The following is excerpted from “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown,” by Christopher Williams. It’s the first biography of one of the most influential chairmakers and writers of the 20th century: Welshman John Brown.
The book’s title of “Good Work” was an expression John Brown used to describe a noble act or thing. He once mused he wanted to create a “Good Work” seal that could be applied to truly beautiful and handmade goods – like the “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval.
“Good Work” is the kind of woodworking book we live for at Lost Art Press. It’s not about offering you plans, jigs or techniques per se. Its aim instead is to challenge the way you look at woodworking through the lens of one of its most important 20th century figures. And though this appears to be a book on chairmaking, it’s much more. Anyone who is interested in handwork, vernacular furniture, workshop philosophy or iconoclastic characters will enjoy “Good Work.”
Author Chris Williams spent about a decade with John Brown in Wales, building Welsh chairs and pushing this vernacular form further and further. This book recounts their work together, from the first day that Chris nervously called John Brown until the day his mentor died in 2008.
This book is about a man, a chair and a set of ideals. It’s a journey of enlightenment, inspiration and heartbreak as I experienced it. There are many facets to John Brown’s life and his life less ordinary, but my story concentrates on John Brown the chairmaker. Other important voices will be heard throughout, each will give an account of the time they spent with John Brown, or JB as he’ll often be referred as. His daughter Molly Brown has beautifully illustrated the book; each illustration tells its own story, be it a chair, landscape or Celtic cross, all relevant to what John Brown held dear. I’m indebted to Lost Art Press, which secured the rights to 19 of John Brown’s wonderful columns from Good Woodworking magazine. These essays will give you a flavour of his writing and philosophical approach to life in the years after writing his book “Welsh Stick Chairs.” But before we dive into that, here’s some brief housekeeping to fully acquaint you with the country that gave birth to both the man and chair.
Wales: The name given to us by the Anglo-Saxons. They were one of the many who tried to conquer our land. The Romans, Vikings and Normans all left their mark, yet we are still here as a proud nation. Wales is known to its indigenous people as CYMRU. Sadly the name Wales and its people, “The Welsh,” have stuck. And for the broader subject of this book, we’ll stick with this term.
Wales is a small country that along with Scotland, England and Northern Ireland make up what is known to most as Great Britain or the United Kingdom. The country lies on the western seaboard side of the UK. Its population is approximately 3.1 million people. Its topography is mostly mountainous, with a coastline of more than 2,700 km. Its coal, iron and slate industries are now shadows of their former selves. Agriculture is now one of our main industries, particularly sheep farming in the hills and dairy farming in the lowlands. Tourism also is a large part of the Welsh economy. People are drawn to its spectacular coastline, mountains and abundant castles.
Wales is a bilingual country. The Welsh language has survived despite centuries of persecution by the English and the powers in Westminster. It is now spoken by more than 560,000 people; for many it is still their first language.
During Britain’s recent history, huge swathes of people emigrated to the New World. The Irish, Scots and English all colonised enormous areas of the British Empire. The Welsh mostly stayed at home, yet small numbers went to Patagonia, North America and Australasia. As a result, Wales is little known on the world stage. The Irish identity, for example, remains a huge part of life in the New World. The Scottish are known for whisky and kilts, but the Welsh… we seem indifferent to many.
If anything, we’re known for the Welsh male voice choir and rugby. This frustrates me, even more so when people see a map of Great Britain and they deem it “England.” It definitely is not! The Welsh are the original inhabitants of Britain, which is known as YNYS PRYDEIN, or “The Isle of Britain” to its indigenous people. There are myriad books on the history of Wales and its people, but this book is about one Welshman in particular and a chair.
“John Brown” was born in Wales, yet spent half of his life in England. He returned to his homeland of Wales as a middle-aged man with an English accent. Culturally different, Wales must have felt alien and different to the Wales of his childhood in the industrial valleys. After a few moves he settled into the predominantly Welsh-speaking area of Cilgwyn in rural North Pembrokeshire. His flamboyant character must have stood out in that parochial community. Twenty years would pass before I would meet him in person, but during those years in that most beautiful corner of Wales he regained his sense of Welshness. For those early years other voices will be heard in this book, for that story is theirs to tell. What I write is from my personal experience and perspective.
John Brown once told me that he felt like an outsider because of his English accent, yet he was born in Wales and was a Welshman. He would have been deemed a “Saeson” – an Englishman in many Welsh-speaking communities. It’s an arbitrary distinction. Yet, this sense of identity based on how we speak raises much passion in Britain. It was a conundrum for John Brown, no doubt. I do know that at least he never suffered the remarks that many have endured for having a Welsh accent. Britain is a diverse country with wonderfully different dialects and accents. Yet, why is it that unless you speak with a posh, plummy English accent you are immediately deemed as stupid?
John Brown was a maverick, and he knew his cultural history. He was the most well-read man I ever met. The knowledge that he amassed was staggering, and it had to be vented at times. John Brown relished getting his strong opinions over and out. These rants became quite the norm for me. I couldn’t call them debates, as I would have had to say something. I learnt to say nothing, as I was young and naive. Yet, perversely, I learned much from them.
During one of these rants, he said something that touched a nerve. We were having a pot of tea. I was taking a sip when he announced: “Your average Welshman is an arsehole!” I nearly spat out the contents of my now-gaping mouth. Myself, Welsh born and bred, and definitely Mr. Average.
I listened tentatively to his sermon until he got to the crux of his outburst: Why did the Welsh let everyone walk all over them? Why couldn’t the Welsh voice be heard? These frustrations are why he had written the book “Welsh Stick Chairs.” He’d found a culture rich in history and a chair that would become an obsession. He was intuitive and foresaw his beloved chair being annexed as some form of English regional chair. For John Brown, this couldn’t happen.
I forgave his outburst as he was correct. We don’t need any experts other than ourselves. “Welsh Stick Chairs” is a wonderful source of information. It’s a brief history of Wales, a chair and one man’s obsession with it, all encapsulated into a small book that became a cult object. It planted a seed that has been sown around the world. Its message is different for all who have read it.
How to Enter Wales
Just before entering Wales from England on the M4 motorway you have to cross the Severn Bridge. The bridge spans 1.6 km over the River Severn, and on reaching the other side you’re soon greeted by a road sign that reads “Croeso i Gymru,” which translates as “Welcome to Wales.” From this point on, every road sign in Wales is bilingual. This particular location is relevant and poignant to this story.
During a passionate conversation (or lecture), John Brown told me how he wanted to see a giant sculpture erected of a Welsh stick chair on entering Wales, similar in scale to Anthony Gormley’s “Angel of the North” near Gateshead in Northern England. He thought that the humble Welsh stick chair should become the cultural icon of Wales. That particular conversation holds me to this day.
Read on. I hope that at the end of the journey (this book) you’ll realise that it’s OK to dream of giant chairs and to let your imagination run riot with this (or any) aesthetic in chair design. I’ll try and explain….
Whilst travelling by car to Wales from the south or west of England you can see the Severn Bridge looming from several miles distant, its huge white towers slung with miles of wire, supporting the carriageway beneath. As a child it always excited me to see the old Severn bridge whilst on my return home from family holidays in England. It’s a milestone in that I knew I was nearing my homeland and friends. Decades later I still get that feeling when I first see the bridge, but my thoughts are now different. So here we go….
Slowly my daily mind drains away, transcending into something more ethereal in nature, a vision begins. I’m looking at a colossus – a primitive chair, six long sticks piercing the clouds, four eccentrically raked legs rooting it to the Welsh soil, its form hoary with age and its colour patinated dark by the elements. Its silhouette screaming “I’m Welsh” against a brooding skyline. It looks outwardly from Wales. A sentinel for the past, present and future. A voiceless yet powerful symbol. This surreal moment holds me for several minutes. Its finale is when I tip my imaginary cap to John Brown as I see the road sign welcoming me back to my homeland. The moment passes and reality returns. I usually think about chairs and JB from then on until I reach home. Melancholic, maybe. Yet, this won’t be the last you’ll read about giant chairs as they prove to have an important role in the tale that will unfold.
John Brown’s book “Welsh Stick Chairs” is a classic. It gives us insight into a craftsman’s life. The book’s section on building a chair, with its beautiful black-and-white photos of the chair’s construction, had a huge impact on me. This inspired me to build chairs, yet there are no plans in his book. This subject of plans is an integral part of this book – integral because there won’t be any plans, but the subject will crop up constantly for good reason.
Why no plans? John Brown wrote in a Good Woodworking magazine column, “It is never so valid building from other people’s plans as seeing an object in your imagination and then making it. I would like to see purveyors of plans go bankrupt.”
I’d hate to see his words being taken out of context. He then went on to write, “There are, of course, many exceptions.” This might sound extreme, but it’s fundamental to the way JB felt about chairmaking. He fully understood the origins of the early chairs and their makers. No two chairs were identical, so how could a plan work? How could he ever make the same chair twice? This would become sacrosanct to his philosophy as well to me personally.
JB would happily and freely give advice on tools and workshop practise, including plans for tool chests, workbenches etc. in his monthly columns. Yet, plans for chairs weren’t up for discussion. As you read this book I hope you’ll be inspired and realise that the lack of plans isn’t a negative! This isn’t meant to alienate you, I promise! I hope that you’ll embrace it as a different way of woodworking and design. Reread “Welsh Stick Chairs.” Read this book over and over, become a monk for a while, let this mantra invade your veins. This approach worked for me! So first let me give you some insight into how this works.
When I was in my late teens I built my first chair. I didn’t own a set of French curves or anything in particular to aid me in drawing a fair curve. I hadn’t thought about buying a plan (even if one was available). I can well remember using a bin lid (trash can lid) to draw in the back curve of a chair seat, as well as using a coffee mug to draw the curves on the front corners of the seat. Once I had the curves looking fair I was away. It was my first tentative step into a new world of chairmaking. I felt at times that I was almost plucking shapes from the air. Did I have insecurities about what I was doing? Definitely!
What I made was in truth a mediocre chair. It was, without doubt, a fundamental part of my learning, and it helped me think outside the box. I hope that you will get this message, accept it and fully immerse yourself into a journey of self-discovery as a free thinker and maker. It’s OK if your chairs don’t look like what you see in your mind’s eye – embrace it! Your work will become better for it.
If, at the end of the book, you feel that you’re in need of a plan, please know that there’s a plethora of wonderful books out there on the subject of chairmaking. If you’re stuck on the Welsh chair aesthetic, Christopher Schwarz’s excellent book “The Anarchist Design Book” has a chair plan of an American Welsh Stick Chair.
Llanybri, Wales, 2019