SPAB Scholars: Kinaesthetic learning

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A few months into their conservation tour of the UK, SPAB Scholar Bethan Watson describes being welcomed into building craftspeople's workshops.


Both the Scholars and Fellows were recently asked  to discuss ‘our favourite visit’ so far. Inevitably it was incredibly tricky to pick just one building or person we have visited - such is the amazing variety of places we have already been, and the generosity of people we have met along the way

I think what most of us picked up on as an overall highlight was any ‘hands-on’ visit. Getting stuck-in with a craft or work on site is hugely enjoyable and engaging, and also an excellent learning opportunity. So far we have tried our hand at blacksmithing, plastering, historical paints, clay tile making, brick cutting and rubbing, stained glass making… Learning through this physical activity is tactile learning, which really helps embed the craft in our minds - a kind of muscle memory.

Critically, this has engendered in me a huge respect for craftspeople. I have always admired craft processes from afar, but I think the opportunity to try many of these things for myself has made me acutely respectful of the sheer skill involved, and physically aware of the necessary precision and art .

Both Scholars and Fellows visited plasterer Mike O’Reilly in Reading in April. This was a wonderful visit in many ways. Mike’s huge generosity with his time and his vast knowledge, his gentle teaching were all wrapped up in the overwhelming hospitality and kindness shown by Mike, Kathy and their friends. Mike took the considerable time for all eight of us to touch each and every material and try our hand at every process.

Blacksmithing has also been a fascinating and challenging experience for me. We have been fortunate to try this twice - first with Hall Conservation in London in March, and George James & Sons in Kettering in April. These experiences were notable not only for the ‘hands-on’ learning opportunity (I enjoyed the evident progress we made between the two visits), but also as a comparison between the companies.

Hall Conservation take on  a variety of conservation work and employ a range of skilled craftspeople  in a workshop together. George James & Sons is focused on blacksmithing and metal work.

There was a different ‘feel’ to each forge. George James & Sons has grown literally within a home, which was partially converted for the workshop and adapted over the years within the same family. I felt that this ‘generational’ outfit contrasted to the larger and perhaps more commercial set-up at Hall Conservation; and yet, both maintained a lovely close-knit family feel.

Tactile learning is at the heart of the SPAB Scholarship. I’m so grateful to have gained a degree of practical skill and experience on site. Through plastering with Mike O’Reilly, and blacksmithing at both forges, I am learning so much I didn’t know.

​We were given the run of the forge at George James & Sons - they left us to it!

​We were given the run of the forge at George James & Sons - they left us to it!

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