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Richard Chapman - Turning Nature into Art

An Appreciation of Richard Chapman

Richard Chapman might be forgiven for rubbing his hands with glee in windy weather. Plummeting trees suit his creative purposes perfectly.

The woodturner’s Norfolk workshop lies amid stocks of fallen timber bartered from local landowners and firewood merchants or foraged from near and far. In this converted farm smithy there are lumps of blackened bog oak which like Celtic altars, were buried for thousands of years until farmers snagged tractors on them in the subsiding peat of the Fens.

Hunks of bright-red yew, grey ash and creamy elm glint between stored stacks of box, plane, mulberry, acacia, lilac, cherry and chestnut. All will be chopped or carved, hollowed, planed, burned, dyed or polished - and even dried in the microwave - all in the name of art.

Until a decade ago this labour of love was essentially a hobby for a school games teacher whose pupils included a future Olympic medal-winner for hockey. But since moving full-time to woodturning, Richard has carved himself a singular niche. Massive platters, bowls and urns have flowed from his workshop like wooden monuments.

The holy grail of woodturners is the black poplar. Once planted across East Anglia for its fire-resistant timber, this tree lost popularity two centuries ago and began to die out. Today it’s extremely scarce and highly protected. Male and female trees rarely grow together - with the latter now reduced to just 500 examples among the 700 mature trees remaining in Britain.

But Richard recently struck lucky. "One tree was observed over many years by a friend of mine as it gradually acquired a dramatic lean over a busy road" he says. "Finally with insurance claims looming, permission was granted to fell it - into my hands! As a timber it is very wet, soft and abrasive. When turned, freshly felled, it’s like turning a handful of wet string. With the sharpest tools and greatest care - with hours of sanding and use of a hairdryer - the finish resembles suede."

Some of the most dramatic vases have been made from spalted beech - trees attacked by fungus as they die, spreading black, orange or green lines through the wood like contours on ordnance survey maps.

Trees, like all living things have a finite span of existence - but Richard’s creative process saves age-old wood for eternity. It turns nature into art.

With an eye for striking combinations of grain, colour and burr; the expert woodturner also turns faults into interesting features. When rare cracks emerge during the production process they can be incorporated into the design.

Merging faults into flawless vessels, and blending the ancient with the modern, Richard Chapman has proved himself both an artisan and an artist.

Ian Collins

Art critic, exhibition curator and author

Richard shows the extraordinary beauty of a spalted beech piece.

Richard shows the extraordinary beauty of a spalted beech piece.

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