Obituary: R. A. Salaman
Thursday 13 January 1994
'HIS WORK was worthy to stand alongside Diderot' wrote Bernard Miles of R. A. Salaman's massive Dictionary of Woodworking Tools when it was published in 1975. Though the French encyclopaedist was also a man of letters the tribute epitomises Raphael Salaman's remarkable and unique contribution to the study of craftsmen's implements in Britain. In 1986 his first book was followed by a Dictionary of Leather-working Tools. Miles praised it: 'There have been many fine studies of our native crafts . . . but only Salaman has occupied himself with the tools and techniques which underpinned the whole of 18th- and 19th-century life.' High praise from a craftsman of another genre.
Raphael Salaman died on New Year's Eve at Harpenden in his native Hertfordshire, at the age of 87. He was the fourth of the six children of Dr Redcliffe Salaman FRS and his wife Nina (nee Davis), a well-known writer and poet in her time. He was thus the scion of an old-established Anglo-Jewish family which had many connections with the arts and literature. With the publication of The History and Social Influence of the Potato (1949) his father became the leading authority on this humble but important vegetable and his erudite volume remains a standard work on the subject.
In making the history and description of craftsmen's hand-tools the subject of his prolonged study, Raphael Salaman followed, perhaps unconsciously, his father's example, by elevating apparently simple and ordinary articles of everyday use into the sphere of scholarly research. But it was typical of Salaman's attitude to life. He was not a great admirer of wealth and power but he had an enormous respect for craftsmen and their products. He was concerned to discover how things were made. 'What balance,' Bernard Miles asked, 'between the two hands working with or against each other's pulling or pushing, bending or twisting, stretching or compressing, adds up to the finished article?'
Unlike most English Jewish families the Salamans lived in the country and Raphael recounts how he came to study the making of tools by watching, as a boy, the craftsmen at work in his village, Barley, in Hertfordshire. Those days have gone and you will be fortunate today if you can find a single village artisan plying his craft except for the occasional farrier, and even he is no longer static but travels far and wide in his van. Salaman was just in time to catch the breed before it died out and to rescue its hand-tools before they were dispersed and forgotten. His eldest brother, MH Salaman, recalls:
At 10 years of age Raphael had already developed wide antiquarian interests. He was the leader as well as the peacemaker among his three older brothers on our fossil-hunting and brass-rubbing expeditions. And he was the only one of us with the orderliness of mind to classify and index our collection. The small boy who presented himself at University College asking for Professor Flinders Petrie was long remembered in the Egyptology Department.
At Cambridge, after schooling at Bedales, of which he subsequently became a governor, Salaman read engineering (at the behest of his father who discouraged him from reading archaeology as he wished) and earned a reputation as an expert on stage lighting. After going down he set up his own light engineering works in south-east London but when the Second World War came he transferred his skills to Marks and Spencer's, where he was employed in organising the firm's fire- fighting and air-raid precautions. He was elected a Labour councillor for Paddington and, when he moved to Harpenden, became a governor of St George's School.
Throughout his life he remained absorbed by his major preoccupation of the study and collections of craftsmen's hand-tools which culminated in the publication of his two outstanding dictionaries. They won wide acclaim. When the woodworking volume appeared in 1975 Sir Joseph Needham, then Master of Gonville and Caius College, wrote in his Foreword:
Raphael Salaman belongs to the lineage of those scholars and educated men who did not despise the manual crafts practised in this various cultures. What they did despise was the conventional values of class-stratified society. Ignoring all such barriers they sought devotedly to describe the kinds and names of the tools and machines used daily in the technical operations of the tradesmen.
Needham recalled how he had collaborated with Salaman in two papers on the art of the wheelwright in China at the beginning of the Christian era and what a pleasure it was for him to combine the academic and the workaday in the ascription: 'From the Engineering Department of Messrs Marks and Spencer Ltd and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.'
Apart from his two dictionaries, which have become standard works in many countries, a fitting memorial to this remarkable, unassuming and lovable son of Hertfordshire will be found in the large collection of his tools which is displayed in the St Albans City Museum and in the wheelwright's shop in the Science Museum in London which he designed and equipped. It is doubtful whether his achievement in the fields of study which he made his own will ever be equalled, let alone surpassed.
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