Early on John Porritt (author of “The Belligerent Finisher“) enjoyed playing around with bits of wood in his spare time. In the early 1970s, he carved a face into a piece of hazel and strung it onto leather as a necklace. He used a heated rod to create and carve a pipe. During a difficult period in his life, he made a carving out of soft maple based on Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
In 1979, John attended Shrewsbury Technical College (now Shrewsbury College) for one year. At first, they refused him a grant, but John appealed and won, “which was marvelous,” he says. He studied fine furniture making with John Price who trained with Edward Barnsley in the Arts & Crafts tradition.
“I remember the first week I virtually shook with nerves about being in the college and being back in school because I didn’t have great experiences in school and it felt odd being there,” he says. “John Price came by, and he looked at my work and laughed. And I said, ‘Don’t laugh; show me what I’m doing wrong. Show me – go on. After that, we started to get on, and it was grand.”
John loved his time at Shrewsbury College. He remembers playing football at lunchtime (and a woman from Liverpool, nicknamed Carol Keegan, who was studying ceramics, beating them all every time) and an exhibition they had at Shrewsbury Castle. John showed a cabinet based on Chinese forms.
“At Shrewsbury, the finish we used (this was between 1979 and 1980) was polyurethane thinned 50/50, and put on really thin with a clean, well-washed rag,” he says. After several coats we gently cut back with flour paper, then applied a couple more thin coats, burnishing with a taut cloth pad as we went. This gave a great finish. I remember saying to the design lecturer, after using it on a cabinet, What a fine finish! He said, There is no such thing as a fine finish. There is only a finish appropriate for the job. This shut me up. He was a serious, definite man given to pronouncements; however, over the years this thought does come back to me – that’s just another can of worms. But I suppose we all decide what is appropriate – it is fluid after all.”
John says he loved his time at Shrewsbury. After Shrewsbury, John worked briefly as a carpenter then, in 1980, he went off on his own, working out of his parents’ single-car garage, trying to get commissions.
“And that was very hard,” he says. “I was very naïve about it, really. It was hand-to-mouth as I recall.”
In 1982, he got a commission from Winchester Cathedral, “which was quite something,” he says.
The piece was to be used as a stand for The Book of Remembrance in the Epiphany Chapel in the cathedral. John designed the piece within about three minutes of the meeting. The cathedral, he says, which was built from 1079 to 1532, is a mishmash of styles.
“I tried for a few days to find other designs, but the first one was the best. The cathedral has a stunning roof, and it’s got superb columns and mouldings. And I designed this piece as three columns, two in the front and one in the back, as a symbol of Calvary.”
The columns, made out of brown oak, are held together with laminated curves of soft maple designed to echo the ribs in the roof. John used Indian ink to gradate the stain of the rails from blue to purple and back again, carrying the colors of the chapel’s stained glass windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones with William Morris & Co.
John hoped more work would come from this commission than did. People did, however, start to ask him about restorations.
“And I really didn’t want to do restoration work,” he says. “I hadn’t trained for it, I didn’t know a lot about it. But I did it. And as time went on, I got somewhat better at it. And I had help from two great guys, my friends Spike Knight and Johnny Gould. I started to understand color and texture, and surface. And that was a wonderful thing and that’s added to what I do. And that has come back again, to my interpretations of the Welsh chairs.”
In 1981, John had met Keith Rand, who trained as a cartographer, went on to art school then studied sculpture in Scotland. Keith made fine sculptures and occasionally chairs for a living, as well as teaching. Keith and John ended up becoming good friends and shared a workshop for a while; he was John’s best man at his wedding. John taught Keith about tools – how to sharpen them, how to work them – and Keith taught John how to better understand and explore form.
“For a while, we were embryonic chairmakers,” John says. “He worked from leaning seats onto chairs inspired by agricultural forms using tines. Then years later onto beautifully realized Windsors with very few components. They really worked so well. Mine were firmly in the country furniture mould, inspired by the yew-wood Windsors that I was often restoring. Keith was a great man to know and share with.”
In the early ’80s, John became interested in paint, particularly industrial paint. A friend, Phil Craze, an artist and inspiration, showed him the joy of coral and turquoise together. He partnered pigments and created stunning effects. He put the colors onto plywood and made simple, geometric objects. Phil had designed and made the silver gilt lettering for the Book of Remembrance stand John made for Winchester Cathedral.
“One thing that did come from this commission was that Phil and I were invited to an aluminum anodizing plant to experiment with different effects using color and shape on the raw aluminum,” John says. “This was actually a lot of fun. We kept some of the work, and they kept some for their gallery.”
John tried to do craft fairs, selling things like mirrors made out of thin plywood, but he had trouble selling fine furniture or colorful things. He did, however, successfully sell a cricket table at a fair in the Guildhall Winchester. However, he made it as a joke.
“I made a small top and then I had three legs coming out of it at odd angles and then an even smaller base so it was actually quite unstable,” he says. “I did the top blue like a sky and I did the legs white in ash and the base green. I got a turned piece of wood and I colored this up red so my cricket table was like the three stumps and a ball in a game of cricket. I made a couple of bales on the base that were knocked off so the guy was out. And it got me on the front page of the local paper. The headline was ‘John Bowls the Maiden Over.’ It was a play on words which in Britain people do a lot and I’ve always enjoyed. A ‘maiden over’ is six bowled balls with no runs made from any of them.”
In 1983, John’s father died, “which was as huge blow for me,” he says. “It was huge.” In his grief he carved a massive head, shaped liked a world, and painted it blue, with rockets going off all over it.
“My mum said, ‘What are you doing that for?’ And I remember saying, ‘I have just got to do this,’” John says.
Falling in Love in Paris, Making a Life in England, Moving to the States
In 1984, John went to France. Sue, an American who was in Paris studying art, was standing outside of a hotel on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. They talked. They fell in love. Eventually, John had to get back to England to make some more money. They planned to meet next outside the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy. The meeting spot was a lot bigger than they each realized, and they spent a lot of time walking around, looking for each other.
“When we finally bumped into each other I had my one small bag filled with clothes and she had massive amounts of luggage,” John says. “We traveled over northern Italy together, discarding bits of her luggage along the way.”
John and Sue got married in 1987 and moved to Shrewsbury, England, where they lived for 20 years and had a daughter who is now 18.
“I never thought I’d have a child,” John says. “It’s like having a room opened, another room in your life, full of stuff you never realized. It’s an astonishing thing. It’s not really explainable.”
Around this time John got into spoon carving. He liked the idea of creating things with small tools and bits of wood that he could carry around, a traveling workshop of a chisel, small axe and a couple of knives. He liked the simplicity.
“I think spoon carving is a fantastic thing for people to do and gain a better understanding of line and form,” he says. “I look at the spoons that people make today and some of the work is just lovely. Wonderful, wonderful things.”
John’s mother died in 2006.
“It was almost inconceivable that my mum died,” he says. “We were very close. She was always very encouraging about whatever I was doing. And she’d always like coming out to places with me and meeting different people. That was good.”
John and Sue decided to be nearer to her family so they moved to the U.S. in 2008. They lived in the Catskills for a year and then bought an 18th-century house with a red barn situated next to a picturesque stream in Spencertown, New York, near the Shaker Museum in Chatham. Sue loves to help John with advice on color.
“There are a lot of great people here,” John says. “I’ve got a couple friends here who I wouldn’t agree with on very many things other than our friendship and our woodwork. They have completely different views from me but they’re great people. It’s an interesting thing to think of the different ways people see things. Celebrate the similarities and enjoy the differences, where possible.”
Photographs Spilling Out of a Book: How ‘The Belligerent Finisher’ Came to Be
John has done a lot of restoration over the years for well-known English and Welsh antique collectors and dealers, including Tim Bowen and Richard Bebb. Tim suggested John send pictures of his chairs to “a lad down here who likes stick chairs.” So, John did.
“Many, many years later, I got a phone call completely out of the blue,” John says. “And it was Chris Williams. And he said, ‘Why all those years ago did you send me those pictures?’ And I said, ‘Because Tim Bowen told me you were interested in chairs and I just wanted to share them with you, reach out, for the camaraderie.’ And he stuck them in a book and completely forgot about them. And then many years later, Chris Schwarz came to see him. He was looking at a book and these pictures fell out. And they had a look at them. And that’s how Chris Schwarz heard about me, I think.”
Around the same time, Chris Williams heard about John again through Tim. Tim and Richard had separately been talking about restoration projects John had done and they couldn’t work out how John had done them.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“I thought to myself, My god, this could be it,” John says. “We could die from this. I didn’t know what to expect or think. So I decided I’m going to go out and do stuff I really want to do that I put off that I couldn’t afford to do or that I didn’t think people wanted. So I made the chairs that are featured in the book. Starting with the black North Walian four stick chair, and I’m really glad I did that. It’s hard to make speculative stuff and run a business as well.”
John sent pictures of these chairs to Chris Williams who then sent them on to Christopher Schwarz. And that’s how “The Belligerent Finisher” was born.
“Some of them are good I think,” John says, when talking about his chairs. “I’m not vain but I know some of them are good. Because I’ve looked at a lot of stuff I’ve made that isn’t good. I’ve always felt that the only person I’m in competition with is me. I’m inspired by other people and occasionally disappointed by them. But I’m not in competition with them. To create, a person’s got to be honest with themselves, look at something they’ve done, assess it, praise it, destroy it even (this decision is often better slept on), whatever, but really be honest about it and walk away and move on and think about the next thing. You learn from what’s happened.”
Talking about the chairs he’s making now, John says: “They almost frighten me because they’re quite hard to do, to get the proportions together. They have to look right and be comfortable. You know, I think I’ve made two or three really comfortable chairs, ones that you want to sit in and just not move from and a lot that are OK and some that aren’t that good. I have to make all my chairs, regardless of what they look like, comfortable. And that’s not always an easy thing to do.”
John currently has chairs on order. He’s also working on restoring Cesar Chelor planes for a collector and, for another collector, he’s restoring a 1696 handsaw with the help of his friend Tom Curran. Also there’s a rare, small, Holtzapffel miter plane that needs attention. But what he most wants to do is build – and finish – chairs. John recalls one comment he saw in response to his book, from a professional finisher, who said, “When I saw this, I was initially appalled.”
John says, “I love that phrase. He was ‘initially appalled.’ The fact that I made someone initially appalled, I like! But I would also agree with him. He went on to say that now that he’s looked at the book, there are things he wants to try.”
While in the states during Covid, John thought a lot about the places he has loved throughout his life. In his head he’d re-walk the hills and lanes in Shropshire and mid-Wales, and spend imaginary time in the meadows around Winchester.
“I would think about some of the things I have come across, seen and enjoyed,” he says. “I wanted to get that feeling, that flavor. I wanted to touch that. That’s really why I make those chairs.”
John says the finishing techniques he used on his chairs in the book and today are not an attempt to create fakes.
“They’re not even copies of antiques,” he says. “They’re interpretations of ideas, ideas of how a chair and finish could be. And some of them are successful and some of them aren’t quite successful. I think the black one, the first one I did that seemed to flow through me, is very, very successful. I loved that. And the green one, the big green one. And there’s a red one on the next page that’s very good. And there are some good effects on the others. I try to get an effect like grading color, like when you see a sky in the evening and it’s changing. That is in my mind, as well as the look of worn furniture surfaces. You see that a lot in England during October and November. The light and the color and the amount of water in the atmosphere. The color and the sharpness— but also the mystery. I’m trying to get that. I’m trying to get a good depth of color. I’m trying to get texture, with the wood having refraction and depth.
“I just wanted to find something to do,” he says. “That was really important to me. I wanted to find something that had value. And I think I found it. I don’t think I’ve always worked on it. I think I spent a lot of time paying bills. But now I want to pay bills with these chairs.
“Enthusiasm and encouragement. The following was said to me by a woman at a show in Upstate New York, and it still makes me smile and laugh. She sat in the North Walian four stick chair with a worn finish, looked up and said: Harmony for my cheeks. I said, That’s it.”
— Kara Gebhart Uhl