Established in 1990 by the Royal Warrant Holders Association, The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) is a charity dedicated to supporting the crème de la crème of British craftsmanship. It gives the UK’s most gifted makers a golden opportunity to advance their careers through initiatives such as scholarships and apprenticeships. There are links, too, to be found between QEST and Aston Martin, itself a Royal Warrant Holder – alongside the likes of D R Harris, Wedgwood and Lock & Co – and proud champion of British design excellence. A number of QEST scholars have gained invaluable design experience working at Aston Martin over the years, while David Linley — QEST’s Vice Patron — collaborated with the marque on the interior of the Lagonda Vision concept car. Linley is a firm believer in the work of QEST, asserting that its work is as important today as it was when the charity was founded in 1990. “Things that are created by hand are warm and capture emotion,” he says. “We need to encourage, support, inspire and applaud the great pool of making talent we have in this country.” 2020 marks QEST’s 30th anniversary and while Covid-19 may have scuppered some celebrations — for now — the work of its scholars continues apace.
As an artist blacksmith — or “artsmith”, as she terms it — North Devon-based Bex Simon forges strikingly modern pieces through the ancient practice of harnessing fire, heat and molten metal. Crafting everything from outdoor sculptures and interior design features to bespoke metalwork, cast-iron kitchenware and large-scale public art commissions, Simon’s fascination with the craft was first ignited during a forging and welding demonstration attended during an Art Foundation course at the Surrey Institute.
“I actually started out in ceramics, but working with clay is a slow process and I am an impatient person! I realised that I needed to work with a material that could be formed and shaped relatively quickly,” she says. “When I saw the hot metal and sparks at that demonstration, I knew that blacksmithing was a craft I needed to explore.”
Working chiefly with mild (low carbon) steel, Simon explores a fusion of old and new in her work, applying traditional approaches to contemporary concepts. Basic blacksmith techniques used to shape metal in fire include splitting, twisting, punching, bending and tapering, although Simon explains that modern-day innovations such as laser cutters and power hammers can be used to produce more avant-garde effects. “I have mixed previous work with contrast materials such as Perspex, as well as using video, sound sampling and a cymatics machine.” She cites a pink anvil as one of her favourite tools — it’s also her logo — purchased for “the irony of a female working with a pink anvil”.
Women are still a rarity in the traditionally male-led craft of blacksmithing, especially when she started out in the late 1990s. As she explains: “When I turned up at the Battersea warehouse that I bought the anvil from, the lads running the place laughed at me — I had that a lot back then. But then they realised that I knew what I was talking about. None of the anvils I saw fitted what I was after, but then the team showed me others that had been stored out the back, which had been painted as a protective measure — including a big, bright pink one. I knew I had to buy it.”
Later, in 2018, Simon was accepted as a QEST Howdens Scholar of Blacksmithing, giving her the means to pursue her long-held interest in geometry and the mathematics of the natural world through the Open Programme at The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts. 2019 also saw her scoop the prestigious Tonypandy Cup for blacksmithing — she is the first woman ever to be awarded it — from the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths, after completing There and Now, a dazzlingly ambitious 40m-long public art installation that spans the entire front exterior of Westminster Magistrates Court, commissioned by the Ministry of Justice.
Alongside geometry studies and compiling work for a potential exhibition at the 2021 Collect fair for craft and design, Simon is currently working on a number of public art commissions, one of which involves the upcycling of two large shipping buoys into giant vases with forged flora that will stand at five metres high once complete. She will also feature on the next BBC TV series of Money for Nothing demonstrating smaller upcycles.
Although she has mostly worked solo since setting up her company in 1999, Simon has felt “very much part of a family” as a result of her QEST scholarship. “QEST has not only helped me fulfil my dream of carrying on my geometry studies, but has really supported me since with publicity and new opportunities,” she says. “There is a real appreciation of good quality craftmanship in the UK. Organisations such as QEST help people like me who want to further their education in craft.”
“Sculpture is hard, physical work,” says Thomas Merrett. “It involves heavy boots and tools, welding, hammering, molten metal and chipping stone. There are lots of challenging aspects, such as the careful chiselling of a piece of irreplaceable marble or making delicate changes of form in the softer medium of clay.” He pauses. “But this is what makes the craft so interesting.”
Based in London, Merrett’s artistry ranges from drawings to prints, but he is best known for his remarkably expressive “portrait-sculptures”, in which he strives to create a “unique interpretation” of his subjects, rather than just an accurate replication of their likeness.
“For me, capturing someone’s character is the most important thing. This seems impossible when starting out, but develops slowly the more clay that is added and more time that is spent with the sitter,” he explains. “Sculpting someone is an intimate process and it doesn’t take long for someone’s character to appear to you. The skill is to not make a caricature, but to emphasise certain features to draw the attention of the viewer.”
Merrett’s method begins with drawings — typically in charcoal — taken from direct observation of the human body, before translating his vision into clay. “Clay is my favourite medium, because of its malleability. I do all my decision-making in clay as it allows me to be more creative with form and composition. It’s only when I’m completely satisfied with the sculpture that I cast it in plaster and then carve it or cast it.” At that point, the piece is transformed into its ultimate form at a foundry in Limehouse, near his studio. Final materials include bronze and marble. “Last year I drove to Tuscany to source blocks and visit the quarries where the marble comes from. Some of the quarries were opened by Michelangelo and are the same material used for David and other sculptures.”
Merrett became a QEST Garfield Weston Foundation Scholar in 2014, specialising in stone carving and sculpture. As part of his scholarship he travelled to Italy to spend a year studying at the lauded Florence Academy of Art, equipping him with a high level of training in observation and sculpture from live models.
“The workshop has had a huge impact on my career,” he says. “The rigorous training allowed me to develop my own work as a figurative sculptor with confidence. The freedom of working from drawings after the model has left gives a huge degree of freedom and allows me to create a sculpture as an aesthetic response to form. Without this opportunity, my work would likely have developed in a significantly different way — certainly at a slower pace. It is not possible to acquire this level of training in the UK, so QEST’s support enabled me to travel for the education that I required.”
Merrett’s scholarship has also proved beneficial for artists back home. For the past four years, he has worked as a visiting tutor at the City & Guilds of London Art School, passing on his knowledge of drawing and stone carving to the next generation of artists. “Some of my students are QEST scholars — it’s a nice full circle.” He still has plenty to be getting on with in his studio, too. At the time of writing, Merrett is in collaboration with fellow QEST scholar Dr Emma Payne on a project involving three carved marble heads, while also finishing a large multi-scale sculpture for a private collector. “It’s an interpretation of William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell consisting of three bronze and three marble figures,” he says. “I’ve worked on this project for the past two years. The bronze work was completed early in the spring and I am now doing the final polish of the marble before it heads to its new home.”
“I always knew that I wanted to work with my hands. From an early age I had a love of making clothes,” says Jennie Adamson. Her background is impressive: having initially shunned university in the pursuit of learning a skill, she cut her teeth on Savile Row, immersing herself in the hallowed world of bespoke tailoring through the likes of Maurice Sedwell and Gieves & Hawkes. Then, after friend, shoemaker and past scholar Deborah Carre told her about QEST, Adamson decided to apply, becoming a 2016 QEST Johnnie Walker Scholar – Bespoke Tailoring in 2016. “QEST made it possible for me to take a step back from my traditional Savile Row roots and pursue a more creative outlook, by developing my pattern-cutting skills at Central Saint Martins art school.”
Adamson now works independently from her own studio in Bloomsbury, creating bespoke suits on a freelance basis. Her creative process begins with detailed discussions with her client, pinpointing everything from style preferences to what the garment will be used for and the climate it will inhabit. “I cut, fit and make all the pieces in my workshop. Clients always deal with me directly; the relationship between customer and tailor is very personal. It’s important for me to understand their lifestyle and what they desire from pieces in their wardrobe,” she says.
The next step is to choose the cloth — Adamson typically uses British-woven cloths made with natural fibres, such as Huddersfield wool, as they are easy to shape. She then takes body measurements, before creating a paper pattern that is unique to the client. “This pattern is kept on record and adjusted after every fitting, of which there are usually three to four for the first suit,” adds Adamson. “The limits are almost endless when it comes to commissioning a bespoke suit. You can customise everything from the choice of cloth and lining to the silhouette and proportions of different elements, down to the smallest details, like the sizes of the inside pockets.”
Having enhanced her traditional Savile Row training with the specialist knowledge gained on the creative pattern-cutting course, Adamson is able to combine precise techniques for creating long-lasting garment structure with an expert approach to cutting that elegantly harmonises with the body’s natural shape. Not one for following trends, her designs have a distinctively timeless appeal. “My pieces feel comfortable and effortless to wear, yet the subtle architectural silhouette will always look elegant and personal.”
Unlike impersonal factory-made tailoring, Adamson believes that custom-made suits are an investment well worth making. “It’s quality over quantity,” she says. “Bespoke suits are made to be altered — inlays are left on the seams to allow for adjustments over the years as the body changes. When looked after, a bespoke suit can last for more than a lifetime.”
As a QEST scholar, Adamson is extremely grateful for the support received and opportunities uncovered as a result of her funding. “QEST does a fantastic job of creating a community of likeminded people, craftspeople and supporters of craft and, most importantly, help for those who want to pursue a career in craft,” she says. “Although craft is having a resurgence, more needs to be done to protect and promote it. It is vital to our industry that skills are passed on.”