Issue 212
March/April 2020


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Mar 28, 2020

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Campaign to save The Steading

The wood artist Tim Stead created a legendary monument to his own unique style of work in the house he and his wife inhabited in the Borders. Financial pressures threaten the future of the house. A fund has been launched to secure its future.

MUCH has been made of the struggle to preserve Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage at Dungeness, but there is another artistic gem in the same precarious position at the other end of the country in the Scottish Borders.

The Steading is an extraordinary house that belonged to the wood artist and furniture maker, Tim Stead, who died of leukaemia in 2000 aged just 48.

From the outside it resembles a fairly standard eighteenth century rural farmhouse and outbuildings but a closer look reveals little clues: a lead-encased axehead bas-relief confronts you at the entrance to the Steading; windows are not the usual shape; a door is hung with dozens of ancient keys, a rusting collage.

But these are simply intimations. Enter through a small dark hallway which leads into a riot of gleaming woods whose sculptured surfaces completely encase the interior. Floors, walls, stairs, fireplace, doors, cupboards, grandfather clock, sunroom, four-poster beds that ripple like a surrealist chess set or evoke the brochs of northern Scotland. Everything is a wooden sculpture.

Stead with Axes, 1986. Courtesy: Southern Reporter

Stead first studied at Nottingham Polytechnic where he divorced himself from the fashionable zeitgeist of conceptual art. From Nottingham, he went to Glasgow School of Art and started making the massive, sculptural pieces of furniture for which he is best known.

Unlike other designers of the 1970s who favoured crisp straight lines, Stead worked wood with the eye of a sculptor, and of someone who knew how to make solid wood supremely comfortable. He exploited the grain and the texture both inside and outside the timber, always revelling in the excitement of exploring what he might find in every tree trunk.

All the time, though, he was sculpting and exploring the boundaries of what could be done with wood. Public pieces such as the massive Piper Alpha memorial chapel in Aberdeen, furnished entirely by Stead's own hands, exposed his infectious style. Like Rennie Mackintosh he spawned a whole generation of artists.

The Steading, bought in the 1980s, was a blank canvas for Stead whose life's work it became to extend the house and work on the interior, adding new elements over a period of 20 years.

By the time of his early death the whole building was clad in his work. From a wooden basin in the bathroom to tiny cupboards concealing ugly fuse boxes, or from drawers hidden in the treads of the stairs to massive four-poster beds, everything is a unique sculpture. There are around fifteen doors in The Steading: each one is different.

For the last twenty years, Stead's widow Maggy has been sharing The Steading with visitors from all over the world, including a stream of devoted art students who gain huge inspiration from the building. But now The Steading risks being sold on the open market. Maggy has no pension and her money has run out.

The Tim Stead Trust was formed to raise funds to buy The Steading so that it can continue to be shared with the nation. But, just as Stead's work would never fit comfortably into any sort of pigeon-hole, The Steading has proved difficult to categorise with funding bodies. Is it art? Is it heritage?

The Steading is both. Historic Environment Scotland (HES), the body that decides which buildings should be protected with listed status, has just put out for consultation a report which recommends A-listing The Steading – its highest category.

HES considers it of national and international importance. They make the salient point that Tim Stead's interior has an extra feature not seen in the houses of other artists and architects that have been saved for the nation. Citing, amongst others, Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Hill House, or Basil Spence's house and studio in Beaulieu, they point out that "in these examples the architects designed these interiors but did not build them."

Tim Stead did both. This acknowledgement has come as a vindication to the Trust, which now hopes that funding will be forthcoming, either from public or private funders. There is not much time; the house goes on the market in April.

A video of the house and all information can be found at www.timsteadtrust.org



BOOKS FROM FAMEDRAM!

AA trveller's guide to Scotland's Train Stations
Click here for pdf self-address purchase slip

An extensive new preface by the Ross Herald of Arms, Charles Bunnett, Chamberlain of Duff House