Robert Ingham: Enter the temple

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Words and workshop photos: Neil Erasmus

The brothers Robert and George Ingham are synonymous with fine woodcraft, design and teaching in both Australia and the UK. George Ingham was invited to Australia in 1982 to establish the ANU School of Art’s wood workshop, and around that time several of Robert’s graduates had returned or immigrated to Australia and set up their own workshops.

Robert was born in 1938 in India, where his father was an officer in the colonial police. When he was 11 the family wisely decided to move the family back to Yorkshire, as India was about to be divided into two nations. Robert trained at Loughborough College and Leeds College of Art before studying at Leeds University, while George chose the more industrial design orientated Royal College of Art.


Ashort walk from the house, the workshop is nestled amongst the trees on the side of a hill.

After their studies, the brothers set up a partnership in Thirsk, where they produced one-off items of furniture and small batch runs of smaller works, before each set up their own individual practices. For a short time Robert worked in furniture retail and interior design, before the highly regarded designer, John Makepeace, sought Robert’s assistance in setting up what later became known as Parnham College. During Robert’s two decades of teaching at Parnham, he turned more than two hundred men and women into fine craft practitioners and designers in wood.

In 2010 when I was in the UK, my wife Pam and I were lucky enough to be invited through a friend to visit Robert. After a five hour drive through the English countryside we arrived early evening at Robert and his wife Andrea’s home. We ate dinner on a dining suite he made at Parnham, next to a sideboard he made in the early 60s while a student at Loughborough Training College.


Supremely organised and fastidiously clean, Robert Ingham’s workshop.

One of his then-teachers, Edward Barnsley, had argued that the correct proportions for a sideboard were immutable, and that the low-slung, longish design Robert had devised would not please aesthetically. Robert had already fallen in love with the simple, clean-lined elegance of Danish design – a distinct departure from the Arts and Crafts based forms Edward espoused. Robert’s piece nevertheless impressed Edward Barnsley with its delicate sophistication and appeal. It features book-matched veneers, set in doors and drawers and lost-wax cast bronze handles. It shows Robert’s early curiosity with other materials and processes—a broad range of which he studied at Leeds College. To demonstrate this, I was shown a small, superbly crafted, ebony-handled, silver teapot that he had made there all those years back.


Dressing table and stool (2008), wenge and amboyna

The Ingham home is modest, modern and white, inside and out. There is no pretence, no fuss. It is a home that is super-conducive to quiet and calm thinking. A pared-back aesthetic is apparent in every aspect of the Ingham’s lives – and every detail of Robert’s work. His restraint extends to modesty about his considerable achievements, because he is much more comfortable talking about the virtues of other designer/ makers than his own.


Above: Swivel-lidded boxes like the ones above are one of Robert Ingham’s regular ‘lines’.

The bedroom we stayed in featured one of Robert’s dressing tables with his trademark swivelling drawers. The two, not-so-tiny, drawers in the immaculately crafted piece swivel out effortlessly on a single pivot point, with no discernible slop up and down. Similar hinges are employed in his swivel-lidded boxes that are sold as collectable items. Robert discusses these hinges in great depth in his highly recommended book, Cutting-edge Cabinetmaking.


Duet box, 2003, bog oak, masur birch and English walnut

The following day he took Pam and I into his office/showroom, a small, separate building. He showed us a tightly packed cabinet of models. To me, model making had always meant the making of a 1:10 to 1:5 scaled miniature that had the main visual features of the full scale item. Having had a glimpse of the character of the man, it came as small wonder that Robert miniaturises everything, including real drawers with real miniature dovetails. While half expecting this I was still staggered by the attention to detail he would go to, to convert a prospective client into a paying one. One of the models Robert showed me was one for the nave altar for St Asaph Cathedral. As the church was just down the road, we drove there to see the finished altar, a handsome piece that features no more detail than the model itself.


Everything in its place...

Finally, it was time to enter Robert’s ‘temple’, the place where he spends most of his time. Only a short walk down a garden path from the house, this is nestled amongst the trees and shrubs on the side of a hill, but with a view of some magnificent Welsh countryside. The studio is just over 80 square metres in size, with white walls and windows right down the west facing wall letting in natural light. We were asked to remove our shoes at the door before being allowed to enter his immaculately clean, bright and tidy work studio. Robert is now famous for this insistence, and I was pleased for it, as I’m not sure what I would have done if I had carried any dirt onto that gleaming floor.


In his early 70s, Robert’s typical workday begins at eight in the morning, and finishes around nine in the evening, his only breaks being for lunch, dinner and the odd cup of tea – seven days a week. Never before had I seen a better example of the health benefits of long hours at the bench. However I noticed how his relaxed and contented manner allows him to channel all his energies into one direction, so as to avoid wasting any effort on less important demands.


Above left: Quatrain chest of drawers, 1997, quilted Canadian maple, wenge, malachite drawer pulls. on the right: Lattice tower, 2005, ripple sycamore, Australian walnut.

When we visited Robert was working on another of his 10 drawer Placet chests. Like much of his work it features a com- bination of solid wood and figured veneers, perfectly matched. This piece highlights so much about its maker: how much consideration is given to proportions – the critically important combination of drawer heights, drawer numbers and carcase width all combine to ensure the centrally located, patinated brass handles are all intersected perfectly by the triangular chevron of veneer. No detail exists for its own sake – it’s there to function in total harmony with the rest of the piece, or is left out. At the time of our visit, Placet costs £9000 – surprisingly modest for this aesthetically successful and technically complex piece of furniture, made by one of today’s most highly acclaimed makers.


Placet chest of drawers, bog oak, ripple weathered sycamore, ebony, patinated brass drawer pulls and details

While Robert has tried all the traditional methods of applying a finish coating to his work, he now opts for an acid cata- lysed lacquer, which is applied to all his work inside a small, but professionally fit- ted out spray-booth. He demonstrated to us how he could de-nib and change the gloss level of the finish with a sander, us- ing special pads. He feels that the lac- quer gives the highly figured, often pale, woods greater protection and clarity than shellac or oil.


In addition to bespoke furniture, Robert makes an extremely desirable range of batch-produced, collectable boxes. I particularly like the ‘craft’ element he imbues in these with the inclusion of miniature, hand-cut dovetails, for which Robert has jigged up and is so well-practised at that he can cut joints for a box in an hour. These beautiful boxes encapsulate, in an affordable item, a finely balanced blend of truly remarkable workmanship, clever design and understated yet striking and meaningful decoration.


Brian and Dawn’s Bed (2000), ripple sycamore, steamed Swiss pear inlay and details

Not one to let go of much short of total control of the making process, Robert covers almost every other facet of his business practice so he can be satisfied that all is done to his own very high standards. For instance, the limited range of off-the-shelf hardware available and its market-driven mediocrity, forced Rob- ert many years ago, to design and make his own. Thus, a narrow section of his studio is dedicated to a small suite of metalwork machinery such as a lathe and milling machine.

Robert is an intuitively gifted engineer – he understands his materials together with the processes and equipment needed to work them better than anyone I know. He showed me an ingenious, but simple, method to micro-adjust the height of his under-table router, consisting of a rotating, captured and calibrated disc through which fits a threaded rod, connected at one end to the router.


Bedside tables with Robert Ingham's trademark swivelling drawers (1999), birdseye maple and ripple sycamore

Robert also has his own professional cam- era gear with back-drop that he can rig up in the workshop, quickly turning it into a photographic studio. This he uses for all his finished work. Not only is the completed item recorded this way, but also most facets of the making process, which are provided, together with a written provenance of materials, glues and surface treatment, to the buyer. Included, is all the information about the maintenance, and methods for disassembly, and re-assembly in the event a restorer needs to repair it.

Robert Ingham has devoted a lifetime to furthering his craft. I found so much to aspire to in this man, especially his ability to cut to the point and his capacity to listen carefully and to give unreservedly of his wealth of knowledge. He is a maker who considers tradition and conventions carefully, but in no way feels bound by them, taking that which he considers useful and changing or improving that which he believes remains unresolved.

Neil Erasmus is a Perth-based furniture designer/maker who also teaches woodwork.


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