Made in Lancashire - Darwen Terracotta
PUBLISHED: 16:14 25 January 2017
Skill and artistry are helping to restore our heritage buildings and to create the landmarks of the future. Roger Borrell reports
They are the skills that built a nation – quite literally – and then decorated it with the squiggles, swirls and sumptuous glazes that took Victorian architecture to a higher plain.
Those same skills are alive and well in a part of Lancashire still famous for its manufacturing traditions and they are much in demand. While many of the old trades involved the grease and grime of the Industrial Age, the end products from Darwen Terracotta and Faience are often things of great beauty and considerable artistry.
Put simply, they are recreating past glories at some of Britain’s landmark buildings. The team there has worked on projects that read like an English Heritage tour guide – from the exterior of Harrods to the entrance at the Natural History Museum.
When your curlicues start to crumble or car fumes reduce your pediment to powder, these are the people you call. The ornamentation created by Victorian craftsmen doesn’t last forever, especially in cities where air pollution eats away at terracotta. When they need replacing, the old skills still prevail and they can be found among the men and women at Darwen Terracotta.
Partners Jon Wilson and Steve Allen, with support from director Jon Almond, set up the business after many years in senior positions with a big local company that veered away from the architectural restoration to concentrate on kitchen sinks.
Jon and Steve were disappointed because they had enjoyed the heritage part of the business, naturally finding it a more interesting way to earn a living. Steve left and Jon was later made redundant but they got back together to talk through setting up on their own.
‘The skills of the people at the old company were tremendous,’ said Steve. ‘Neither of us wanted to lose them. They were unique to the area.’
They took the plunge, setting up in September 2015 and taking on some of the people made redundant by their former employer. As word got out, the orders came in and the workforce has grown to more than 30 – mostly old work colleagues.
‘The old company left a gap in the market and we filled it,’ said Jon. ‘I can’t pretend it wasn’t scary when we first started, waiting for the phone to ring.’ But ring it did and they beat their turnover forecasts and have been able to recruit more people every month. Now, they have placed an order for a £150,000 second kiln which will double capacity.
They’ve also won their first export order to restore a century old theatre in the Canadian city of St John’s and more will come following the appointment of an agent in New York. In America, the restoration business is really taking off.
Both men are clear their success is down to the people who work for them. ‘Our philosophy has been to treat them correctly, not because you get more work but because we want a company with a happy, family atmosphere.’
Steve added: ‘We want this to be like a family business. Without them there would be no businesses. When we were setting up we were going to get contractors in to build the drying rooms but they said they wanted to have a go at doing it themselves. They worked weekends to complete it.’
Their first major order was the for restoration of Wigan Town Hall. ‘When the officials from the council visited they saw an empty factory,’ said Jon. ‘I think it made them wonder if we were capable of doing the job. But they had faith is us and Blackburn Council have also been extremely supportive,’
Red terracotta has helped to restore the Wigan Town Hall to its former glory and, in the past, they’ve also been involve in providing faienced clay – that’s the glazed version of terracotta – at London’s Windmill Theatre. Each year, they get through 500 tonnes of clay from Devon.
However, it’s not just ancient monuments on their order book. A next step is likely to be high-end Belfast sinks but with a twist. ‘White sinks are nothing unusual but we are experimenting with colours, especially metallic colours,’ said Steve.
The company, based on a business park in Blackburn, has also pinpointed a major area of growth as modern architects look at ways of creating the iconic buildings of the future.
The Darwen Terracotta team is already working on a new development in London’s Clerkenwell which will house the UK head office of Gucci above luxury retail units. Contracts in Covent Garden and Oxford Street are also in the offing.
While the skills on the shop floor are much the same as a century ago, using moulds to create architectural shapes and sculpting skills to create elaborate statuary, there are also some very modern methods behind the scenes. Skilled computer draughtsmen work with clients to get exact matches for replacement pieces and there is a lab where they experiment with colours to recreate the tones of Victorian tiles.
‘It’s wonderful to think we are restoring these magnificent old buildings but it’s also inspiring to be helping to create the landmark buildings of the future,’ said Steve.
For more information go to www.darwenterracotta.com