In the hot seat
Sarah Thane, chair of Suffolk Craft Society on how the county has stolen her heart
FIRST a confession: I have known Sarah Thane since her early days as Chair of the Suffolk Craft Society. In December 2013, we drove to London together to set up a stall in the Burlington Arcade. Actually, Sarah drove, in her Ford C-Max, packed with delicate ceramics, prints and glassworks. It was pouring with rain and the traffic was terrible, but as we passed the time chatting, I realised what an extraordinary woman she is.
‘We loved London for the galleries and concert hall, but we didn’t know our neighbours’
The thing about Sarah is that she is so handson and funny and warm and, well, normal, that you forget she helped set up Ofcom, was a Commissioner for the National Lottery, was at the frontline of Thatcher’s ‘sealed auctions’ for TV franchises, at the birth of Independent radio in the 70s and 80s – and she was honoured by the Queen. Oh, and she’s also a magistrate.
I meet Sarah in her home in rural Suffolk, a charming thatched cottage at the end of a single-track lane. It is full of art – abstract paintings on the wall in a traditional kitchen. This is not a second home, but a proper home. Sarah and her husband, Peter Wenban, moved here from glamorous Little Venice in 2003, after living in London for 16 years. I asked what had brought about such a big move?
“One of the reasons was that I wanted to rediscover a sense of community,” she says. “We loved London for the galleries and concert hall, but we didn’t know our neighbours.” They both knew Suffolk, and felt it could fulfil their need for both community and culture. Sarah threw herself right in, signing up for everything she cared about and giving each her full attention. She and Peter are patrons of Bury’s Theatre Royal, regular attendees at Snape Maltings and love their local pub in Cotton, The Trowel and Hammer.
The house didn’t need too much work, although it did need to extend the over-cosy living room so they could fit in all their friends, family – they have 11 grandchildren – and of, course, the art. It’s now a large bright, beamed room filled with comfy sofas that overlooks the garden. Sarah shows me some of the art she has collected, and I see how her passion for quality control would translate to the Suffolk Craft Society’s ethos. They vigorously vet every artist and craftsperson before they join
their hallowed members’ list. “The constant challenge is trying to educate people that the craft we produce is not hobby craft,” she says. “Our makers are almost all graduates, or have been taught their discipline. They are seasoned craftmakers. Many of our makers use ancient skills, often very much rooted in the local landscape. I am constantly learning from them.” Sarah began life in Birmingham city, a very different world to the one she now lives in. Her father was a salesman for the steel industry, but as he rose in the ranks, the family moved up in life too, from Birmingham city to Sutton Coldfield and then Hagley.
“Both Mum and Dad were from poor backgrounds with large families, but I never felt any pressure to achieve,” she says. “When I did, it was considered a bonus. We were quite a sporty household, so I had a competitive streak and a desire to do the best I could. My dad once said to me and my brother: ‘I don’t care if you’re a dustman – just be the best dustman.’” When offered places at university, however, Sarah turned them down as her father suddenly became seriously ill. She went to nearby Birmingham Poly, and studied communications. Placements at the Birmingham Post and ATV, then Lew Grade’s company, gave her a taste for broadcasting and press. Tragically, her father died when she was midway through her diploma. She stayed in the Midlands to be with her mum, which turned out to be a wise move. After working for Horizon holidays, she landed a job at the Independent Broadcasting Authority’s Midlands branch, beoming the local radio officer, advertising and appointing franchises to new stations in the feeding frenzy once the
Suffolk Craft Society’s annual summer show celebrates homegrown talent and demonstrates that high quality craft is also an art form. Photo: Dennis Hales