From his home workshop in Leeds, Jack Metcalfe produces examples of uncommon marquetry, writes Julian Cole.
Like many men, Jack Metcalfe loves his shed. Unlike most men, Jack, who is 79, retreats there to make perfect copies of Thomas Chippendale marquetry.
It’s not a shed so much as a workshop at the back of his house in Leeds. Jack works at a bench with replica hand tools or at a treadle foot-saw whose industrious racket would have been familiar to Chippendale, the furniture-maker born in Otley 300 years ago.
Jack pushes the treadle with his feet, while feeding the veneer round the moving saw blade by hand.
“I can be as perfect and intricate as I like, and I am more proficient and accurate and more skilful doing this that I am with my electric saw that cost me £700,” he says.
“There’s a lot to be said for the old ways. I use this non-stop. It’s just my best mate. I’m at my happiest in here, rather than in the house. I just love it.”
Jack used to work for BT and installed the company’s first computer system in the early 1980s as a stock control manager in Bradford. He was moved to Leeds and then to the London HQ.
“I worked all over the shop. My dear wife ran the home and family. I would leave on a Monday morning and not be back until Friday,” he says.
Offered a golden handshake at 50, Jack was comfortable but aimless. His wife’s uncle, Tommy Limmer, who’d been the engineer in charge of operations at Kirkstall Forge, said to him: “Jack, you could do with a hobby.”
Uncle Tommy suggested woodworking and marquetry. “He gave me an eight-year, one-to-one apprenticeship. I realised I’d discovered a latent skill, even if I’d never heard of the word ‘marquetry.’”
One day Uncle Tommy took Jack to Harewood House to see the Chippendale furniture. “It blew me away,” he says. That was in 1994, and today Jack is considered an expert on Chippendale marquetry. “I am called the leading authority, but I hate to use that.”
Jack has great respect for what was achieved all that time ago. “There’s Thomas Chippendale making the finest furniture we’ve ever seen, never been bettered, all made by people who just had hand tools and worked by candlelight. He turned out over 700 pieces of furniture in his lifetime, more than anybody else.”
Chippendale was born in Otley in 1718. “We say ‘born’ but we don’t know when he was born, because people in the working classes didn’t register births but we know he was baptised on June 5 at Otley parish church, because that’s recorded.”
As babies were baptised quickly in the 18th century because of high infant mortality, his birth is likely to have been only shortly before his baptism. Nothing is recorded for the next 30 years – “Not a thing, so we can only piece together and make assumptions,” says Jack.
It is thought that Chippendale went to school in Bradford and later had a seven-year apprenticeship in York with the cabinetmaker Richard Wood. He next surfaces in the records for his marriage in Mayfair, London, to Catherine Redshaw. Chippendale was then living in fashionable St Martin’s Lane, where he stayed for the rest of his life, with workshops behind three houses: one for his business partner, one for his accountant and the third as the family home.
Chippendale’s furniture may be worth untold millions today, but he was not wealthy in his lifetime. “In his day he was treated like dirt. When he died, he had £23 in his estate. His clients wouldn’t pay,” says Jack, adding that Harewood House waited 10 years before they settled the first bill of £7,000.
“He’s known to have written to Rowland Winn, the owner of Nostell Priory, begging for money because he was so hard up. He didn’t even have enough to pay the men’s days wages, and to try to keep himself out of jail.”
Jack went on to teach marquetry at Leeds College of Art and Design, then at York College. Now he collaborates with stately homes and museums, adding his practical, hands-on slant to the more theoretical studies of historians. Two of his replica pieces on are on show at Newby Hall until the end of September, as part of the Chippendale 300 celebrations. The replicas are of pieces owned by Harewood House: the Diana & Minerva Commode, and a pier table pier table made in 1772 for the circular dressing room.
The commode is Chippendale’s most famous piece of furniture. “It cost £86 which was his highest priced piece,” says Jack, who has published a book, Chippendale’s Classic Marquetry Revealed, charting his work on the commode.
The replicas are displayed with original Chippendale pieces from the Newby Hall collection and on loan from elsewhere.
A cabinet-maker friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, made the carcase of the commode, leaving Jack to add the intricate marquetry. They are hoping to sell the whopping replica.
“The problem we’ve got is it’s big, seven-foot long. We’re hoping that while it’s as Newby we’ll attract someone.” Jack’s story contains one happy chance and a personal tragedy that threw him off the rails. The happenstance occurred in 2007 when he was invited to Sweden to give a presentation about the Diana & Minerva Commode.
After speaking, he heard a talk by Dr Heinrich Piening, senior conservator of Bavarian Palace Administration in Munich. Dr Piening discussed his non-invasive method of identifying dyestuffs in original marquetry on antique furniture, using UV-Vis-spectroscopy analysis. As Jack was about to start work on the commode marquetry, he could barely contain himself. “It meant that I could create marquetry work which was scientifically proven to be the dyestuffs used on the original furniture.” At the end of Dr Piening’s talk, Jack asked him to come to Leeds the following week. “Everybody fell about laughing but I was serious.”
In the event, Dr Piening travelled over the following year and spot-tested various examples of Chippendale marquetry. Jack was invited to visit Dr Piening in Munich, and he and his wife, Gloria, rented an apartment in the city.
“For the first four days, Heinrich had me mixing the dyes he’d identified, using 18th century recipes,” says Jack.
Much as old paintings fade, so the marquetry used by Chippendale today lacks its original vibrancy. Dr Piening’s discovery allowed him to map the original colours by shining a bright light at the furniture, and then matching the original colours of the dye to his database.
Dr Piening says that the process is “more or less” his invention and has been adapted from its original medical use in examining blood sugars.
“It allows you to find an optical fingerprint of the original dye,” he says.
And because the process uses glass-fibre cables, there is no damage to the furniture, and the colours once recorded are matched to a database at his laboratory, allowing for a perfect match.
While Dr Piening represents a happy part of Jack’s story, the sad episode comes with Gloria’s death in 2012 of motor neurone disease.
“My world came to a standstill,” says Jack, who stopped marquetry work for five years. In the end his son, Neil, a musical director in Edinburgh, “lovingly encouraged me back into my work” – and that’s when he started on the pier table.
Jack and Gloria met when they were 15 and married just before they were 21. They were together for 54 years, “We had our happy years in this house,” he says.
And Jack still spends many happy hours in his workshop shed.
Chippendale’s Classic Marquetry Revealed is available on Amazon, as is an earlier book, The Marquetry Course