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Hugh Wedderburn, Master Woodcarver

October 14, 2010
by the gentle author

Hugh Wedderburn works every day carving wood in the window of an old shop in the Borough at the meeting point of two Roman roads, Stane St and Watling St. “The ancient approach to London,” Hugh delights to call it, aware that the nature of the work he does has not changed significantly in all the time these roads have been there. Fifty yards behind Hugh’s workshop, a fourth century Roman tablet was found recently that includes the earliest known usage of the name “London.” It gives Huw pleasure to contemplate these things, savouring his position at the centre of this age-old neighbourhood.

While the world races by Hugh’s window, and as the acorns in pots on his bench grow up to become trees, he patiently shaves away superfluous pieces of wood to reveal elegant forms of creatures and foliage, that were just waiting to be uncovered by his keen tools. Or rather, that is the way it seems, because the quality of Hugh’s carving has such natural veracity and grace that it belies the immense skill and laborious application it takes to bring it into existence.

“The chisel makes the shape,” said Hugh, as if his involvement as woodcarver were merely incidental. “So you have to have the right chisel to make the form, and you need to have them in various bent shapes to do the awkward bits.” he added, referring to a handsome array of fifty diverse old chisels laid out in a crescent upon his bench surrounding the current piece of work, all perfectly-sharpened and interlaced with shavings. With these, Hugh can create the extraordinary intricate relief carving of baroque swags, flourishes and foliage that stands proud of the surface and defies the imagination to comprehend how mere mortals could carve it.

“I felt like I was coming home when I moved here to the Borough in 1996,” confessed Hugh brightly, peering out the window at the passersby in Tabard St,“because I was born in Nigeria and there are quite a lot people in Southwark from Nigeria.” In 2001, Hugh was contacted by Margaret Wedderburn Evans who told him they had a common ancestor in Robert Wedderburn, born in the West Indies in 1762 to a Scots’ father and a Jamaican mother. A campaigner against slavery, he came to London and joined the Spencerians, an English radical group that united the working men’s cause.

Today, Hugh’s ancestor is remembered for slogans such as,“It’s demeaning for the oppressed to petition the oppressor,” and “You can take away my weapons but I can still spit.” Sentiments that Huw quotes with relish and a gleeful smile. “I am the answer to the question of what happened to the first Afro-Caribbeans that came to London,” he said, holding up a lithe forearm to display his pale flesh. “Look, that’s what happened to them,” Hugh declared enigmatically, indicating that his perception of the world has a depth and complexity comparable to his work.

Hugh is at the top of his profession, yet in spite of his superlative skill the rewards are ultimately those of esteem rather than wealth. “It would be lovely to earn a fortune, but I get the satisfaction,” he admitted quietly, with a self-possessed grin, turning to the window again, “And I’m here in the middle of London. Office workers pass by on the way to their jobs and tell me how contented I look.”

When Hugh moved into his current workshop it had been a betting shop, but when he pulled out the shopfittings he found old matchboarding, now covered with organised lines of tools that form the background to his crowded yet harmonious work space. Sunlight pours in through the shop window, and filtered through the saplings in pots on Hugh’s work bench, it casts a soft light upon all the bits and pieces of work in progress, souvenirs of past works, cases of books and catalogues, working drawings, sculptures, driftwood and twigs.

“I wanted to be a sculptor but I didn’t want to go to art school,” explained Hugh, casting his eyes upon all the objects disappearing into shade at the rear of the shop. “So I found the City & Guilds School that teaches restoration” he continued, leading me purposefully to a table in a shadowy corner of the workshop,“and after that I became an antiques restorer. Then I made this table in the Queen Anne style and put it in an exhibition. It was shown in a magazine and that brought in a few private clients. And I realised how much more pleasure it was working for them than the antiques trade in general. The most interesting work is when an interior designer commissions a piece and gives you the freedom to be creative.”

I was fascinated to examine Hugh’s first table and see the marks of the chisel still fresh upon this bravura work. Without the varnish, staining and gilding that you expect of old furniture, it had another quality, and the clarity of the expressive wood carving came into relief. “There’s a snobbery about whether you’re an artist or not, as a woodcarver, because it’s a collaborative art,” mused Hugh, while I squatted down to admire the details of his extraordinary table,“but a musician interprets a composer’s work and that’s collaborative, yet it is not seen to compromise their integrity as a fine artist.” It was an interesting question, but not one to trouble Hugh very long because it was time to return to the bench and his current work.

Hugh started carving, making deliberate, slow confident strokes with a sharp chisel in absolute physical concentration, and a transformation came upon him. The man who had been so upbeat in conversation – flashing his startling grey eyes – was gone, and different, quieter, energy filled him. The clamor of the city retreated, the sound of Hugh Wedderburn’s wood carving was the only sound, and peace reigned.

This was Hugh’s first table.

Hugh’s current work-in-progress, these acorns are a detail from a larger composition.

A mirror carved by Hugh Wedderburn to a design by Marianna Kennedy

The title panel for the Cadfael television series, carved by Hugh in oak.

Work in progress upon a mirror frame by Marianna Kennedy sits upon the bench in Hugh’s workshop.

16 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    October 14, 2010

    the table looks alive.

  2. Zeph permalink
    October 15, 2010

    Yes, it does. It’s the faces, and the little hooves. Beautiful.

    I wish I was rich, just so that I could buy a piece from Hugh.

  3. January 27, 2011

    Hugh, Quite pleasing to a Old London Gunstock Maker, to see someone who can use Traditional hand tools and is in the “City”. Very nice work ! dt.

  4. Craig Morris permalink
    June 5, 2011

    We love the Cadfael series and have always been intrigued by the opening woodcut. Can you give any details on what the panels represent?

  5. Lori permalink
    October 12, 2011

    Hugh! Would love to see. I will stop by at Christmas will you be there?
    Kiss Kiss
    Your work is getting better and better! I am certain you are as well. A big hello to Danuta, my best to you and yours!

  6. Eric permalink
    January 21, 2012

    My father, who was a furniture maker, loved to say of woodcarvers, “the good ones have conquered the third dimension”, meaning depth. Some carvers hesitate to remove material and it shows. It is grand to see that you have indeed conquered that third dimension. Especially love the Cadfael’s piece. Well done!

  7. Sonia permalink
    November 13, 2012

    The table and mirror frame are magnificent. Hugh may not be a millionaire today – but can you imaging what his pieces will sell for as antiques a hundred years from now? Wish I could afford one!

  8. Ginta permalink
    November 18, 2014

    stunning! so pretty and dazzling!

  9. Tizau Muse permalink
    February 16, 2016

    you are the best one nothing to write already your work tells your uniqueness. I have avery very aim and beginner talent to work carving . if i gate the opprtunity to work in your site am lucker man.

  10. Ron Bunting permalink
    January 11, 2019

    In the Mirror by Marianne Kennedy is a framed motif,Dites-moi .why would someone put the title of a song From “South pacific “on the wall? Tell Me indeed. and that is a pretty big egg in his studio,How big is the chicken ?

  11. Mark permalink
    January 11, 2019

    A craftsman!

    I found the shop on google maps… ( I knew Tabard St because I had my first job in Long Lane in 1974) pYou can see the little oak trees in pots in the window.
    Truly a man after my own heart.
    I have been involved with london trees now for over fourty years and love planting acorns, just wish I could carve wood like our man in Tabard St!

    Thank you

    Mark B

  12. March 7, 2019

    I just LOVE your work. We need a very simple memorial for our beloved son who died very bravely thinking of what he could do after his death on Feb 6. I am a wood person. We already have what seems to me a suitable chunk of walnut. But maybe it is too well-seasoned for you? Our dear friend, Ian Walters, who did the statues of Nelson Mandela, who died some years ago, told me that he liked to work with green wood.

    We are on 0207 274 8892

  13. Joyce Newton permalink
    March 24, 2019

    I don’t believe I have ever seen anything so beautiful and evocative as your work in Cadfael. I wait for it at the beginning of every film I watch again and again and always wish I could see more of it. Thank you.

  14. Christine MacLeod permalink
    June 23, 2021

    I looked up who had done the carving for the credits in Cadfael. I found this article about Huw Wedderburn. I hope this email will reach him. I am staggered by the beauty of his work. I wish him a long, happy and peaceful life. Even in darkest Canada we know what extraordinary ability looks like. Thank you for the pleasure you have given us.

  15. Robert Hume permalink
    June 28, 2021

    What a wonderful article! Your prose is not only extremely evocative of Hugh’s character and quiet passion, but resonates with sincere appreciation of his art. If there’s any way of forwarding the following, I’d be much obliged.

    I, too, found this article through interest in the panel you wrought for the Cadfael series. Your handiwork therein, and in the pieces portrayed in this article, speak of a true artist. Simply beautiful.

    This might be a long shot from a Yank across the pond, but I’m trying my hand at a large (1m) fox perched atop a stump. (I felled a dead Red Elm and just had to create something from the interesting wood.) Haven’t done anything like this before in my lifetime, but at 50 it seemed the time to give it a go. Any beginner’s advice, especially as to what tools to invest in?

    Many thanks, and cheers!
    Robert Hume, USA

  16. June 17, 2023

    Hi Hugh,

    It’s your old City and Guilds’ colleague, Mick Madden.
    Angharad Rhys showed me this article. Really great to see you looking so young and how great your work has become. Can I come and see you some time? Many stories to tell. All best wishes…….

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