Ian Harper, Wood Grainer
In recent days, while making my way to and fro along Princelet St, I have had the delight observe the progress of wood grainer Ian Harper at work upon the frontage of an eighteenth century house which is being restored by Chris Dyson. The project took two weeks from start to finish and permitted me the opportunity of some conversations with Ian, who retained an enviable composure throughout the accumulating drama of his epic undertaking – chatting amiably as he worked and managing the endeavour with such ease that he almost succeeded in drawing attention away from the skill and mastery of technique involved. Yet from the first day – starting with a mustard coloured ground – the assurance of Ian’s work and the uncanny realism of his wood grain drew admirers like myself who could not resist taking daily detours through Princelet St to wonder at this rare display.
Laying a thin coat of dark oil paint on top of the paler base coat, Ian used combs to create the grain and pliable slivers of rubber to add cross grain in satisfyingly random forms, working methodically on each of the separate panels of the frontage’s construction. Ian explained to me that the combs which make such convincing grain were a nineteenth century invention when the aspiration was to create a surface indistinguishable from wood. “I like to be more painterly. It was the Victorians who wanted verisimilitude.” he declared with delicate satire, playfully brandishing a paintbrush for emphasis. Ian’s personal taste is closer to that of a previous period when graining was freer, illustrated by the original Georgian graining upon Dan Cruickshank’s front door that Ian has been called upon to repair and which is the earliest surviving wood graining in Spitalfields.
For this frontage in Princelet St, Ian painted the facade with an oak effect and the front door with a contrasted burr walnut. In each case, he adopted a pleasing degree of stylization derived from different paint techniques, using combs for oak and a soft brush twirled with a turn of the wrist to create the pattern of walnut. “Finding the brush you like gives you great confidence,” he admitted, holding up an example affectionately, “This little brush, I bought it in France. Very soft and it saved the day, it was just what I was looking for.” I was intrigued to understand how such a technical approach came to render these different woods so gracefully, and Ian’s two weeks in Princelet St served as an impressive demonstration of the patience and steady hand that are prerequisites of this singular endeavour. Then,once the graining was complete, he applied a coat of tinted glaze to add depth. And the finished result is an honourable addition to the growing number of examples of Ian’s wood graining in the neighbourhood, including at 3 Fournier St, the Market Coffee House, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and Jones Dairy in Ezra St.
Ian was first introduced to Spitalfields in 1982 by Marianna Kennedy who was a fellow student at the Slade and then he became a lodger in Fournier St. Simon Pettet portrayed both of them on one of his delft tiles in Dennis Severs’ House recording local personalities at that time. Yet although Ian only lived here for seven years, he remembers it as an inspirational period of formative experiences, discovering his aptitude in creating traditional paint finishes that complements his work as a fine artist. At the top of his profession today, with work in 10 Downing St, Manor Des Quatre Saisons and Lord Rothchild’s house on Corfu, Ian retains an abiding affection for Spitalfields that keeps bringing him back to the place where it all began.
“It was a great time to be here as an art student then, in a place with so many artists. There was an energy and openness because so many of the people were young. Those who had houses here had bought them for not too much money and were doing the restoration with their own hands, so everyone helped everyone else. It seemed everyone was busy, teaching each other and sharing tools. In those days the fruit & vegetable market was still here too, and Fournier St was busy all night with people shouting and selling cabbages. When I finished art school, people were asking ‘Did I do marbling?’ It was quite the thing at the time, so I went to work with a friend who had a job doing a restaurant in New York and then Fiona Skrine got me a job assisting a decorative painter she was working for, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Spitalfields has been consistently in my life because I keep coming back to do work here. You would think there wasn’t anything left to paint after all these years, but whenever I walk down the street here I meet people who say, ‘Will you come and do something for me.’ I should never have guessed twenty-five years ago that I would still be coming back to these three streets beside the church. It’s a lynchpin. All my best friends are here. It’s still a great place for meeting people with ideas. I’ve lost track of all the amazing people I’ve met in Spitalfields.”
Now that the scaffolding is down, Ian’s work is fully exposed to Princelet St, bringing gravity to the freshly restored house. The fascination of Ian’s work comes from the trick it plays upon your eye which, in spite of the stylization of the wood grain, tells you it is real just as your brain reminds you it is painted. Now the frontage only needs a little weathering, and everyone will assume it was always like that.
Burr walnut to the left, on the door, and oak to the right, on the surround.
Some of Ian’s tools.
The earliest wood graining in Spitalfields is on Dan Cruickshank’s front door, dating from the eighteenth century, with some subtle repair work by Ian Harper.
The frontage of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry by Ian Harper, painted in an oak grain to match the earlier graining inside.
Jones Dairy in Ezra St, off Columbia Rd, wood grained by Ian Harper.
The newly completed frontage in Princelet St, Ian Harper’s piéce de resistance in Spitalfields.
Portrait of Ian Harper & working photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman