Craftsman Richard Chapman might be forgiven for rubbing his hands in windy weather as plummeting trees suit his creative purposes perfectly. His workshop lies amid stocks of fallen timber bartered from landowners and foraged from near and far.
There are black lumps of bog oak which had been buried for thousands of years until farmers snagged their tractors on them on the subsiding peat of West Norfolk’s Southery Fens. Hunks of bright-red yew, grey ash and creamy elm glint between piles of box, plane, mulberry, acacia, lilac, cherry and chestnut. All will be chopped or carved, honed, hollowed, planed, burned, dyed or polished – and even dried in the microwave – to make works of art or artefacts for industry.
Now in his 50’s, Richard Chapman gained a passion for carpentry during his childhood. When a schoolboy in Loddon, “ I had the luck to be taught woodwork by a master cabinet maker,” he says. In his own subsequent career as a PE teacher at Springwood High School in King’s Lynn – where his pupils included the future hockey Olympic bronze medal-winner Kath Johnson, his gift remained a hobby. Richard Chapman decided to turn to full time woodturning in 1993 and since then he has carved himself a unique niche. Current orders include repairs to the antique tools, which are now sought by international collectors. With 600 designs of hammer alone, and thousands of axes, there is a vast variety here. Richard also produces ball, sausage or dumb-bell shaped pieces of wood to exacting standards, which are pulled through drains and pipes to measure or clean them. Such crafty examples of precision engineering have been such in demand lately for pipes below Stansted Airport and on the Jubilee line extension to London’s Underground.
However Richard Chapman’s greatest claim to fame is in the beautifully turned wooden vessels – such as platters, bowls and urns – which are exhibited in galleries in East Anglia and London.
Wood can be a costly commodity, so the craftsman swaps the raw material with landowners for pieces if his art. In return for three trailer loads of burr oak from Sandringham, the Queen was presented with two exquisite bowls. A letter was later received confirming that the monarch was delighted with the exchange and Richard has since enjoyed several commissions from the Royal estate – making finials for gates and fences and retirement gifts for employees. Another recent order has been for a cup and cover from the last pear tree in an orchard at Burnham Thorpe said to have been planted by Nelson, he tells me.
Whilst Richard Chapman makes barrel sized platters and massive bowls from the sprawling and twisted forms of tree roots, he can also work as a miniaturist. Such exquisite pieces demand a careful working with the medium. When rare cracks emerge during the production process they are often incorporated into the design. And some of his most dramatic vases have been made from spalted beech – from trees attacked from a fungus as they die, which spreads black, orange or green lines through the wood like the contour lines on ordinance survey maps. Merging faults into flawless vessels, and blending the ancient with the modern, Richard Chapman has proved himself both an artisan and an artist.