MEET OUR ARTISANS – THE BRUSHMAKERS
You wouldn’t expect to find a group of dedicated brushmakers in a sleepy coastal town, but a special team that now resides in Lowestoft has been passing down its knowledge for over 150 years. These days, the word ‘artisan’ is commonplace, but if ever there were craftspeople who fitted the description, it would be the makers of Winsor & Newton’s paintbrushes.
Many of these brushmakers have been honing their skills for almost 50 years and in that time they’ve become unsurpassed in the art and quality of what they do. Most started their careers as young apprentices and instantly fell in love with the profession, ‘This is a job where you heart must be in it, otherwise you’re never going to make it as a brushmaker,’ says irrepressible and infinitely talented supervisor, Bob Harrod – a man with an impressive 47 years’ experience of fashioning paintbrushes.
Mr Harrod knows everything there is about the craft. It’s his task to supervise the whole operation and all the stages involved in the creation of a brush. Indeed, the fine materials that form the Series 7 are treated by up to six highly skilled pairs of hands. From the first person who assesses the raw kolinsky sable to the people who clean and grade it, right through to the dressers and makers who fashion the brush, nothing is left to chance. And when it comes to all the ingredients that make the final product, Bob Harrod is very clear: ‘Even to this day, we only take the very best.’
Indeed, it simply wouldn’t do to have a damaged bristle in a Series 7 and the dressers are always looking out for blunt ends and imperfections. To say they have eagle-eyes is an understatement. Jenny Connor has been with the workshop for 39 years, ‘The public expect good quality products to come from us,’ she says as she performs one of the workshop’s most fascinating manoeuvres: separating the lengths. She does it by gathering the hairs on the table in a parallel bundle before rolling a ruler over them – amazingly, the hair lengths separate before your eyes and are ready for the next stages: wrapping, boiling, ironing and sitting for a week to remove static. Only then can they be passed onto the meticulous hands that will tie and form a paintbrush. ‘You don’t start on the Series 7, the top one,’ says Christine Rouse – who’s just celebrated 42 years of brushmaking, ‘when you’re good enough, then you’ll be moved up but not everyone can do it.’
Even though it’s a pleasure to be surrounded by such talent, skill and tradition, it’s natural to wonder why Winsor & Newton don’t just make everything by machine – we live in the digital age, after all. Bob Harrod has the answer: ‘The simple facts are that, at this point, we can’t find a better way of making a water colour brush to the standard we require. I’ve been here 47 years and we’ve tried many, many ways of making brushes – shaping canons, machines, all sorts of things. But when it comes to the premier product and we’re talking about the Series 7 - commonly known as the best artist’s water colour brush in the world, even today – we just can’t do it any other way.’
Indeed, how can you improve upon perfection?