Ye olde DIY
A group of artisans renovate a house using Victorian techniques in an enlightening new series
Telly people do love going back in time. We’ve had shows with folk eating sheep’s heads, others where their homes are decorated in Forties style, and legions of corsets as part of the ‘fun’.
Now we have The Victorian House Of Arts And Crafts, which prises six modern- day artisans from their iPads and challenges them to design things the way the Victorians did. Not only will they have to decorate a mansion in the Welsh Hills, but they will have to live there for the duration, adhering to the principles set down by pioneers of the Arts And Crafts movement such as William Morris, John Ruskin and Gertrude Jekyll.
These artists rejected the industrial advances that swept Britain in the late 19th century, and believed that factory-based manufacturing, with its emphasis on speed and machinery, was counter- productive. They pushed for a return to more traditional manufacturing methods, and communal living was seen as a way of encouraging artists to share expertise and ethos.
Every week our modern artisans are challenged to decorate a particular room, pulling together to make, from scratch, objects like a chair, a bedside clock and a weather vane – watched over by presenter Anita Rani, ceramicist Keith Brymer Jones and Arts And Crafts expert Patch Rogers. The artisans cannot Google their designs, obviously, or pop to B&Q when they’ve run out of supplies. Power tools are most definitely banned.
Liverpool- based product designer Ilsa Parry designs eve- rything from lamps to walking aids. And the first thing she does at her workshop is turn on the computer. For her, taking part was about seeing how she would function without the design ‘trappings’.
‘Any piece starts with a notebook,’ she says. ‘I write down what I’m trying to achieve. But the next stage is invariably com- puter- aided. This wasn’t an option here and it tested us all.’ Ilsa is charged with designing and printing a William Morrisstyle wallpaper. ‘It took me 22 hours to do something that would be done in minutes on the computer. Someone had to physically make the printing blocks. There was no time to tweak things. I found that really difficult.’
It’s an enlightening show – not least because the group find themselves working in the dark. ‘That was one of the big adjustments,’ admits furnituremaker Abdollah Nafisi, who runs his own company in Horsham, West Sussex. ‘In my workshop I start at 9am, and keep going until whenever I want. Here, once the light started going, that was it. I had to start at 5am. If I waited till 9am, I’d have lost four hours of the day. I got into a routine of seeing the sunrise, making a fire.’ Oh yes, without central heating, it was often freezing. ‘But you realised that if you worked hard you’d get warm. Once you’d made that shift, it made the work more enjoyable.’ It wasn’t the only adjustment. At his workshop Abdollah can spend four months working on a bespoke piece. In the house, he has to select his materials the way the Victorians would have.
‘I go to my wood supplier and they have the wood sawn and ready. I choose the grain.’ In the show, Abdollah is stunned to take delivery of a large tree. It is up to him to do the rest – and he can’t just plug in a power saw.
‘The worst part was the finishing,’ he admits. ‘It all had to be done by hand, which is laborious. I knew I wouldn’t manage alone, so I had to call the others in to help me. It was fascinating. When you use a hand-plane you get into the rhythm of it. You see the wood shavings coming off and every one is different. By the end, funnily, you don’t want to stop.’
But would he want to work like this all the time? ‘I love the modern age. I would have loved to see William Morris using Instagram. But it made me think about getting that balance in my work. The focus was extraordinary. There were no distractions, no phones ringing. We got a lot done.’
It is the communal ‘lifestyle’ that seems to test the participants most. In the kitchen, Ilsa decides Arts And Crafts life is not for her when she has to prepare pig’s trotters for cooking by shaving hair from them and scraping fat from the claws. ‘It was disgusting,’ she says. ‘I wanted to be sick.’
It was one skillset she reckons is best consigned to history.
Host Anita Rani, centre, with the participants and experts on The Victorian House Of Arts And Crafts
Ilsa Parry has a go at hand-printing wallpaper