Lord Snowdon became a master craftsman and wants to help others take up traditional British skills

The second Earl of Snowdon is telling me about the day his late mother, Princess Margaret, vanished just before an official lunch in her honour in New York.

Imagine the host’s mortification! Intending to greet his royal guest, who’d been in the room seconds earlier, he found she was nowhere to be seen. ‘She’d disappeared,’ says her son. 

‘Actually she was under the boardroom table inspecting its legs.’

Why would the Queen’s sister have had such a consuming interest in the table’s craftsmanship? Snowdon, known informally as the ‘royal carpenter’ and professionally as David Linley after his eponymous furniture-making business, explains that it was because he had designed it. 

David Linley (pictured), has revealed the wholehearted support he’d get from his family, particularly the Queen Mother and his own mother Princess Margaret as he strived to become a master craftsman

The vast table stood in the boardroom at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the mid-1980s.

‘It was a huge object: 88ft long with 66 colonnaded legs to echo the museum’s neo-classical facade. My mother had asked me, “Why did it take so long to make?” and I’d told her, “You’d have to look underneath to realise,” and she’d obviously remembered that.

‘She’d told everyone in the room that the most interesting part of the table was the colonnade underneath and at that point – just as she was crawling on the floor showing them the legs – the director walked in and said, “Where is everyone?”’

Snowdon, who inherited the title on the death last year of his father, photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, tells the story to make a serious point: all his family – not least his mum and grandmother, the Queen Mother, who died in 2002 – fostered his practical talents and wholeheartedly supported his endeavour to become a craftsman.

‘I wasn’t blessed with academic brilliance,’ he says modestly, ‘but I could make something and show people what I’d achieved. When I was 14 I made a table at school.’ 

Linley attended Bedales, an independent school in Hampshire that nurtures creativity and individuality. ‘It went to an exhibition at Worcester Cathedral. It was titled “Table” by David Linley. Or was it “Table?”’ (His humour is self-deprecating.) 

‘I still have it at my house in France and it’s lovely to stand on it and change a light bulb. As I get more ancient I find the longevity of things more appealing. 

Pictured is the first Lord Snowdon, photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, who died last year, with his family including wife Princess Margaret and his children David and Lady Sarah Armstrong Jones 

‘After the table, I made a little cigar box with secret mitred dovetail joints.’

When I look bemused by this technicality, he pulls out a drawer in a nearby cabinet to demonstrate how a ‘secret’ joint differs from a run-of-the mill one. ‘I gave the cigar box to Granny,’ he says. 

She was so proud of it that she proffered it to guests at dinners, even if they didn’t smoke. ‘It’s still here, in Clarence House, which is nice,’ he smiles.

Clarence House was the Queen Mother’s London home from 1953 until her death. It is also David’s birthplace and today the official residence in the capital of his first cousin Prince Charles, and the Duchess of Cornwall. 

So it is appropriate that we meet here to discuss a charity dear to both cousins, which was founded by their grandmother. The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) funds the education of talented, aspiring craftspeople through traditional college courses, apprenticeships or training with masters.

Talking about his path to become a craftsman, he said: ‘When I was 14 I made a table at school. It went to an exhibition at Worcester Cathedral. It was titled “Table” by David Linley’

Set up in 1990 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Royal Warrant Holders Association (the tradespeople who supply their crafts, services and products to the Royal Households), and the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, it has since awarded more than £4 million to almost 500 craftspeople, of all ages, across 130 different disciplines from glass-blowing to charcoal-burning; bespoke tailoring to thatching and harp-making.

Prince Charles, its Patron, explains why he believes that craft has always been at the heart of this country’s identity in the preface to a forthcoming book, A Celebration of British Craftsmanship, featuring the stories of more than 100 QEST scholars, who’ve been photographed by Julian Calder.

 The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) funds the education of talented, aspiring craftspeople through traditional college courses, apprenticeships or training with masters

David, with his reverence of, and aptitude for, craftsmanship was the obvious choice to be the charity’s vice-patron. ‘It’s about giving something back,’ he says, ‘helping others sustain our British cultural heritage. 

‘We have so much to be proud of. My mother, father; all my family have been very encouraging of me and what I am doing now is trying to support others, as I was helped.

‘It’s also about giving people hope and optimism. I remember sitting in my workshop and my chisel handle snapping in the frost. 

‘It’s incredibly tough sometimes, deciding to follow your dreams. You have to be encouraged continually, and QEST is reaching the next generation of makers, designers, creators and helping them be the best in their crafts.’

We go back to the inspiration and support his family gave him. Princess Margaret, who died in 2002 after a series of strokes, was married to the first Lord Snowdon for 18 years. 

Both creative and artistic, they imbued David, 56, and his younger sister Lady Sarah Chatto, 54, with a sense of what he calls the ‘romance’ of making things. There were trips, too, to art galleries with his mother and grandmother. 

‘I remember going to the National Gallery with my mother to see the Leonardo da Vinci cartoon. We’d been brought up knowing what a great draughtsman he was, and it was a wonderful opportunity.’

In the same spirit, he’s educated his own children. He and his wife Serena, the Countess of Snowdon, have a son, Charles, 18, and daughter Margarita, 16. 

‘I’d take them on a journey that was interesting for them. There’s a sweet little Inigo Jones church near here, so I’d take them there for half an hour so they could feel interested and understand its architectural importance, then I’d walk them down to the Royal Academy or the National Gallery or the Tate and we’d see one – just one – painting and be back in time for lunch, so they didn’t come out thinking, “Phew, thank goodness we’re leaving.”

 In the same spirit, he’s educated his own children. He and his wife Serena, the Countess of Snowdon, have a son, Charles, 18, and daughter Margarita, 16

‘It was very important that they were on a voyage of discovery and it was naughty and a little bit of fun. That was my job – to try to inject the element of fun – so for example there was a picture of my mother at the National Portrait Gallery by Pietro Annigoni and I told my daughter he’d signed it with a little portrait of himself in the corner.

‘My daughter was peering at it, trying to find the signature portrait, and the guard asked her to stand back a little bit. Then Margarita piped up, “How many people are in this picture?” I’m sure the guard thought, “This child is a little bit simple.” 

‘It was just a portrait of my mum. But then my daughter said, “Two!”’ (He impersonates his then young daughter’s triumphant falsetto.) ‘It’s all about being observant, sparking an interest.’

He made a cigar box and gave it to the Queen Mother (pictured in 1998). She was so proud of it that she proffered it to guests at dinners, even if they didn’t smoke. ‘It’s still here, in Clarence House, which is nice,’ says David

He seems an involved parent, and insists his own mother and father were too. There is a moment when he talks about the Annigoni portrait of Princess Margaret, which he now owns, when his guard drops and he seems almost speechless with emotion.

‘It’s my favourite portrait of her,’ he says, ‘because when you see it you always feel she’s in the room, a guiding influence, and it’s lovely to have her there with you. It’s as if she’s looking at you, saying… She’s saying lots of things. 

‘Every day she’s saying something different.’

Outside, the military band signals the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. ‘My children aren’t Royal,’ Princess Margaret is reputed to have once observed. 

‘They just have the Queen as their aunt.’ But I’m reminded of how close to the centre of monarchy we are.

 He seems an involved parent, and insists his own mother and father were too

Yet Linley’s recollections are of a home-spun childhood. He recalls his father teaching him to improvise toys out of scraps of wood. 

‘As a child I wanted to buy a submarine for bath-time,’ he remembers. ‘But my dad said, “No, we can make one for free.” 

‘So we did, using a bit of wood we found in a shed and attaching a picture hook and a ring at the front, so it sank to the bottom of the bath. It worked properly and it cost nothing!’ 

He smiles, exultant. ‘I’ve still got it somewhere.’

He cites, too, an artistic gene passed down through his father’s uncle, Oliver Messel, one of the last century’s most celebrated stage designers.

‘He also made beautiful interiors, including a suite at the Dorchester with silk walls and bronzework pillars, which has been brilliantly restored thanks to my father’s inspiration. It needed a bit of zhushing up and they used pipe cleaners to restore the plaster of Paris and gold stage make-up rather than the usual gold leaf.’

David reminisced: ‘I remember going to the National Gallery with my mother to see the Leonardo da Vinci cartoon. We’d been brought up knowing what a great draughtsman he was, and it was a wonderful opportunity’. Pictured: Princess Margaret in 1995

The meticulousness, the opulence; the sheer extravagant perfectionism of the project stayed with him, and he went on to design hotel suites at Claridges in Mayfair.

His father’s photography – ‘portraiture is a craft in itself,’ he observes – was also an inspiration: ‘Watching him doing sittings, assisting him, carrying his cases and sometimes even being allowed to reload a film in his camera – it all added to that “doing” mentality.’

He’s spoken, too, of the influence of his father’s designs for the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969 at Caernarfon Castle: the dais, where the Queen sat on a ‘very modern, slate, throne-like thing, and all the dignitaries sat on bright-bright-red chairs.’

Linley went to several independent schools, two of which he adored, and he describes as ‘formative’. The now defunct Millbrook House in Oxfordshire combined eccentricity with benign neglect. 

Young David thrived there. ‘It was in an old racing stable and my grandmother came to see it and thought it highly appropriate,’ he laughs. 

Linley went to several independent schools, two of which he adored, and he describes as ‘formative’. The now defunct Millbrook House in Oxfordshire combined eccentricity with benign neglect and David thrived there

‘I spent most of my time in the attic above the science room where we could make glow-plug engines (small combustion engines used in model aircraft) and steam engines. Lots of boys made balsa wood aeroplanes and you put this highly inflammable sealant stuff over the top which was called dope. 

‘And I famously made a hot air balloon out of tissue paper, and used methylated spirits to make it float.

‘This was in the 1970s, before health and safety,’ he adds.

‘So you all had burns and almost set fire to the science room?’ I remark. ‘Yes! It was the most enormous fun!’ He laughs. 

He is easy company. Bereft of self-importance or pomposity, he is dressed – more artisan than businessman –in a black corduroy jacket, jersey and dark shirt. 

His knitted tie is the sort favoured by art teachers. At Bedales, where the relaxed regime encouraged self-expression, he flourished. 

There, the pottery teacher, Felicity Aylieff, now acting head of ceramics at the Royal College of Art, recognised that he’d make a better joiner than potter. ‘So she marched me round to David Butcher, the brilliant teacher in charge of woodwork, who encouraged me to make it a career.’

From Bedales, armed with his masterpiece, the aforementioned cigar box (with the secret dovetail joints), he won a place at Parnham College in Dorset, John Makepeace’s school for craftsmen in wood. In 1982, aged 21, he started his first business, David Linley, and three years later opened David Linley Furniture in Chelsea, with his old school friend Matthew Rice. 

Annigoni’s 1957 portrait of Margaret which David now owns

He remembers making a cabinet inlaid with 12 plaques made of Sèvres porcelain. ‘And it had taken about 96 plaques before we got exactly the right glaze,’ he says.

Word reached his grandmother, then aged 94, that he had made a ‘good cabinet’ and, ever the stalwart supporter, she went to his shop to see it. She made her last trip there aged 98, just three years before she died.

These days he calls himself a ‘shopkeeper’, but his opulent premises in Pimlico – just along the road from where his father first had a photographic studio – belie the humility of the term. It’s his role now ‘to come up with mad ideas’ that his team bring to fruition. 

The quirky, the eccentric; the unexpected: these are Linley hallmarks. ‘The other day I met a clock restorer and thought, “This will be an interesting dialogue between how you make something from new and how you restore.

‘We used hands based on military armour and a face made from velvet, and to make it more Linley we put in secret drawers so the side springs out. I’ve always liked things like that.’

There is still something of the mischievous, hot-air-balloon-making schoolboy about him. He is clearly also a passionate advocate of the charity he and Prince Charles support.

And among the hundreds who have benefited from QEST scholarships are Mary Wing To, a leather artisan, designer and whip-maker who learned her rare craft – thanks to her scholarship – from one of the country’s few traditional whip-makers.

 Her mentor Dennis Walmsley has since died, and Mary now makes luxury bespoke whips from a London studio.

Then there is Richard Mossman who apprenticed in stonemasonry but, wanting to satisfy his creative streak, finessed his skills in sculpture thanks to a QEST scholarship. Richard has since made a marble bust of the Prince of Wales which elicited a letter of congratulations from HRH.

Meanwhile, milliner Deirdre Hawken uses food as inspiration for her hats – she has produced a straw one with a brimful of beans and another glorious confection with a crown made to look like a summer pudding – having been funded to study with Rose Corey, a former milliner to the Queen Mother.

I imagine Linley would enjoy her sense of fun, although he is too diplomatic to single out one recipient of a scholarship for particular praise.

‘But the wonderful thing is,’ he observes, ‘for craftsmen and women, every day is a challenge. And coming home to tell your wife or husband you’ve created something that will be there for generations to come is in its way quite amazing.’  

A Celebration Of British Craftsmanship by Karen Bennett, with photos by Julian Calder, published by Impress is available from 29 October, price £50 + P&P from www.qest.org.uk/book.

Applications for QEST funding will open in early January 2019. 

For more information visit www.qest.org.uk or email info@qest.org.uk.

SAVE OUR ARTS AND CRAFTS  

CASTING FOR THE BARD – IN BRONZE

This life-size clay figure of William Shakespeare was sculpted by Hayley Gibbs for the site of The Theatre at Shoreditch, where the Bard’s early plays were staged.

With fellow sculptor Raphael Maklouf, Hayley visited the Royal Shakespeare Company to pick out a historically accurate costume for her Elizabethan subject. 

The figure was moulded in clay and then cast in bronze, with intense attention to every detail – Shakespeare’s ruff, for example, is smaller than we might imagine it, but this carefully reflects Elizabethan fashions.

This life-size clay figure of William Shakespeare was sculpted by Hayley Gibbs for the site of The Theatre at Shoreditch

THE MAN WITH BEES IN HIS BLOOD

During the summer, James Hamill keeps 20,000 bees in a glass-fronted hive in his Hive Honey Shop in London. Beekeeping is in his blood. ‘It’s been in my family for three generations,’ he says. 

‘It’s a tradition at the age of five to be introduced to the queen and start helping to harvest the honey.’ In winter, at his Bee Heaven Farm in Surrey, he houses the queen and her entourage in a single layer, or ‘lift’, of eachhive, and deep cleans all the equipment.

‘The bees work so hard for us,’ he says. ‘I think of it as giving them a bath and fresh pyjamas.’

During the summer, James Hamill keeps 20,000 bees in a glass-fronted hive in his Hive Honey Shop in London

 A KNIGHT IN VERY SHINING ARMOUR

Here’s armourer Graham Ashford in two guises: on the left, wielding the 1918 hammer he uses in his forge – the Greenleaf Workshop in Hampshire – and on the right as an English knight circa 1360.

He made the visored bascinet and the gauntlets from steel decorated with brass. Making armour for historical re-enactments was Graham’s long-time hobby, before a grant from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust [QEST] enabled him to study with a master armourer. 

In 2008 he went full-time, making bespoke pieces for collectors. ‘Everything I create with an anvil and hammer outlasts anything I was doing in an office,’ he says.

Here’s armourer Graham Ashford in two guises: on the left, wielding the 1918 hammer he uses in his forge – the Greenleaf Workshop in Hampshire – and on the right as an English knight circa 1360

MY BURNING PASSION FOR CHARCOAL

When he was eight years old, Ben Short met a charcoal burner on the Hampshire downs during a school trip.

It was an encounter that Ben never forgot and, after building a career in advertising, he spent a year learning how to restore and manage woodland coppices. It’s a way of life that dates back aeons. ‘The materials with which I make my living, making charcoal,’ he says, ‘couldn’t be more simple – wood, earth, air and fire. I deal in elements.’

His charcoal kiln is at Eggardon Hill, an Iron Age hill fort on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast.

When he was eight years old, Ben Short met a charcoal burner on the Hampshire downs during a school trip. His own charcoal kiln is at Eggardon Hill, an Iron Age hill fort on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast

GOLDEN SPOT FOR A GOLDSMITH

Gold and silversmith Rod Kelly plies his craft in Shetland, at the South House Silver Workshop he runs with wife Sheila McDonald, an enameller and jeweller. Manasi Depala (above with Rod) is one of the seven QEST scholars he’s taught over the past decade.

It’s a remote spot, but a rewarding one. ‘Some days when the wind blows we wonder what we were thinking,’ says Rod, ‘but when the sun comes out the wildlife appears and you can see whales, porpoises and dolphins passing by. It’s amazing.’ But in February, he adds, he has to keep the woodstove blazing day and night to stay warm.

Gold and silversmith Rod Kelly plies his craft in Shetland, at the South House Silver Workshop he runs with wife Sheila McDonald. Manasi Depala (with Rod) is one of the seven QEST scholars he’s taught over the past decade

A SKILL WRITTEN IN THE STONES

Typographer and lettercarver Wayne Hart works in stone and wood. ‘Whereas 40 words a minute would be a good speed for typing, I’m more a 20-letters-a-day man,’ he says.

Beginning as a graphic designer, his first job as a letter-carving apprentice was a house sign. His favourite achievements to date include carving poetry into 15 limestone benches for Sheffield City Council and sculpting six poems by Simon Armitage into Pennine rock faces to create a Stanza Stones Walk. But the shape of the letters isn’t everything, he explains – just as important are the spaces in between. 

Typographer and lettercarver Wayne Hart works in stone and wood. Beginning as a graphic designer, his first job as a letter-carving apprentice was a house sign

A JOB YOU DO ON THE HOOF 

Farrier Nina Thomas worked at stables in her native Devon as a girl – anything to be with horses from dawn till dusk. It took 150 letters to approved training farriers to receive one offer of work experience.

A four-year apprenticeship followed, and then a diploma and degree in Farriery Science.

Despite all this intensive study, Nina says she is still learning the skill of making horseshoes. ‘There is no such thing as a textbook limb – the more horses I see, the more I know there is still so much to learn.’

Farrier Nina Thomas worked at stables in her native Devon as a girl – anything to be with horses from dawn till dusk. It took 150 letters to approved training farriers to receive one offer of work experience

NEED A BELL? GIVE ME A RING!

Bell founder David Snoo Wilson isn’t exactly wearing traditional costume – which is appropriate, because his metal-working techniques are far from old-fashioned.

He has a welder’s leather apron, firefighter’s boots and a 1950s US Navy foul weather hat. This bizarre costume is his protective clothing in the Ore & Ingot travelling foundry that he runs with his partner Jo Lathwood. 

He has been experimenting with different alloys to traditional bell bronze, changing the pitch and the timbre of the bells that he casts. ‘I’m curious to try as many variations as possible,’ he says.

Bell founder David Snoo Wilson isn’t exactly wearing traditional costume . He has a welder’s leather apron, firefighter’s boots and a 1950s US Navy foul weather hat

HIS HARP’S DESIRE

After falling in love with the sound of the Norfolk dulcimer (a sort of flat harp, played with a pair of sticks), boatbuilder Jon Letcher discovered a broken one in a junk shop.

He mended it, using his woodworking skills, and with the money he got from selling it, bought another to restore. His hobby became a business.

He helped build a replica of the 4,700-year-old Golden Lyre of Ur, destroyed by looters in Baghdad in 2003. For 20 years he has also been making harps, such as this one made from cherry wood.

After falling in love with the sound of the Norfolk dulcimer (a sort of flat harp, played with a pair of sticks), boatbuilder Jon Letcher discovered a broken one in a junk shop

WHIP-MAKER WHO’S THE TOP OF THE CROP

The showjumper’s crop in whipmaker Mary Wing To’s left hand is worthy of Olympic gold. Hand-crafted from a rattan stock with plaited kangaroo leather and a decorative Turk’s head knot, Mary made it to be presented to gold medallist Nick Skelton on his retirement. 

She learned her skills thanks to a QEST scholarship, studying with traditional whip-maker Dennis Walmsley at his cottage once a week for two years. 

‘He was a genius and quite a character,’ she says, adding that Dennis insisted she bring homemade soup to every lesson. Today she makes and sells bespoke whips under the name Whip In Hand from her London studio.

Whipmaker Mary Wing To learned her skills thanks to a QEST scholarship, studying with traditional whip-maker Dennis Walmsley at his cottage once a week for two years

MY FIRST PICTURE – THE QUEEN!

Alastair Barford was motivated to learn to paint from life after his mother died. ‘I produced a portrait of her from a photograph,’ he says. ‘I was disappointed, as it conveyed nothing of our relationship.’ Studying in Florence for three years, he spent his days learning how to grind paints, drawing and painting, and every spare moment sketching. It was a dream education – but he could not have imagined that his

first commission would be to paint a portrait of the Queen.

He had just ten minutes to observe Her Majesty, at an Order of the Garter service in Windsor – then he worked from memory and photographs. 

Alastair Barford went studying in Florence for three years, and he spent his days learning how to grind paints, drawing and painting, and every spare moment sketching


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