Biographies from the Basement: making things

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. 

September’s display of books at Kensington Central Library focuses on people making things with their hands.  We’re looking into the lives of those who practiced traditional crafts including weaving, carving and pottery, which have been part of human creativity for centuries.

Handmade: A Scientist’s Search for Meaning Through Making by Anna Ploszajski

Handmade: A Scientist’s Search for Meaning Through Making by Anna Ploszajski is a fascinating memoir of Ploszajski’s exploration of the process of making things out of different familiar materials including glass, plastic, wool and clay.  Ploszajski is a materials scientist, and this gives her a fascinating insight into what is going on physically as objects emerge from processes of heating, moulding, cutting and bonding. Did you know, for example, that without the addition of limestone, glass would be soluble in water, or that the transparency of clingfilm is due to the random arrangement of its molecules?

She writes so clearly and with such delight in her subject that even someone with only the most rudimentary understanding of physics (like…ahem…me, for example) is drawn into the extraordinary things going on at the molecular level when people work with different materials.  Ploszajski went on a journey of literally hands-on experience of trying out different processes herself, and describes with humour and candour her frustrations and failures as well as her successes, and the range of interesting craftspeople she met. I particularly enjoyed the sensuousness of her writing – she evokes the textures and consistencies, the squishiness and crumbliness, sponginess or brittle fragility of different materials with the delight of a child playing with plasticine. 

It’s a very personal account of a journey which revealed to her all kinds of things about herself and enabled her to feel empowered to embrace who she is.  It’s one of the most unusual books I have read, uniting detailed but accessible science with a very intimate and engaging memoir, and Ploszajski is an impressive and endearing guide through this territory.

Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making Things by Alex Monroe

In Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making Things, jeweller Alex Monroe revisits a rural 1970s childhood spent making things out of whatever was to hand. His freedom to explore and improvise ignited his fascination with putting things together and led to his genius for design.


Palissy the Potter by Henry Morley 

In the 16th century, Frenchman Bernard Palissy developed a kind of ceramic ware that was like nothing previously seen, featuring naturalistic representations of animals and plants in relief (casts were taken from actual dead creatures), and bright pigments which he became expert in creating using a variety of plants and minerals. His work with ceramics led him to become expert in several scientific areas, and he lectured on related subjects including hydraulics and fossils.

His autobiography gives a warts and all account of his life; like many artistic master craftsmen, he was driven by an all-consuming need to find answers to the perennial questions thrown up by his processes and the desire to perfect them. His family suffered hardship as he sacrificed more lucrative work for a 16-year attempt to replicate the glaze of traditional Chinese porcelain. Palissy’s style of china became especially popular during the Victorian period, when it was emulated in the “majolica ware” style of iridescent colours, high shine and intricately detailed, heavily relieved designs. Palissy was a Huguenot and was persecuted for his Protestant faith; in 1588 he was imprisoned in the Bastillle prison, and died there of starvation two years later.


Bernard Leach Life & Work

Like Palissy, Bernard Leach was fascinated by traditional East Asian ceramics with their distinctive glazes and exquisite lines.

Shoji Hamada, A Potter’s Life and Work

Returning to Japan, where he had spent his early childhood, in 1917, he met potter Shoji Hamada; the two returned to the UK together, and for several years practiced Japanese firing methods and created wonderful work, inspiring a generation of artistic potters. 

A Weaver’s Life, Ethel Mairet 1872 – 1952


One visitor to his studio was Ethel Mairet, an Edwardian governess who married the Sri Lankan historian and expert on South Asian art Ananda Coomaraswamy at a time when inter-racial marriages were often met with bigotry. The couple spent five years in Sri Lanka, where Mairet studied local arts and crafts. On returning to England, Mairet taught herself hand loom weaving and spinning, developed vegetable dyes and became well known for weaving a mixture of weights and textures within the same fabric.  

Some craftsman starting from humble beginnings go on to oversee companies with iconic and world famous brand names.  One such is Luciano Ercolani – the shortened version of his name, ‘Ercol’, will be familiar to anyone interested in mid twentieth century design.

Ercolani’s impoverished family immigrated from Tuscany in 1898, when he was 10 years old. As a teenager, while working as a messenger boy, he learned furniture making at evening classes at the Shoreditch Technical Institute, located in what was then an important centre of the industry in East London; the Institute later became the London College of Furniture. At 18 he was employed by the Salvation army to make staircases and bannisters; four years later Frederick Parker, who went on to found Parker Knoll, another huge name in modern furniture, spotted his talent and invited him to join his company. Ercolani developed his fashionable mass-produced furniture after the Second World War, during which government orders, including for hundreds of thousands of tent pegs, had boosted his business.

The Autobiography of William Farish: The Struggles of a Hand-Loom Weaver

It is easy to sentimentalise craft, and of course many creative artists have expressed themselves through it, and many of us derive huge pleasure from our own spare time hobbies of making things. But the sad fact is that traditionally, men and women, and often children, creating traditional crafts as their livelihoods, were usually amongst the poorest and hardest worked members of society. William Farish began work operating a weaver’s bobbin wheel aged just 8 in 1826. Like many books in our special Biographies Collection, his memoir offers great insight into the hard life of a 19th century artisan.

Alongside this display, we will have a mini display of people from a range of places and periods, who all had birthdays in September. If you were a September baby yourself, come and see who shares that distinction!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

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