Born in Oxford in 1937, Robert Grant lives in the same house in Headington, on the outskirts of the university city, where his timber merchant father, Lawrence, imbued in him a love and respect for wood, and taught him the rudiments of furniture making in his garden workshop. He honed his skills at Loughborough College, studying under Edward Barnsley, doyen of designer craftsmen, carrying on the traditions of the Arts and Crafts movement founded by William Morris in the 19th century.
He began his career as a woodwork teacher in Oxford secondary schools, before joining the school of art and architecture at Oxford Polytechnic, now Oxford Brookes University, as a lecturer in furniture subjects. After early retirement due to ill health in 1987, he became a self-employed designer craftsman and antiques restorer, making chairs, tables, cabinets and bookcases, and also doing specialist joinery, such as replacing old wooden windows and doors, for Oxford colleges. He now carries out the dusty, heavy work in his garage, which houses his enormous collection of tools: fixed machines, such as circular saws, spindle moulders and lathes; hand power tools, such as routers and drills; and finally, his inherited collection of hand tools, which include over 50 moulding planes. Some are as old as the century and are kept in his father’s 150-year-old tool chest. The workshop is for painting, staining and polishing.
Recent illness means that Mr Grant is not so active today, either as a furniture maker or as a member of the famous Headington Quarry Morris Dancers. This chair, made for his daughter Judith’s wedding in 1999, was based on the centuries-old High Wycombe Windsor wheel back design, with legs and back spindles in English beech, and arms and seat in English elm. He would normally charge up to £500 for the 200 hours it took to make.
Robert explains: 'It’s not a very profitable business. You might think that furniture making is a dying art, but it isn’t. It’s flourishing, even though it requires a big capital outlay for tools. There are some tremendous courses for designer craftsmen, and you only have to visit arts and crafts fairs to see the wonderful work being turned out by young people today.'
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Girton College, University of Cambridge
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More on this painting
on loan from the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (P)