The approaching antipodean winter puts me in mind of my old workshops in the South West of England. The premises were old, converted farm buildings, constructed from mellow Hamstone (a local yellow Jurassic limestone), which were pleasantly cool in summer, but as I vividly recall, damp and bitterly cold in winter.
The premises were situated quite close to one of the country’s foremost fine art auction houses whose weekly general sales would attract all manner of domestic detritus including abundant quantities of vulgar, glassy Victorian burr walnut and toffee-apple-red mahogany furniture. At the time, Victorian furniture was despised in all but the former colonies, and what wasn’t shipped to the former colonies by the container full, was simply dumped or ended up in sheds and garages as storage for paint tins etc.
Local owners of this Victoriana would invariably send it to auction in last-ditch hopes of cashing-in on it without incurring the expense of placing advertisements in the local paper’s For Sale column. Little of this hideous stuff actually sold locally and, naturally, the consignors would seldom bother to retrieve it post-auction, which presented the auctioneers with a sizeable headache – what to do with it all?
Following the general sales, I would invariably receive a phone call from one of the employees of the auction house, whom I knew well, inviting me to come and inspect the accumulating surplus. I would drive a large van round the back of the salerooms where it would be loaded up with Victorian chairs, chests, chiffoniers, wardrobes, washstands etc. I would haul the pieces of furniture back to my premises, unload them neatly into a lean-to shed, and repeatedly reverse the van into them, crushing them against the wall. A large stone-built workshop can be a very inhospitable place in the grips of an English winter and all that splintered Victoriana was necessarily fed into the workshop’s stove to keep the chills at bay.
The stove was a converted heavy gauge steel oil drum – laid on its side – to which was bolted a ‘stove kit’ consisting of legs, door, warming rack and flue adapter etc. The stove could be regulated between a very agreeable backside-warming shimmer, up to a white-hot-glowing fling-open-the-windows-and-doors-and-have-a-bucket-of-water-handy type of inferno. Somewhere in between these extremes, the stove attracted the odd wet dog or two and excelled at toasting ham sandwiches, keeping the kettle on-the-boil, heating the workshop’s mother load of glue in a large cast iron glue pot and keeping veneering irons hot.
When carrying out large veneering jobs, I would first warm the groundwork and caul on either side of the stove, stand a fresh pot full of glue on top of it, then open the firebox and toss in some more old bits of Victorian chiffonier.