Listen to this article
Mark Henderson is the chairman of the two-century-old Savile Row tailor Gieves & Hawkes. In recent years he has become a leading light in the drive to empower British craftspeople and reposition their products away from village fetes and into upmarket metropolitan stores. Surely, this will be an exacting character.
I arrive at the main door of his red-brick mansion block in Clapham, south-west London, wearing a slightly crumpled white shirt, hoping it is sufficient to rankle his sartorial standards and prompt the issue of materials and presentation. Through the glazed door, down the communal stairwell descends a figure — wearing an emerald polo shirt and chinos, and a broad smile. Turns out I’m overdressed, and he is way too affable to bite.
The Henderson family seat is in deepest Dorset, but this Edwardian apartment is his London pad, and has been for 30 years. Its spine is a corridor with the kitchen to the left, while the opposite adjoining sitting and dining rooms burst with the light and foliage of Clapham Common. He hopes he need never give up either property.
Henderson offers a small, perfectly formed tan leather tub chair, and the promise of a cuppa. The dining room’s focus is a plain scrubbed pine table. Essential and proportionate, it augurs well for his cooking. He brings tea in a straight-sided, off-white cup. It is quite a beautiful thing, with a ribbon-loop handle. And it seems at home in this off-white sitting room, where chromatic monotony is alleviated by the forms and shadows of white ceramics set on a white marble fireplace.
The wall forming the corridor presents a pallid diptych landscape of Dorset. That pair of pictures is set over a couch of blue tartan, with a hole chewed (by a former pet, one hopes) in an arm. The seats face a television perched on a round table draped in tasselled scarlet like some offspring of a theatre curtain. The resolved jumble is charming. He settles on the window seat ready for questions, generous in conversation.
Henderson was born near Chelmsford, Essex, and went to school at Ampleforth in Yorkshire, where he “had a crack at pottery” and tried woodcutting. It was far from home, but that proved just as well. Twenty-five miles south-west of Chelmsford, his grandfather Percy had, in 1921, established a sliding door factory that grew to more than 500 employees.
As the third generation in the family business, Henderson found the pioneering excitement was over and had no intention of running well-oiled machines. After a dutiful couple of years in the factory, he exited to Mary Quant, the fashion and cosmetic queen of 1960s Soho, and forged a career representing London’s fashions abroad, in licensing, sales and marketing.
After this on-the-job business apprenticeship he never looked back on Henderson Sliding Doors — except once. Though the company survives, he found Percy’s original factory was long-gone: memory lane had become a housing estate with a burger bar on the corner.
There are no sliding doors in this apartment. Henderson has stuck to the basics. His mission is to help English craftspeople make beautiful objects and sell them. But when he has personally witnessed mechanised industry replacing craftsmanship, and that industry itself becoming obsolete, how can craft possibly become vital again?
“I love Englishness — or rather Britishness — and making things. There’s so much garbage produced, I’d like to see more work put into craftsmanship.”
Garbage in this case is the detritus of cheap materials, unthinking design and short-term want over long-term need. It is synonymous with global mass production — and globalism is a pressing issue. What does he think of Brexit?
“Deeply sad. We are European, and our entire culture is European, and you have to have a strong relationship with your next-door neighbour. I think it is appalling.”
The nation’s soul-searching has suggested that many Brexit voters expressed frustrations borne of globalisation: the polarisation of wealth, corporatisation over community, mass migration, failed integration. In many developed countries, the response has been flag-flying nationalism. Might the drive for British craft be another expression of the trend to re-establish the local over the international, personal over corporate? Is craft anti-global?
“I think we have been trampled by neoliberal capitalism. But we have a real sense of kicking against it now. I suspect the answer is we need a more socialist model.” He ponders: “I once had a beehive. And often, you don’t know whether to think of a beehive as one organism or 150,000 individual bees . . . ”
The relationship between the redistribution of wealth and the rescue of craft is not an easy one. This was realised more than a century ago when the spiritual base of the Arts and Crafts movement in the hamlets and villages of the Midlands became financially dependent on the clientele of Bond Street furniture dealers — those who could pay enough for the hours of work on fine materials.
Something of this paradox remains in Henderson’s role as a director of Walpole. This upmarket brand group (which counts the Financial Times as one of its members and media partners) aims to nurture new generations of talent, and is not-for-profit, but his position nonetheless seems at odds with his socialist call. Henderson explains that craft is dependent on the luxury market because only upmarket retailers can and will pay the bills for essential apprenticeship schemes. Bringing up young potters, carvers, tailors and jewellers isn’t as it used to be when a master would teach a working child. Today’s college education does not necessarily lead to employment, less still does its encouragement of individualism regenerate entire traditions.
Henderson argues that craft needs both commercial and charitable support because it has become the poor relation to art. Four or five centuries ago multitasking artist-craftspeople were the norm. Now, paintings by famous names have the aura of saintly relics commanding high prices in auction houses while craft too often languishes on market stalls or is resold cheaply by auction houses by way of “brown furniture”. Much of this is about management, he says. “The art market is phenomenally organised. The craft market is phenomenally disorganised.” And he laments the perceived inferiority of craft.
His solution is to bring funding and management, transforming individual talents into sustainable businesses. Towards this, he wears two more hats. One is as shopkeeper, using his marketing know-how to run a Mayfair gallery, The New Craftsmen, that represents artisans who “aren’t interested in selling, just making”. The second hat is worn as trustee of the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, a charity that funds craftspeople. Should charity support a branch of the luxury market? He says people regard the pursuit of beauty as a virtue in itself.
Henderson’s apartment showcases several pieces by QEST scholars: three small, black, iron and gilt vessels on the dining table; an elegant Irish basket by the fireplace. Each is a resolution of intense thought and effort, ideal prompts for the homely contemplation of life’s complexities.
Photographs: Harry Mitchell