Ancient skills all in one basket

Basketry embraces the useful and the beautiful and this ancient and modern craft of East Anglia is now being celebrated in two Norwich exhibitions. IAN COLLINS reports.

Things in today's modern world can seem a basket case of geeky gadgetry, virtual reality and throwaway consumerism. So what a great time to reconnect with our roots in a traditional skill such as basketry.

For the next few months a two-part exhibition in Norfolk — now at the Norwich University College of the Arts, later at the Sainsbury's Centre — will highlight the useful and the beautiful and show us how to get some for ourselves.

The making — plaiting, knotting, binding — of containers and separators from flexible stuff such as straw, rush and wood is one of the oldest crafts of humankind, predating ceramics and textiles.

Common to every culture with access to basic materials, basketry has been brilliantly adapted for period and place – and it has found a stronghold in this region into the 21st century.

One of my prized possessions is a rush-woven bag from a 1960s Southwold fishmonger. I'd love one of 2,000 potato baskets from the same decade that two Fens craftsmen made to precise measurements in six weeks — in a story gathered by basketmaker Mary Butcher, curator of the NUCA show with the university's Victoria Mitchell.

With added film clips and photos, the display pays tribute to local workshops and individual makers – known and unknown, lost and surviving.

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Gorleston's Colin Manthorpe — a master maker for decades at nearby Yarmouth Stores and Stanley Bird's workshops — continues teaching, and the skills of Ronnie Woods, of Dereham, still thrive through former apprentices such as Debbie Booth and Sue Chapman.

Oliver Meek learned basket-making from an uncle and, moving to Swaffham on marrying, bought an old coach house as a combined workshop and home. He was still producing traditional baskets for farms and homes in his eighties – and the current show includes a classic Meek shopper from the 1980s.

Terry Bensley made baskets for the fishing industry from Great Yarmouth until his retirement in 2008.

Peter Carter continues to make and set eel traps — or 'grigs' — in Fen waterways.

Here are whelk pots, herring swills and crans, rope mats, trays, bakers' baskets and household chairs (one with glorious seating lately woven by Sue Marsdon from Stour Valley rushes).

Hurrah for Waveney Rush Industry – a traditional rush workshop launched in 1947 and now the largest left in East Anglia – here represented with a new log basket made using age-old techniques.

We can order a willow crib by Jonathan Gordon or a green coffin from Winterwillow — part of the Cambridgeshire social enterprise Winter Comfort for the Homeless, which grows willow and trains basket-makers.

And also featured is Halesworth's Peter Dibble, who makes baskets and fences from willow which he grows himself or buys from Somerset.

The NUCA show catalogue cover is a close-up of a Norfolk bee skep — made from straw and string, probably near Swanton Morley – for the capture of escaped swarms. A similar relic in the pending Sainsbury Centre show is the perfect connector to other forms and cultures.

The Sainsbury exhibition — Basketry: Making Human Nature — ranges from tribal masks and a Peruvian canoe to an amazing monumental panel by artist Thomas Heatherwick for Guy's Hospital in London.

There will be special commissions from NUCA show curator Mary Butcher and Japan's Ueno Masao — the latter with an enormous woven Eye in the Rose Window installation in the centre's gable end And, maybe most cheering of all, will be a demonstration of how basketry can embrace the art of recycling – with colourful new containers made from reused nylon, foil and plastic wrappers. (Another favourite thing in my flat is a recent Zulu basket woven from scraps of telephone wire.)

As Paul Greenhalgh, the Sainsbury Centre's new director, puts it: 'The technology of basketry has a deeply ancient heritage that remains the basis of much activity in contemporary art, design, craft and architecture.

'This exhibition, and the research project that it [and the NUCA display] came out of, shows us that the fusion of art and technology that basketry exemplifies has led to the creation of some of the most beautiful works in the history of art.'

n East Anglian Basketry is at The Gallery, NUCA, St George's Street, Norwich until February 11, Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, admission free, 01603 756247

n Basketry: Making Human Nature will be at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts from February 8 until May 22.