Peter Lloyd

The Old School House


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Boxes with History

Cumbria Life — October 2001

Peter Lloyd

"He likes to get his hands on wood with history, trees which mat have been a silent witness to some great events but which after a long life were wrecked in a gale or felled because they were to old."

Christian Dymond meets box maker Peter Lloyd who says: "I like to think I'm taking an ancient piece of timber and giving it another 200 years of life."

How Peter Lloyd's horizons have changed. There he was 25 years ago, as an air traffic control assistant, watching the planes land at Heathrow Airport every 90 seconds or so. Now all he can see from his workshop in north Cumbria are the fields, the Solway Firth and Scotland beyond and the world he inhabits is the world of wonderful wooden boxes.

Peter himself, is a tall man with large hands and a beaming smile. Sometimes when he's talking those hands take on a life of their own, as if they are sawing and sanding and polishing all at once, so animated is he about the fine, hardwood boxes they produce.

A few months ago a couple turned up on his doorstep at Hallbankgate, near Brampton, and when Peter answered the door they nodded to each other and said "Yes, that's him, I remember him well."

Peter Lloyd at work

In 1991 they had bought the 68 th box he had ever made, at an exhibition in Preston, and now they were back for more. In the end they went away with three others, which is an indication of what people feel about Peter's work.

He turned to boxmaking 11 years ago after a spell as a woodwork teacher at William Howard School in Brampton.

"I just felt there was a dearth of unusual, quality jewellery boxes on the market and the size of my original workshop rather dictated what I made as well. Because it was fairly small, boxes seemed more appropriate than tables or wardrobes," he says.

He has recently made his 600th box design but there are plenty more to come. As he says: "I haven't got to the back of the mental card index yet. My mind is still stacked with unmade boxes."

Peter has been working on an ambitious project for the last four years and now it has reached fruition. A major exhibition called 'Celebrating Boxes,' which shows the work of 80 boxmakers from around the world, opened at Carlisle's Tullie House on September 22 and will run until November 18 before touring the UK. A book called 'Celebrating Boxes' will accompany the exhibition, there's a conference on boxmaking to coincide with its opening and Peter has another book out in December entitled 'Making Heirloom Boxes' which is his practical guide to making boxes. The idea for the exhibition originally came in 1993.

"I was working here on my own, thinking 'surely there must be other people like me beavering away in their own little world making boxes,'" says Peter. "So I mentioned it to Tullie House and after a while started to pester them, Four years ago I knew I was in business when I got a grant from the museum, from Northern Arts and Business Link Cumbria to go to the United States and do some research there."

Wooden box

He asked fellow boxmaker and friend Andrew Crawford to come in on the project and through contacts, craft councils and magazines all over the world they ended up with the names of 430 people — from Britain, the United States, Russia, Germany, Scandinavia, South Africa, Australia, South America and France — to send letters to. A total of 160 replied with slides of their work and from that figure the numbers were whittled down to 80.

Their exhibits, some small, some big, many humorous, some just weird and wacky, will make for a stunning show. There are boxes that look like piles of books, ones that resemble aliens and some that look like birds and animals.

In his foreword to the book 'Celebrating Boxes' cabinet maker David Linley, son of Princess Margaret, says: "The boxes and makers illustrated here by Andrew Crawford and Peter Lloyd epitomise the amazing emergence of 'box art' in the last few decades. From around the world they have plucked the very best makers, choosing a remarkable range of pieces to demonstrate the vibrancy of boxmaking today."

One box maker is quoted in the book, saying: "We live in boxes, we travel in boxes. When we finish working in our boxes we go home and relax in front of one. Bearing this in mind it doesn't seem surprising that some of us start to make them."

Peter's boxes are made from English hardwoods only, like sycamore, oak, ask, elm, cherry, walnut and yew. In a sense the uglier the piece of raw wood, the better — he thrives on knots and lumps and lots of figuring.

"I generally use wood which most people would frankly reject. It's difficult to work but the more difficult, the more beautiful in results," he says.

Wooden box

Occasionally that wood is spalted, the spalting being caused by fungus getting into the tree after it has been felled. The tree's defence mechanism against the fungus results in striking and jagged black lines running through the timber and if Peter dries it at the correct time he gets a fabulous piece of raw material. Burrs, the lumps which sometimes grow of the trunk of a tree, also reveal a lovely figuring after they have been cut, providing him with a special piece of timber as well.

He likes to get his hands on wood with history, trees which may have been a silent witness to some great event but which after a long life were wrecked in a gale or felled because they were too old.

"I got hold of some wood a few years ago from an oak tree which had been blown down at Hever Castle in Kent. I like to think it was a sapling when Henry VIII was courting Anne Boleyn there," he says. From that one piece he fashioned six different boxes.

He stores the planks he buys for at least one year outside under a cover and then a further year or more inside. After that he planes them and keeps them for another six months or so, to further reduce the moisture content before the real works begins.

"A piece of wood suggests how it wants to become a box. That's a clumsy way of putting it but it's the best way I can describe what happens," he says.

Sketching on the piece of wood until he sees a box appearing — the lid here, the hinges there - is one of his great pleasures.

Sea box

"I like to think I'm taking an ancient piece of timber and giving it another 200 years of life," he adds. In the small office beside his workshop, the finished products — coated with Danish oil or polished with beeswax, inner trays made of ripple sycamore — are lined up on shelves awaiting that new life.

Each one is numbered and the buyer's name recorded in a book. A short description of the wood and the box is typed on a piece of papers and placed inside the box typical of the passion and care he devotes to each particular piece.

The August edition of BBC Homes and Antiques magazine described his boxes as tomorrow's antiques. Buyers find many different used for them — storing stationary and sewing materials, documents, artists' materials or jewellery. A local vicar bought one once for taking Communion wine to the sick while another box went to someone who wanted it to store six silver cups.

People also come to Peter with commissions. A few weeks ago, for instance, a man asked him to make a box to hold his father's notes and sketches that he did in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. At a similar time a firm of architects in the north east asked him to make an aumbry (to store Communion wine and wafers) for St Andrew's Church at Roker near Sunderland, a church that has been referred to as the cathedral of the Arts and Crafts movement. Peter is delighted with the commission.

In the foreword of the book 'Celebrating Boxes' David Linley writes: "Each boxmaker has his or her story. Threads may be woven across continents, but each is unique, finding a special way to express themselves in small scale and with precision. Some do so with driftwood, others with colours and the most exotic timber. Some strut their stuff on the outside, others reveal hidden worlds within. The fascination and important of the work Peter and Andrew are celebrating lies in that breadth, and in the lengths to which artists will go to produce the most beautiful and evocative boxes".

Peter Lloyd is one whose boxes will most definitely be celebrated.