Jeremy Atkinson – clog-maker
Jeremy Atkinson styles himself The Last of the Traditional Cloggers and so – technically – he's outside the remit of this exhibition, as I've been trying to avoid 'last ofs'. But on the other hand, what he's doing does fit my definition of 'real craft' as his wood-and-leather clogs are not only beautiful, they're useful and very practical. He doesn't bother with the high-end craft world, but sells his work at country fairs, and – surprisingly - via Facebook. 'Yes, I'm making a craft product,' he says, 'but this isn't craft as a vehicle for art.'
I first noticed Jeremy's shop when I moved to Herefordshire a few years ago. It's an old Victorian shop in the tiny border town of Kington. I often peered in through the dusty windows to see what exactly was going on in there – some activity was taking place (by whom?) but the shop never seemed to be open. It seemed a bit like the Elves and the Shoemaker story.
Eventually one day the door was open and Jeremy was there. The shop (it's really a workshop) is littered with leather hides, blocks of alder, cardboard foot-shaped patterns cut from cornflake packets, ancient tools, and piles of shavings. Jeremy stands in the middle carving the soles with a stock knife – a dangerously sharp 100-year old tool with a massive hooked end which fits into a metal ring on the top of his sawhorse workbench. 'I hand cut the leather uppers and hand carve the soles,' he says, 'I was taught by a man who was taught by a man who was taught by a man. In other words I'm of a line stretching back centuries.' Jeremy's got interesting views on wide-ranging subjects; you can tell he's a thinker. He tells me about a trip he made when younger, through France and down into Spain, seeking out fellow clog-makers. 'The whole concept of the travelling journeyman – meaning a stage between apprentice and master – has gone now,' he says.
On the day I go to take photographs for this exhibition, Jeremy is being interviewed by a journalist for a country-style magazine. She seems only interested in the process and asks questions about each stage in the making of a clog. I try and steer the conversation around to the question of survival. 'Where do most of your orders come from?' I ask. 'America,' says Jeremy, 'or – they were.' 'Nothing local?' I ask. 'Oh no, there's nothing around here, there's not enough people in Herefordshire. I've been up in Shropshire and the population is heavier there and I've decided the reason is clay! The very heavy clay round here didn't lend itself to tilling. Shropshire has a lighter soil and so that's why more people lived there. Look at the map: Herefordshire has very few villages.' All around the shop are pairs of clogs on shelves, some old, some new, some traditional, and some startlingly contemporary-looking. I spot a very beautiful pair of blue leather clogs. 'Where are these going?' I ask. 'Hawaii!' says Jeremy.
'What about the future?' I ask. 'Is clog-making going to die out after you?' Jeremy tells me of a young woman who was keen to come and learn, but he's not sure she's physically strong enough. However he's passed on his knowledge to St Fagans National History Museum. 'I have taught a Welshman, only fair since I too learned from a Welshman,' says Jeremy. I ask him about the Heritage Craft Association. 'What's your view on them and what they're doing?' I ask. Jeremy takes a little while to answer. 'I think it's valid,' he says eventually. 'But you're not a member?' 'No.'