A magical allure of secrecy surrounds Thomas Kennedy, working out of an 18th century barn converted into a studio set on a 600-acre estate in the Shropshire countryside, that he describes a “joyously dirty,” acting as the engine room for his daily labour of love.
A sense of clandestine air fills his workshop when Kennedy greets me because he cannot tell us what designers he currently works for, or crucially, exactly how he makes the material, because it involves an intuitive alchemy that only a chosen few can perfect. The process was historically passed down from father to son, normally by word of mouth as it was too difficult, and varied too widely across individual craftsmen, that one clear and method couldn’t be written down. Unlike similar materials, scagliola is an art form that has been happiest confined to the shadows, until now.
In the spirit of endeavor, Humans Invent goes behind the myriad of secrecy to try and get to the bottom of just how this extraordinary material is made, and more importantly, why it’s so special.
Kennedy has previously produced scagliola commissions for interior designers such as Hubert Zandberg and Jonathan Reed, and furniture designers from David Linley to Thomas Messel. But his path to enlightenment began at the National Trust, where a fed up and downbeat Kennedy got bored of restoration and antiques.
“When I was growing up I was always someone that helped my Dad restore antiques, and that was something that quickly became my kind of thing,” Kennedy tells me. “I became very good with colors, and I got into oil painting restoration. But after college I got work with the National Trust restoring things made of plaster, like columns, but I eventually got bored of that because you were living out of a B & B, usually on-site, and I simply got fed up.
“So, I went traveling for a bit and when I came back this job had miraculously come up locally making scagliola tables. I had no idea what this material was. The cabinet maker who was making them was doing the carved bases, but he was struggling making the actual scagliola. I had never heard of the stuff before, but I went to see him and I immediately could see what he was trying to do, so I had a go.”
The first signal of scagliola’s charm is the fact that a craftsman either can, or can’t produce it – you can’t say why or how, it just seems to work. As Kennedy readily admits, he had an unusual rapport with the material from the beginning, an immediate bond that signaled the beginning of a design love affair. It’s almost as if scagliola chose Kennedy.
“I suppose for one reason or another, I had a natural affinity with the process, the colors, and the plaster – and I just started doing it and I really enjoyed it,” Kennedy explains. “I built two tables and then that was it, I was away. I got very excited about working with the material, as did the client at the time, and anybody who saw the finished products were just absolutely wowed by them.
“I realised very early on just how special the material is, and what a niche craft it really was because no one had even heard of scagliola. When I was doing my research it became clear that most scagliola craftsmen around the world had recipes which were passed down from generation to generation, and were always deemed ‘secret’. To be honest that was a massive appeal, because you were dealing with an ancient art form that is not only just rare, but unheard of. I was hooked immediately.”
The intrigue that surrounds the creation of scagliola is solely down to the fact that each individual that has ever produced it uses different quantities of pigment and plaster for the recipe, while each technique to produce it is completely ad hoc. It is this element that makes the outcome so beautiful, creating unusual mixtures and depths of colors.
The basic ingredients are essentially a mix of gypsum-based casting plaster, animal glue and pigment. Then comes the tricky part – the different varieties of colors, textures, and depths of veins depends on the ratio of pigment added to the plaster. Kennedy kneads the scagliola like pastry, keeping different quantities and segments of colors separate, so you end up with 12 – 14 different batches of colors on the table. Runny pigmented plaster is then used to create the deep veins of color, with Kennedy doing his best to match the color the client wants, but as for the process of turning this powdered mixture into scagliola – it is unexplainable – it is pure intuitive.
In the spirit of discovery Kennedy attempts to explain the process behind making a classic mix called Sienna – if you get lost, don’t worry, it is tricky, and seems to just come together by the time Kennedy has finished.
“So you begin by thinking backwards through the process. You start by trying to match the colors, and getting the correct blends. You then enter the procedure of actually making it.
To make Sienna, a bright yellow with purple and black veins, you begin mixing yellow ocher into plaster with animal glue,” Kennedy tells me.
“Animal glue is important because it slows the plaster down, and you lay this powder-like-substance out on the table. You then make a whole in the middle, as though it is like a collapsed volcano. And into this you pour your glue and pigments, and you knead it in and mix it together, so you are basically trying to get to an even consistency.
“Then after that you have one color, so you then mix it together with another color variant, normally a lighter color, such as white. You would then take a little bit of the white mixture, and the yellow mixture, and mix them together. You then take a bit more of the white, and a bit less of the yellow, and you continue in this manner. In the end you end up with lumps of of dough in a variety of colors on the bench. From this point you can go anyway you want, you can rip them up, squash them all, or chop them up into fine pieces – it is up to you – you then sprinkle them all with more plaster so they don’t stick together, and that means that the colors hold and stay separate. At this point it is absolute madness, I would make a more runny set of mixtures, black or red for example, and try and coat to the original mixtures in the new runny mixtures, as this gives the deep colored veins.
“By this time I am making a real mess. I am covered in all sorts of colors – and you end up with scagliola everywhere, but you are trying to keep different areas of the marble in your mind, and you are thinking back to how the marble looked. You put all the pile together, and you can cut through it by hand, and you should have your finished scagliola with all these lovely veins in it. I then roll it out like a pastry and cast it into moulds. You leave it to set, and then take it out of the mould, when you have to rub it down, get rid of air bubbles, and polish it. You then have the material.”
The kneading process is similar to that of a baker, but as Kennedy admits, “in terms of a recipe to make scagliola, there isn’t one set right or wrong way to do it, it just isn’t that simple.” From creating the different blends of colors, where you are using your eye, to mixing the final product – it is all down to the craftsman’s natural feel and touch.
“To be honest when you are mixing the plaster and so on to make the material it is more intuitive than rule based,” Kennedy impresses. “The business of the secrecy is only part of why no one knows about it, because it is impossible to actually write down a recipe . What you are doing with your hands is almost impossible to describe, I could try to but it wouldn’t make any sense. Because you have pigments and plaster, the process is completely intuitive – I try to write things down and do little diagrams but I often cannot understand my own recipes, let alone someone else.
“I saw a brilliant recipe in a book from a craftsman in the 1950s, and these were sacred transcripts passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. And none of them made any sense at all, the measurements were archaic and the some of the pigments were not available now. To be honest part of the mystery as well as the secrecy is the fact the production process is really indescribable – you have to feel it to understand it.”
Kennedy’s passion for scagliola has seen him move away from emulating the classic architectural and furniture designs of the 17th and 18th century, and introduce scagliola to more contemporary designers and furniture makers. The majority love it, as they immediately buy into the mystery behind it, it’s complex production process, and the fact it is a great story to tell a client.
The secret craftsman in the Shropshire countryside admits he would love to take on an apprentice, because despite the secrecy behind scagliola, it would still be nice in his eyes to be able to pass his knowledge on, and guarantee that scagliola is still used in years to come rather than become an extinct art form. It’s at this point in the interview one asks exactly who owns a Tom Kennedy piece of furniture, normally rather coy, he does admit to making a pool table with an Italian border for Sir Alan Sugar, although he never met the entrepreneur. And that is a running theme for Kennedy, working through designers he stays in the shadows much like the material he works with, his productions remain secret, as they are built bespoke to commission, with Kennedy having to respect the privacy of his clients, particularly when a Kennedy scagliola table has a starting cost of thousands of pounds.
While Kennedy is respectful of his clients he does admit that he wants to spread the scagliola name, and increase the number of craftsman working with the material, “to be honest I am rather too liberal with my information. I should probably be a little more secretive,” Kennedy admits.
“I am on very good terms with the other makers I mentioned, and I rather see it as there is 3 or 4 of us left and we all need to help each other. It has got to the point I think that the more people who know about scagliola the better. You want someone to be able to continue what you are doing after all. It is such a diverse and interesting material to work, with, it would be a crying shame if it ever died out, and I am here to make sure that never happens.”
As Kennedy is ensuring that there is a bright future for the secret craft, in the meantime the jovial Englishmen continues to use instinct to create breathtaking objects made from this unique material. The intrigue and secrecy gives Kennedy a protective bubble. He doesn’t have to sell, market, or pitch, all he needs to do is focus on his work, and that is an artisan’s dream. And if you look at the results, Kennedy wouldn’t want it any other way.
For more information on Thomas Kennedy go to www.kennedy-scagliola.com
Photo credit: Tom Foxall