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Friday, 31 October 2014

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Alan forged a career by staying one step ahead

Alan Dawson with models of some of his work

ALAN DAWSON managed to teach metalwork to his students by staying one chapter ahead of them in the text book.

The Branthwaite man who has gained international recognition - and special mention from Britain’s leading armchair architect - Prince Charles - as an artist/blacksmith, became a teacher because he had no real ambition.

And he was the teacher of a subject he knew nothing about.

But that is a typical story in the life of a man who claims that his success has been a series of “accidents” that have constantly lurched him forward.

When he tells the story it appears to be true. But you are left with the impression that Alan leaves out as much as he tells.

It certainly seems that fate has played a major hand in turning him into a person that designers and architects around the world might recognise.

But what he blithely dismisses as “naivety” is really a modest cover-up for a man who has been prepared to take chances above the odds.

He may, indeed, have lacked what is recognised as ambition. But he turned knowing what he didn’t want into a road map for his own future and dismissed any obstacles as being of little concern.

That is why, at the age of 23, he found himself in a craft village in the remote north of Scotland selling himself as a candle maker - using someone else’s candles as examples of his own work.

Alan Dawson’s story starts in Whitehaven 56 years ago.

His father was a schoolteacher working in Whitehaven. But the family was on the move by the time he was six months old. He lived in Silloth until he was five, Cheshire until he was eight, Northamptonshire until he was 12 and then back to West Cumbria where he lived in Cockermouth and attended the then Cockermouth Grammar School.

From there he went to college in Leicestershire. He had enjoyed woodwork at school so decided to become a craft teacher.

“Dad had been a teacher and I sort of fell into it. I had nothing else I really wanted to do and it saved me thinking about it.”

Unfortunately his first position was teaching metalwork.

“I took the job because it was near Wales and I was a very keen climber. But we hadn’t had a metalwork shop at Cockermouth School. I knew nothing about the subject. I had to keep one page ahead of the students.”

It was a fairly soul-destroying exercise. By the end of his first year he realised that while his students progressed he would be stuck in a relentless treadmill, going back at the beginning of each new year, to teach exactly what he had taught before.

He tried to make lessons a bit different, which was the basis of the candle making.

“I got the kids to bring old candles from home. We’d melt them down, reshape them and colour them with wax crayons. Then I’d get them to make a candlestick.”

He knew, despite this, that his teaching was going nowhere. A friend then told him that he was going to Cape Wrath in northern Scotland where a craft village had been established from an old army barracks.

The barracks had been built during the second world war to support a radar installation but had been decommissioned almost before they were used. The local council was selling off the buildings - basically just shells - to create a craft village.

They wanted different kinds of crafts. As his friend was a metal worker, Alan had to look at what else was available and decided to be a candle maker.

He borrowed some candles and took them up for the interview. When he was told he had a place in the village he swapped his car for a small candle-making factory and moved north.

He spent most of his first year trying to make the old barrack block liveable and, once again, did not let any lack of knowledge or experience put him off.

“The Readers Digest DIY manual became my bible. I got what I could from scrap merchants and rubbish dumps and my plumbing system was pure Monty Python,” he said.

He did have time to attend the Aviemore Trade Fair where he sold some candles and candlesticks - the full extent of everything he had ever made. He made £800 in three days - more than a year’s income for a teacher.

“I forgot that it was not all profit. I had to buy all the materials and stuff but I was delighted. The money kept me going to the following Easter and then I had a full summer of orders.”

By this time Alan was doing more metalwork than candles.

“I was making candlesticks, rams head pokers, fire tools and small scale things like letter knives - thousands of letter knives.”

Although this might sound suspiciously like the treadmill he had so eagerly escaped, Alan said it was not. He was loving the work, loving his existence. Even the repetition was therapeutic. He wasn’t a hippy but was living a hippy life.

He stayed in Scotland for nearly three years, but problems with supply and reaching his market from such a remote location - plus the awful winters - finally drove him back to Cumbria, to a small farm at Ewanrigg with more room to work.

He called it Balnakeil Forge after the Scottish craft village.

He also opened a candle shop, Northern Lights, in Maryport and worked to re-establish the interest there had been in his wares at Scottish craft fairs.

Eventually, he found the metalwork was creating the most interest, so he sold the candle shop and started training himself as a blacksmith.

The next pivotal moment in his life came when Bruno Canigiani opened Bruno’s Restaurant in Whitehaven.

He had seen and liked a sign that Alan had created for Michael Moon, Whitehaven’s antiquarian bookseller, and asked him to create one for his business.

He was so delighted with the result - a bear in a chef’s hat holding spaghetti, with an Italian map beneath him - that he decided Alan should fit out the whole bar.

That, really, was the start of a whole new career direction, the direction that has now given him a name in architectural circles around the world.

Around the same time a group of blacksmith artists got together and formed the British Artists’ Blacksmith Association. It was formed in 1978 and helped Alan to develop his horizons and to see just what could be done with metalwork.

Now based at Lillyhall, near Workington - he needed a bigger place - Alan employs about 20 people. And he keeps his staff. One of his first apprentices is now one of his managers.

He has worked for the Sultan of Brunei, building gates and railings and internal balustrades for his house in London.

One of his largest projects to date was designing the balustrades and wrought iron work at Princes Square in Glasgow.

In fact, it is wrong to describe that as “one of the largest” because strictly speaking they were the pivotal project of his career.

It is heralded as one of the foremost constructions in Britain and is mentioned by Prince Charles in a book he has written on the architecture of the UK.

There has been plenty of other work since. In fact the chances are that the balustrading, the wrought iron railings and seating in any shopping mall in Britain is quite possibly the work of Alan Dawson. Blue Water in Kent, the Bull Ring in Birmingham and Canary Wharf in London are just three.

He has worked overseas - in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. His work has taken him to Bali and Singapore and, more recently, to Barbados.

He has worked in partnership with people to whom he is still grateful for the help they gave in getting him to where he is today.

Now he works alone, however, and while he has the world at his feet it is one small island he is most interested in.

“I really want to concentrate on working in Britain,” he said, “I don’t want to get any bigger than I am now. I am at a stage where we have plenty of work and we are enjoying what we are doing.”

And his future plans? To concentrate more on design. To do what he loves best, which is creating beauty from metal.

He is earning a bit more than £800 a year now and making balustrades has proved more lucrative than making candles.

But, talking to Alan Dawson, one is left with the feeling that this is a man who really is not driven by money, more by the satisfaction of seeing a job well done.

He and his wife, Judith, have two children - Antonia, 14 and Simon, nine. He has also just become a grandfather thanks to step-daughter Natalie Mason, better known by her maiden name, Natalie Tait, one of Britain’s foremost athletes.

Both his children, he says, are showing an aptitude for art.

The family walks although there is not much climbing these days - lack of time. He used to enjoy windsurfing but, again, there’s too little time nowadays.

When he is not working he spends time with his family and enjoys living on the edge of the Lake District.

For a man who didn’t really know what to do with himself - a man without ambition - Alan Dawson is the original self-made man and doing very nicely, thank you.

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