First published in The Journal Spring 2018.
The image of the genius artist working alone in their studio is as pervasive as that of the solo scientist, and as improbable in reality. Artists, especially those who create on a huge scale, employ assistants—technical people with skills vital to the production of their art. Technical people like the craftsmen Dicon Nance. Dicon worked as an assistant to Barbara Hepworth at her Cornish Trewyn studio from 1959-1971. The world-renowned sculptor Hepworth had set-up her St. Ives studio in 1949 and soon found that her ambition and the scale of her artistic vision required her to employ assistants. These assistants, Dicon included, have largely been written out of the history books, despite playing a vital part in the production of key Hepworth pieces.
Richard William ‘Dicon’ Nance was born in Nancledra, midway between Penzance and St Ives, in 1909. He was exposed to art and crafts from an early age by his father, the painter and Cornish language revivalist Robert Morton Nance. Dicon and his young sister were home-schooled by Arthur Raleigh-Radford, a flamboyant bohemian, after Dicon’s parents were horrified by the effect of boarding school on Dicon’s older brother, Richard (Robin). His parents reportedly regarded Dicon as ‘not an intellectual’. Such dismissive attitudes, and the isolation of home-schooling, may have been responsible for Dicon’s reportedly painfully shy and self-effacing nature.
Dicon seems to have taken naturally to working with his hands; as teenagers, Dicon and a friend built a working scale model of a traction engine called The Cripplesease (see below). In his early twenties, he worked as a general maintenance man for Bernard Leach, who is often regarded as the ‘father of British studio pottery’. This was Dicon’s first taste of the inter-war ‘artist craftsman’. These upper-middle class, financially secure enthusiasts often had little practical knowledge and relied on low-waged traditional craftsmen for (often unacknowledged) technical support.
Dicon became frustrated with what he saw as Leach’s sloppiness, the unnecessarily ruined pots, and inefficiency which bore little in common with the true local craftsmen of his youth. Such inefficiencies drove Dicon to invent various machines, including an innovative take on the traditional potter’s wheel. Even the arch-traditionalist Leach abandoned his traditional Japanese wheel in favour of Dicon’s improved version, and the ‘Leach wheel’ became world famous. Dicon received little or no recognition for this and certainly no financial reward. His time working in Leach’s studio left him with the feeling that “Leach was an artist and I was not.”
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Dicon declared himself a conscientious objector and spent the first part of the war collecting seaweed from inaccessible Cornish coves for use as agricultural fertiliser. He invented elaborate aerial ropeways and hoists to access the coves, despite no formal training in engineering. In 1942, he was invited to travel to Ghana to join one of Leach’s former apprentices, the artist craftsman Michael Cardew, in setting up a pottery to supply the needs of British West Africa. Unfortunately Cardew, like Leach, was not a practical man. His high-minded ambivalence towards machines and mechanisation meant that Dicon found him a “very difficult man to help”. The combination of Cardew’s romantic ideals, paternalistic attitude, and a lack of local resources resulted in the failure of the pottery and in Dicon returning to the UK in 1945.
In 1946 his brother Robin returned from his time in the Army. Together they reopened Robin’s pre-war cabinet-making workshop on the quayside at St Ives with the aim of producing affordable handmade furniture. From this workshop sprang elegant modernist furniture, along with pottery wheels for the Leach pottery, picture frames, and bases for the newly-arrived Hepworth’s sculptures. Dicon designed and built a morticing machine which could produce large quantities of identical and accurate components for their popular ladder-back chairs.
In his spare time, Dicon attended evening classes in carving held by Barbara Hepworth’s assistant, Denis Mitchell, and started producing small wooden sculptures. In 1959 Dicon joined Hepworth at her Trewyn studio. Dicon was 50 years old and Hepworth 56, with a large scale artistic vision and more work than she could complete alone. He joined Mitchell and Terry Frost, both of whom later became famous artists in their own right, in helping her realise that vision.
Hepworth drove herself and her assistants hard, expecting them to work the same long hours she did. Despite this she was keen to keep the illusion of the solo artist. Anthony Frost, Terry Frost’s son, tells an anecdote of the time: “When journalists or photographers came round, she didn’t want them to see that she had these people working away on her sculptures. So, she would shut the workers in the greenhouse, where they had their morning breaks. Then Barbara would start polishing the sculpture, as if she’d been at it all day. One time my father was bursting for a pee, but she wouldn’t let them out, and the only thing he could find was a pot with a geranium with very dry earth in it – but the pee went straight through and trickled across the greenhouse floor, and out under the door, between the legs of the visitors. Barbara banned him from having biscuits for the rest of the week.”
The assistant’s role was a highly technical one. Dicon used his skills as a craftsman to produce sculptures under Hepworth’s supervision. He describes working on the piece Forms of Movement: “Like all Barbara’s versions … there was no attempt at making a replica with all the attendant measurements. Each form, though basically as the original, was judged on its own, especially if there was a change in scale.” These working conditions must have been inspirational but difficult for Dicon. He was a perfectionist who kept himself, and others, to high technical standards. This meant that the apparent sloppiness or inefficiencies of sculptors and potters were difficult for him to accept.
Dicon’s position as craftsman created boundaries between himself and the artists with whom he so often worked. These boundaries where partly class-based but there were also pervasive status boundaries. This is seen in the actions of the Penwith Society of Arts. When the Society was founded in 1949 it was initially a progressive, forward looking society for artists and craftsmen – Dicon was a founder member. However, the artist Ben Nicholson, with Hepworth’s support, insisted the membership be split into three groups. Group 1 comprised ‘advanced artists’, Group 2 ‘traditional painters’, and Group 3 the ‘craftsmen’. This hierarchy put craftsmen at the bottom and branded them as somehow less than the artists. This created bad feeling in both directions. Dicon’s brother, the cabinet-maker, wrote at the time, “Craftsmanship should be put on an equal footing with Art. […] I do not mean by this that I would like to see our workshops invaded by long-bearded and woolly-minded aesthetes”.
After a difficult time working with Leach and Cardew, Dicon’s years with Hepworth led to his final disillusionment with the art world. Dicon questioned the validity of the artist’s role, particularly when the physical execution of Hepworth’s designs fell exclusively on the shoulders of craftsmen such as himself. Some pieces were even completed from only the simplest sketches, and were despatched in Hepworth’s absence.
Little has been written about Dicon’s life after leaving Trewyn. We know that he died in 2002 having, without formal training, mastered a huge range of disciplines: engineering, carving, throwing, wood turning, and chair-making. He was almost invisible to those who did not know him and received virtually no credit for his many achievements. He was a perfectionist, a true master craftsman. According to Dicon’s son, Johnny, he displayed a naive quality of honouring originality above all else: “you wouldn’t find him anywhere near a bandwagon, let alone jumping on one. He taught me that there is virtue in being a perfectionist.”
1 T. Harrod, The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century, Yale University Press, 1999.
2 British Council, Bernard Leach (1887 – 1979), [website], http://collection.britishcouncil.org/collection/artists/leach-bernard-1887, (accessed 6 December 2017)
3 M. Bird, A. Frost, A. Lanyon and R. Hilton, The Real St Ives story, [website] http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/real-st-ives-story, (accessed 6 December 2017)
4 K. Beaven, Barbara Hepworth: Forms in Movement (Pavan) Work of the Week, [website] http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/blogs/barbara-hepworth-forms-movement-pavan-work-week-3-may-2010, (accessed 6 December 2017)
5 P. Whitfeld, In the shadows of artists: crafts-people of the St Ives colony, [website], http://www.artcornwall.org/features/crafts-people_of_st_ives.htm, (accessed 6 December 2017).