Let’s get leathered

Bring­ing trea­sured leather heir­looms back to life is painstak­ing work. Matthew Den­ni­son meets the An­gle­sey man with magic hands

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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

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