Tim Stead MBE: Sculptor and Furniture Maker
Recent visitors to the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh cannot have failed to notice the towering presence of the Millennium Clock whose hourly chimes draw an audience fascinated by its kinetic theatricality. This, and a number of other major public art commissions, are part of the legacy of the sculptor and furniture-maker Tim Stead who died recently after a long illness.
Tim was a larger than life character whose ideas and presence touched the lives of many. His work and activities were multi-faceted and interdisciplinary, embracing craft, fine art and community involvement. He also had a highly developed business sense which allowed him to establish and sustain a thriving workshop in his adopted home in Blainslie, in the Scottish Borders. From this base, which was a home as well as a place of work, he produced – along with co-workers and apprentices – a range of idiosyncratic furniture which over time evolved into a distinctive style. But because of the sheer natural diversity of the material in which he worked – mainly indigenous hardwoods such as elm – the work was never repetitive. Each set of chairs, and every table, dresser or chest of drawers, had a distinctive personality – a partnership between the raw material and the maker.
Tim believed passionately that his role as an artist was to unlock the beauty of the natural material and share its secrets with others. In this aim he succeeded brilliantly for his work proved immensely popular with many diverse people. The success of Tim’s work was not difficult to fathom for he often said that as an artist he wanted to let the wood speak for itself. This stated desire to take a back seat was, more often than not, modesty; in fact, his role as an artist was crucial in shaping, presenting and interpreting his material. His work was popular because he recognised humanity’s instinctive and archetypal need for tactile expression and aesthetic enrichment.
One of Tim’s early commissions was for Cafe Gandolfi in Glasgow where the robust, organic forms of Tim’s tables and chairs still give the cafe its particular character. Other large-scale projects included the North Sea Oil Industries’ memorial chapel at the Kirk of St. Nicholas in Aberdeen; here, he achieved that rare thing – highly crafted work of aesthetic value, which successfully managed to accommodate the sensitivities and sensibilities of a wide cross-section of the community. A specially commissioned work for Glasgow’s Museum of Modern Art is typical of Tim’s ideas because it allows the viewer to participate in the artwork. The work has been built into an existing alcove near the stairwell of the neo-classical building; it consists of shaped wooden forms which create a corbelling effect, rather reminiscent of the Neolithic chambers found in Orkney and which so fascinated Tim. A small ‘peephole’ allows the seated viewer to peer down, unobserved, to the galleries below. Oàrkney also proved the inspiration for Tim’s contribution to the ‘Scotland Creates’ exhibition held in the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow in 1990. In a lift-shaft in the middle of the gallery’s floor Tim recreated – in wood – one of the 5000-year-old stone houses in the village of Skara Brae. It was an act of typical madness and characteristic fun which stole the limelight.
Sculpturally, Tim’s work did not appear to derive from any particular art historical tradition, although the ideas of Brancusi, Beuys and Hundertwasser, amongst others, were central to his vision. His furniture owed something to Art Nouveau, in particular, Macintosh, Majorelle and Horta; his training at Glasgow School of Art was influential in this respect. Early on, he rejected Conceptualism particularly in the way it was practised at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham where he completed the early part of his training. An early work, ‘Burnt Tower with Creaking Pendulum’, contains most of his essential vocabulary , later expanded and refined. The piece shows items of worn driftwood bound together with rope, spectacularly off-centre and asymmetrical. Tim loved the natural processes which eroded and shaped the world and this piece was a personal metaphor, redolent with the infinite possibilities he would later explore.
Tim’s home life was essential to his creative processes. With typical humour, he named his house ‘The Steading’ and in a very real sense the interior of the house became an extension of his personality, a constantly evolving organic artwork, where wood predominated in many fascinating shapes and forms. Most visitors entering there for the first time found it breath-taking and awe-inspiring; on leaving they emerged to a world which was, by comparison, duller and more pedestrian.
Tim’s guiding ethos in life was to put in more than he took out; because he realised that trees were central to his own life, both ecologically and economically, he helped found a community woodland near his home. The funds to purchase Wooplaw came in part from Tim’s inspired idea to make a wooden axe-head for each day of 1986 – these he subsequently sold. This community involvement also extended to his role of co-founder of Woodschool in Ancrum, based on the idea that a plentiful supply of local, indigenous timber could be used by the increasing number of furniture makers emerging from art schools and colleges. The project has proved an enormous success, attracting interest from around the world. It is an enduring testament to Tim’s vision for sustainable economic activity based on local resources. It was this community involvement which led to his being made an MBE earlier this year.
Tim was generous with his time and ideas. My own experience illustrates this. One day, almost ten years ago, I telephoned him out of the blue as a total stranger, to talk about his work. He invited me to his home and I found myself im?mediately at the centre of a warm family life, full of lively discussion. Soon after, I found myself collaborating on a book about his work. In it, Dr David Bellamy wrote: ‘When I die, I would like my ashes to be cast into one of the woodlands of the Border Country which gives Tim and many other people so much joy and inspiration. Then I might have a chance of becoming part not only of a living tree but also a product of a future ‘new wood age’ worker in whom this book has sown seeds of inspiration’. Many seeds have indeed been sown and it is a fitting and poetic thought that Tim’s last wish was to be buried in Wooplaw, the wood which he loved and helped to create.
Tim is survived by his wife Maggy and their children Emma and Sam.
Born in Helsby, Cheshire, 27th March, 1952
Married Maggy Lenert, July 14, 1972
Graduated Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham 1974 and Glasgow School of Art 1975
MBE, January, 2000
Died in Edinburgh, 21 April, 2000