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For the last quarter of a century, 4 000 years of leather history have sat hidden in boxes in the ancient English leather and shoe making city of Northampton. The reality of this unbelievable truth is coming to light, day after day, as the recently appointed curator and his volunteers open the boxes and cross check with the original catalogue to uncover the details of the biggest collection of its kind in the world.
The collection was started by designer John Waterer and leather chemist Claude Spiers in 1946. Some readers of this from around the world will have studied under Spiers - do let us know if you were one. After many years on display in London, a curious set of events led to its removal to Northampton where funding changes soon caused it to be deposited in store for such a long time that, apart from a few dedicated trustees, it was set to be forever forgotten until just a year ago.
What is clear is that Waterer and Spiers were well connected in the industry. They were quickly able to build a quite fabulous collection which was steadily added to by industry enthusiasts. So being uncovered are items from Tutankhamen's tomb and fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls (the items examined in the 1960s by Dr Ron Reed when he was my lecturer at Leeds University - just one more reason I should have taken more interest in my studies).
I have spent the day watching England’s Antiques and Fine Art Valuer and TV personality Adam Schoon look through just a tiny fraction of the items with a skilled eye. Without question the mix of a leather technologist (with an interest in historic leather making) and a true expert in antiques can bring objects to life. Adam's skill at uncovering almost invisible markings and deducing from them details of age and function, sometimes right down to the name of the owner and the individual craftsman is quite astonishing. Consequently, while it is apparent that there are a significant number of individual items of huge historical importance and unmeasurable value, every item appears to tell a fascinating story of social and technical history.
Now the battle is on for more resources to open every box and fully update the records and, then, find a way to make them accessible to scholars, designers and the public as a whole. This is the job of the Curator Philip Warner. If you are interested to support this in any way, contact Philip via museumofleathercraft.org or via Twitter @PJW_MoL
If we are to continue the movement of attracting youth back to leather as a great material, tanning as a wonderful career and inspire more generations of great designers, we need this collection out front and prominent.
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