MA Conservation Studies, specialising in Furniture and Related Objects 1982 - 1984

David Watkinson

French Polisher

What do you consider your biggest achievement to date?

I am proud to have worked on important furniture by legendary designer and maker names of Pugin, Holland & Sons, Gillows, the Palace of Westminster chambers, the Prime Minister's coffee table, the Queen's crown table and lift, to oddities such as the Consort loo. Items such as the prayer wooden box in the under croft church off Westminster Hall, all items that will be around for hundreds of years; but a real highlight is now in the summer of 2022 when two things are happening at the same time. One is the recognition of a detailed look at working in the The Palace of Westminster as a French Polisher I created. Having written a pamphlet size document on my role as a craft team member this has been accepted into the Parliamentary archives and libraries. The second important thing is that I hand finished and oiled a newly made workbench made by in-house cabinet makers for Big Ben in the Elizabeth Tower. This needed weeks of oiling and will be the clock makers' permanent bench. The name of the maker and myself now sit in Big Ben as they were both carved into the work bench.

Generally though, using old traditional skills such as staining, colouring, reviving, polishing and waxing, these are just a few of the skills in the arsenal of a French Polisher, so it’s the restoration of all woodwork in the palace including POW work, which is the Pugin designed furniture, fittings, panelling and more. Restoration of all the damaged wooden goods that makes it all worth while. From the terrace, corridors, The Lords or The Commons, the predominantly oak work gets a daily battering as it’s still a working environment even though it’s of great importance and a grade one listed building and a world heritage site, along with the world's most famous clock.

Talk us through your career path since graduating.

I carried on in Furniture Restoration along with study of the history of furniture, firstly a restorer for both B.A.D.A and L.A.P.A.D.A dealerships in Brighton, Windsor, South London and Bond Street where I also set up and ran furniture restoration workshops. I almost ended up in California and also nearly Windsor Castle, both as a restorer but life didn’t end up going that way, so you really can be anywhere in the world once you have left West Dean, as many have done. I worked at the grand London antique fairs with set up and sales plus dealing with home visits, quotes, managing the restoration jobs.

I am experienced in all aspects of the antiques trade from driving the van, portering, estimating, antique fairs, auctions buying and selling, running a high street antique and restoration shop, display in an antique’s centre, mostly with English antique furniture and collectables. Now working for the House of Commons at the Palace of Westminster in London as a French Polisher. Contributing to the internal Palace magazine on this work in the Palace, with further City and Guilds qualifications gained in 2017 on multiskilling for the work while with parliament.

Outside the Palace, I have set up and run short courses on clock case finishing for the British Horological Institute, along with helping to run the BHI annual summer show for the Big Ben tour, where I demonstrated restoration and polishing of the clock case. Also demonstrated French Polishing at the University Collage of London’s annual show of crafts.

A published author of two books within the popular music world, I have an interest in history, classic cars, and the arts.

What projects are you currently working on?

I will be working on oiling the workbench for Big Ben plus lacquering a further two modern benches that have just been made for the clock makers. I am winter proofing the Houses of Parliament terrace furniture by the River Thames and have some Pugin desks to restore. Work is carried out both within offices or in the workshop in one of the outer buildings opposite the London Eye.

Do you have any tips for recent graduates?

Keep studying and make goals, both short and long term. Know advancements in your select trade, work hard and smart and while you are at West Dean, take advantage of all they offer. If you are passionate about what you are doing then the success should come to you as the West Dean way will instill the right way, processes and thought processes.

Be patient though because when you do reach the real world of work from college then being up to speed may not be there straight away for you. Understanding you may take time to adjust to working in a professional environment, workshop, institution or museum.

How do you think studying at West Dean College prepared you for what you do now?

We had fabulous tutors who did things in the right way with inner connections to wood and antique furniture history. You basically live and breath it, it’s all consuming and it should be, I loved being fully engrossed in antique furniture. The broad approach to teaching you gives you an all round appreciation and understanding of the subject.

What's your favourite memory from your time at the College?

I have plenty from the great camoraradary of the fellow students, working all hours of the day to get the most out of the course and to embrace what West Dean as a whole can offer you in terms of deeply engrained working environment from the people all around you, the building its history and countryside, memories of meeting Edward James, Royal family members and BADA dealers. I loved the field trips to stately homes to see the special collections and the famous pieces by the legendary makers and designers. What also is a favourite memory, and as you can see, it’s not just one from the two years I spent there, was the time spent with Stanley Block and Humphrey Sladden who started it all in the new workshops. They really were marvellous and we had a great working relationship, they also had a sense of fun when we did tours and silly things like the boat race in Chichester and the fancy dress parties.

It was a life changing two years for me, I have very fond feelings for the place and its endeavours, goals and ethics. I appreciate it’s philosophy and we all should be grateful to its originator and current backers and trustees for enhancing and maintaining the craft skills for future generations.

Did you receive any form of funding to study at West Dean?

Yes I had assistance with a scholarship from West Dean. My northern England background meant money was very tight, I had little money to be honest and was maybe the worst off financially there among the students. I didn’t have a car and it was tough but I had friendships and a goal to be good at what I aimed to do and an aim to work in the finest places and with the best furniture, which I have done, both as a salesman of fine English furniture, restoration and polishing in Bond Street and Westminster in London and other places.

Did you have a different career before coming to West Dean? If so why did you change career paths?

I was a French Polisher and had completing a five year apprenticeship working on pianos, electronic organs, some antique furniture and the odd musical instrument and then wanted to be a Furniture Restorer. I had to go the Manchester College of Building to do my City and Guilds in Furniture making which included upholstery and spray polishing. I then re applied to West Dean and got through to do my two years in the newly built workshops.

My career before West Dean was a real and proper apprenticeship which took me through all aspects of polishing, something that has now disappeared.