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Oliver Morel

Furniture-maker of the Cotswold school

Wednesday 19 March 2003 01:00 GMT

Oliver George Morel, furniture maker, teacher and farmer: born Crouch End, Middlesex 4 February 1916; married 1942 Adelaide Alway (died 1996; four sons, one daughter); died Lyonshall, Herefordshire 21 February 2003.

Oliver Morel was a maker of fine furniture in the Arts and Crafts tradition whose life embodied the spirit, and indeed the contradictions, of that movement.

He was much the youngest of five siblings and his early life was not easy. His father, E.D. Morel, was a radical campaigner and pacifist, who was vilified by the press but famously defeated Winston Churchill in 1922 to become MP for Dundee, only to die suddenly in 1924 at the age of 51. His influence shadowed Oliver throughout his life.

An active boy who relished the outdoor life, Oliver Morel attended boarding school from an early age and at Rendcomb College, near Cirencester, his interest in woodwork was encouraged. Funding for a university place was offered by the Cadbury family but rejected by Oliver, who did not consider himself sufficiently academic. Instead, in 1934, he became a pupil of Edward Barnsley at his workshop at Froxfield in Hampshire. Barnsley had inherited the Arts and Crafts mantle from his father, Sidney, who, with his brother Ernest and their friend Ernest Gimson, had moved to Gloucestershire in 1893 and effectively established the Cotswold tradition of furniture-making.

The Arts and Crafts movement was not simply about design. It held simplicity of style and fitness of purpose to be paramount in the design of made objects but to many it also implied simplicity of life style, an aversion to the trappings of modernity and an insistence on hand-making. These were ideals to which Morel became bound by principle and, to a great extent, by circumstance.

Working alongside Barnsley's craftsmen, he learnt the practical skills that became the foundation of his later reputation. He relished the sheer physicality of working with wood and learnt quickly; within a year he was being paid more for work carried out than the costs of his tuition and the following year he was taken on to the staff of the workshop. Away from work he travelled widely, cycling around Scandinavia, and retaining a lifelong affection for Norway. A temporary teaching job encouraged him to undertake part-time teaching studies and in 1938 he was appointed woodwork master back at Rendcomb College, where he met his future wife, Adelaide, also a teacher.

The onset of hostilities brought Barnsley the threat of closure as his men left for the Second World War and in 1941 Morel, a conscientious objector, responded to Barnsley's appeal to return to Froxfield. He helped to keep the workshop ticking over through the war years.

In 1946 Morel, who was planning to combine craft working with farming, purchased a dilapidated farm in Herefordshire just across the hilly border from Capel-y-ffin where Eric Gill, whom he admired, had sought solitude 20 years earlier. Half the farmhouse was made habitable, although conditions remained very Spartan, and a simple workshop was set up in a barn. There was no running water or electricity and so, apart from a treadle bandsaw, all tasks were done by hand.

Martin Murray spent several winters in the workshop, and remembers Morel's speed and accuracy of working. Another craftsman, Peter Evans, recalls:

I was so impressed with his creative philosophy of making a personal contribution for society as a producer of food . . . and the design and construction contribution to the Arts and Crafts, I was an immediate convert and determined to follow in his footsteps.

Hugh Birkett, who went on to become a distinguished cabinetmaker himself, joined Morel as a pupil for 18 months in 1948.

In the early 1960s the Morels moved to Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds, where, for a time, Birkett had a neighbouring workshop. Morel continued to work well into his seventies, driven as he put it "by compulsion not choice". At Moreton too he established the Sharpe Centre, to champion the reputations of Eric Sharpe, Romney Green and Stanley Davis and to be a resource for aspiring woodworkers – professional and amateur. It mainly comprised the craft archive of his long-time friend Sharpe – furniture, papers and other artefacts.

Examples of Morel's work were illustrated in A.E. Bradshaw's 1962 Handmade Woodwork of the 20th Century and show the subtle "signature" of his style. In particular he was fascinated by the nature of wood and how a craftsman can uncover the beauty within. Morel's furniture is recognisably of the Cotswold school. Although to some a design backwater, it was an idiom in which he was always comfortable. However, the insistence on traditional materials and methods, whilst philosophically attractive, made scarce economic sense to the maker. However his work continues to attract admiration – for its craftsmanship and beauty, and for the ideals that inspired it.

Impressed by an earlier inlaid casket made by Sharpe, Morel in the 1950s developed a technique of raised inlay in a series of caskets ornamented with lettering and motifs. The same technique was later used in a small number of spectacular pieces such as his cabinet at Rodmarton Manor (1972) and the "Sussex Chest". From sketches by the artist Alice Barnwell and using naturally coloured woods, Morel created delicately inlaid panels of plants and birds.

An imposing figure, Oliver Morel was a complex character. He demanded of himself and others the highest standards but, for one of such transparent skill, could be almost perversely self-deprecating. Despite considerable reticence, he could be charming company and a good friend.

Richard Coppin

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