Studio Visit to John Hagger

10 August 2016

Studio Visit to John Hagger

This week I took a trip out of London to the picturesque countryside of Devon. My first stop was to see the very talented John Hagger of Tanner Bates, based in Dartington, Totnes. As I pulled into the wooded car park and got a ticket from the machine, I strolled amongst tree-lined pathways leading to a whole host of wooden shops. The Shops at Dartington, which sit on the edge of the Dartington Hall Estate, were established in 1977 when a gallery for local craftspeople was opened. It was so successful that over the years the space has grown, with more and more local crafts being represented.

After a short meander I found Tanner Bates’ small studio shop with a workshop. As soon as I entered the door, that very distinct smell of leather engulfed me. After a few minutes of browsing the collection of wallets, belts, bags of all shapes and sizes, coin purses, the list could go on,  John came speeding past on his bike, what an entrance!

John was a city worker for many years when, as he said, ‘a mid life crisis hit’ and a change was needed. His grandfather was a leather guilder, who often gave John personalized gifts as presents. Inspired by this, John set about re-training in Warsal in the midlands, the heart of traditional leather craft industry. He trained for a number of years as a saddler and bridlemaker; something he would not make again, it was not his passion nor interest. John wanted to learn the traditional skills, which he could then use in more modern way, take inspiration from his grandfather and make personalized gifts. 

There was one aspect of John’s training that he felt he was missing; a hide would appear on his workbench all tanned and ready for use. Where was it from? How was it tanned? These questions sparked a 2-year self-study investigation into traditional and pre-industrial leatherworking techniques. During this John came across J & FJ Baker & co tannery in Colyton, East Devon. (I later visited this tannery, blog post to follow)

John’s passion for knowing where his leather comes from often lead him to tan unusual hides, an excellent example of this is a roadkill roe dear. The roe deer was run over down the road from his home, he skinned it and transformed the skin into leather by steeping it in tree bark liquor. The roe deer bag now sits in his shop, not for sale!

After a tour of the shop and workshop, John and I hoped into my car where we drove onto the Dartington Hall Estate to an outhouse farm building, where there is another workshop. This is where two of his apprentices were beavering away crafting small bags. This workshop was a little larger and held lots of exciting tools and machinery. This is where the making happens! I spotted, nestled in the corner of the room, a saddle, to which John said ‘Oh yes that is the one and only saddle I have made!’

John has a huge passion for leather, tanning and knowing where all of the components for all products come from. He is expanding his studio and is hoping to move in 6 weeks time, where he will be able to offer more leather working masterclasses.

Thanks to John for a lovely visit, showing me around all your spaces and best of luck with the next phase. I can’t wait to see what masterclasses we can plan for the Institute of Making for next term.

For more information about John visit his website.

More pictures of Olivia’s trip can be found on Flickr and Facebook