Past Perfect by Dr John Goodall
8th February 2021
Meet four QEST scholars using their skills to preserve the UK’s heritage for generations to come
Britain’s built heritage is one of its greatest assets. It makes our cities, towns, villages and countryside beautiful to live in and wonderful to visit. Now less importantly, it gives them a distinct character and links the lives of current generations with those long past. This heritage, though, does not look after itself; all buildings need maintenance and repair. Historic ones, however, need these tasks to be undertaken sympathetically and skilfully if their special character is to be preserved. That requires the men and women who care for our built heritage today to be masters of the trades and crafts that first created it.
Over the past 30 years, QEST has played a vital role in fostering those skills across the country. Through the charity, it’s possible for aspiring craftspeople to acquire the additional skills and experience that allow them to take their interested forward in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be possible and, in doing so, keep the country’s built heritage alive.
“Heritage is a vital link between past and future generations,” stonemason and QEST Scholar John Sutcliffe says. “To work with it is to follow in the footsteps of the scores of craftsmen and women who have built and embellished our most previous and diverse places.”
After studying social anthropology at Edinburgh, Sutcliffe decided to train as a stonemason at the Building Crafts College, London. He subsequently worked on the restoration of St Pancras station and then apprenticed as a cathedral mason at Gloucester. From 2008-15, he worked on the restoration of the east facade of York Minster and in 2015-17 took a postgraduate diploma in Historic Stone Carving at City & Guilds of London Art School. While there, he won a travel award to Rom. Inspired by his travels, a QEST Kirby Laing Foundation Scholarship allowed him to learn the techniques of marble sculpture in Italy the following year, at the Cooperativa di Scultura di Carrara.
Today, Sutcliffe is working on the restoration of the Elizabeth Tower at the Palace of Westminster, where he is carving replacement sculptural elements for the building. “My work on Big Ben is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Sutcliffe says. “Being given some responsibility for the care of one of our most iconic living buildings at the very heart of our society is a privilege I’ll never forget.”
Kate Montagne-Macdonald explored a very different world of sculpture when she became the first QEST Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation Scholar in 2013. This award enabled her to undertake a two-year apprenticeship with Geoffrey Preston, a specialist in clay, cast plaster and stucco sculpture. At the time, she had already worked as a sculptor’s assistant and been involved with the award-winning Great Drawing Room ceiling at Great Fulford, Devon. “Working with Geoffrey was varied and extremely enjoyable,” says Montagne-Macdonald, “and I also had the chance to expand my knowledge of the history of architecture, sculpture and interior design, both through reading and through a number of field trips where I was able to spend time exploring museums and other sites featuring historic plasterwork.”
Through the scholarship she also practised clay modelling, drawing, moulding and casting. She has since worked on a variety of projects with Preston, which include the creation of a unicorn sculpture to hang in the stairwell of a private members’ club in London, a marine-themed project for The Goring hotel in Belgravia and currently, a series of limited-edition, high-relief sculptural panels.
The award in 2013 of a QEST Arts Society Scholarship allowed stained glass conservator Merlyn Griffiths to build on her experience of a year’s internship at York Glazier’s Trust (YGT), funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the NLHF). This work had focused on the restoration of the Great East Window of York Minster, one of the single largest expanses of medieval stained glass to survive in Europe. The scholarship made it possible for Griffiths to combine part-time study for an MA in Stained Glass Conservation and Heritage Management at the University of York, which she completed in 2015, with practical training at YGT. She is now a full-time member of the team in its wide-ranging and varied work.
“It has been such a pleasure to train and work in the heritage sector, something that would not have been possible without the generosity of QEST and its sponsors,” says Griffiths. “Not only did the funding allow me to study for an MA, it also enabled me to continue with my training in stained glass conservation at YGT. When I started there, the conservation of the Great East Window of York Minster was well underway and I had the honour of learning my trade while surrounded by glass dating from 1405. The wealth of experience that so many talented individuals brought to that project was astounding. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to work within YGT at this time, and I will always be proud of my contribution to protecting Britain’s medieval heritage. My passion for heritage, meanwhile, has continued to
grow – there are few other industries where you are able to hold an artefact in the palm of your hand and know you are helping to preserve it for countless future generations,” says Griffiths.
Not all QEST awards relate to historic buildings and building methods. The organisation has equally facilitated the exploration of techniques that serve the environment. Barbara Jones trained as a carpenter and joiner, founding Amazon Nails, a women’s roofing company, in 1989. She received a QEST Living Earth Scholarship in 1998 to learn more about lime plastering and cob building. Jones now runs a bespoke design company specialising in buildings made of straw and other natural materials. These include residential and commercial buildings, some of which are prefabricated.
At the same time, Jones jointly manages the School of Natural Building, which she founded in 2014 to run courses in natural building and deal with issues of planning, design and technical design. “Natural building contains within it the hope of dealing with the climate emergency. It is closely related to heritage building – the same breathable, healthy, natural and durable materials, but with the added advantage of insulation to meet 21st century demands,” says Jones.
“I began this part of my career by wanting to provide affordable houses for ordinary people and I still feel passionately about this, with the addition of the ambition for them to be healthy as well. I am very proud to be able to say I have developed a training course that encompasses this, where 62% of trainees are women, and I have also worked on several hundred buildings made entirely without cement.”
QEST is now building on its achievements of the past 30 years and further broadening its activities in the field of building and architecture through its collaboration with The Prince’s Foundation, a charity established in 2018 by HRH The Prince of Wales by the merger of a number of his existing initiatives. It’s a natural marriage of interests: The Prince’s Foundation shares with QEST a number of common concerns, including the support of British craftsmanship, the preservation of our cultural heritage and the improvement of the built environment.
The first of these initiatives was the Traditional Building Skills Programme, a training programme combining short courses and workshops with a series of live training builds on heritage sites across the UK. Through a focus on practical, project-based education, this programme helped to further develop the technical skills and knowledge of those taking part.
This year saw the launch of a further joint initiative: the Building Arts Programme. This nine-month course explores the inter-relationship of architecture, the decorative arts and traditional craft, and the way in which they shape the world around us. Such initiatives promise to allow QEST to evolve and serve the interests of Britain’s built heritage long into the future.
This article was written by Dr John Goodall, Architectural Editor of Country Life. It first appeared in the QEST 30th anniversary magazine, September 2020, produced by Illustrated London News.