946, fights the early-spring chill. Only yards from Martin’s farmhouse, across a gravelled yard, the workshop is otherwise unheated. ‘Sometimes, there’s frost on the inside of the windows,’ he admits. ‘The winds here can reach 50mph–100mph.’
Inside, however, all is calm. Painted stone walls are partly lined with shelves. Here are bottles of oils and tins of wax. Offcuts of grainy, vegetable-dyed leather in a rainbow of colours are heaped on a bench like a vignette from The Elves and the Shoemaker alongside swatches of woollen baize. On benches and in drawers lie the myriad tools of Martin’s trade as one of the country’s leading leather craftsmen and a specialist in the refurbishment of antique and vintage leather goods.
A former Royal Marine, the sexagenarian opened his first workshop more than two decades ago. Today, he works for private clients internationally as well as being the specialist of choice for leading London auction houses, including Sotheby’s and Bonhams, and a number of museums. For the past 18 months, he has worked extensively on commissions for customers of gunmaker William Evans. His reputation has spread by word of mouth, partly as a result of his skill, partly his versatility.
Martin is clear that his work is refurbishment rather than restoration: ‘You can’t return antique leather to its original condition any more than you can return human skin to an earlier condition. It’s a natural product and its condition reflects its life. What I can do is give something a second chance and the satisfaction of refurbishment is in bringing an object back to life and usefulness.’
He continues: ‘I avoid restoration—i resist trying to make an object look like new. What customers overwhelmingly want is something that looks well used, but well loved. Refurbishment keeps the character of a piece: it preserves a sense of age and history.’
Much of his work focuses on luggage and sporting paraphernalia. A commission to restore a gun case for Anglesey landowner Sir George Meyrick led to similar commissions among Sir George’s friends; Martin now also makes gun cases from scratch. The continuing interest in vintage accessories ensures a steady flow of leather suitcases and Gladstone bags through the workshop.
In the case of the latter, the craftsman attributes his success to the reluctance of others to take on such time-consuming jobs. ‘Invariably, with Gladstone bags, the linen stitching has deteriorated and the seams have come apart. Originally, these bags were stitched together inside out, then turned right way round. However, you can’t turn a 100-year-old bag inside out—the leather won’t let you—so I’m working inside it to re-stitch the seams, working blind and patiently.’ He currently has five such commissions on the bench.
His working diet is remarkably varied. Alongside leather cases, he’s refurbishing a pair of Napoleonic pistol holsters, two handsome, late-victorian leg-of-mutton gun cases, a leather fishing wallet for storing flies dating from 1904, two Second World War RAF Irvin flying jackets and a clutch of inter-world War leather jewellery boxes.
Memorable projects in the past have included vanity cases formerly belonging to the British-born Queen Maud of Norway, a daughter of Edward VII, leather gunroom furniture and a three-panel embossed and gilded Italian leather altar frontal, made in 1690, which was temporarily removed from a church in London for Martin to refurbish it, including a full regilding.
Refurbishment keeps its character and preserves a sense of age and history
Having previously served as a guide on HMS Victory, he particularly enjoyed working on seaman’s trunks belonging to a naval officer who had fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, still in the possession of the officer’s family. Another commission included leather goods from a Russian ship that sank 300 years ago, on the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel.
‘I work on a lot of family pieces,’ Martin tells me. ‘Some of these items are worth only a few pounds, but are worth much more to their owners. I’ve had commissions from Tasmania, New Zealand and the USA as well as mainland Europe. The cost of postage to and from the workshop can exceed the cost of refurbishment and both exceed the item’s value in some cases, but, as objects outlive people, there’s the enjoyment of giving something back to a family.’
His awareness of the emotional investment owners make in their favourite pieces adds another dimension to his work. ‘It can be nerve-wracking. Essentially, I’ve taught myself over the years—confidence comes with a lot of experience. However, once you start, there’s no going back. It’s somebody’s heirloom.’
Martin works by hand, a process that’s time-consuming and sometimes laborious: ‘I try to do everything as it was done initially, when money was no object.’ His enthusiasm is potent. ‘I enjoy what I do: like a hobby, it’s fun. Sometimes, I pop across the yard from the house to look at something in the workshop and I’m still there at 3am. So many of my jobs are one of a kind. The objects are special—when you touch them, they have their own electricity.’
They also yield clues to their original manufacture, which, in turn, guide Martin’s work. ‘Newspaper was sometimes used to stuff the handles of suitcases and carrying cases. If I’m lucky, it can at least give the date when the piece was made.’
There is a timeless quality to the Anglesey landscape in which he lives and works. Beyond resurfacing of the lanes and a spidery fretwork of power cables and their posts, his is a view that has scarcely changed since he grew up on the island—indeed, that’s scarcely changed in centuries. It’s a rugged but tranquil outlook, in tune with the work that, with consummate skill, Martin pursues day in, day out, painstakingly, reviving items that would otherwise languish in attics or simply be discarded.
This man’s appetite for his craft is huge and no commission is too large or too small. ‘Often, clients can’t find anyone else to do the job,’ he confides. ‘People just don’t want to do this sort of fiddly work—nothing has beaten me yet.’ Long may that continue!
Martin Ashworth works by hand and enjoys mending people’s precious heirlooms