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Tim Stead made furniture for galleries, castles, cathedrals and even for Pope John Paul II for his visit to Murrayfield in 1981, yet it was the open intuitive, untutored response of ordinary people that most nourished him. People delighted in his work’s warm honesty and wanted to live with it. Three of his most powerful pieces relate to architecture. The rood screen and furniture for the North Sea Oil Industries Memorial Chapel in Aberdeen, was commissioned in 1989. The initial letters of the woods used in the chair backs spell out the simple but poignant “We remember yew”.For the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, opened in 1996, Stead made Peephole, an extraordinary tiny space from which one could spy into the gallery below. This cave, whale belly, tomb or hidey hole has a mysterious, unnerving effect on the receptive occupant.
For the Millennium Clock Tower in the Royal Museum, Edinburgh, Stead collaborated with Edouard Bersudsky of Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, Annica Sandström of Lindean Mill Glass, and Jurgen Tübbecke, of Peebles. Its hourly eruption of movement, sound and magic has proved an exciting and hugely popular event.
Born in Helsby, Cheshire, the youngest of four brothers, Stead was a natural anarchist and a sociable loner. Rebellious at boarding school, The Leys in Cambridge, he achieved first-class honours in fine art at Trent Polytechnic through a clarity of vision and a passionate dedication to unfashionably palpable, narrative work. There Stead discovered wood with the unstinting support of technician Frank Lindlay. In 1975, Stead did postgraduate work at the School of Art in Glasgow, where he met his life partner, Maggy Lenert, a student from Luxembourg, the day before she was about to leave Scotland.
Although Stead’s early years in Scotland were single-mindedly devoted to furniture, it was “sculpture in disguise”. Through respect for the environment he committed himself to native timbers, specialising in elm so heavily burred that other furniture makers rejected it. Inevitably, the work spawned a host of borrowers from, and imitators of, his style: yet Stead’s work is unmistakable: quality will out.
He read widely: genetics, cosmology, archaeology, poetry. Complementing this was his easy way with people, liberally laced with humour but masked a little by shyness and a disdain of small talk.
Following his 1993 Botanic Ash exhibition in Edinburgh, illness increasingly denied him heavy work. Sidestepping, Stead was instrumental in founding the Woodschool in Monteviot, where skilled graduates could learn to design around timber in a sympathetic environment.
Stead extended his exploration of the world through digital photography – the immediacy of which suited his impatience with process and bureaucracy – which he was assembling into a book, with his own prose poems.
Stead paid back some hundred fold his depletion of tree stocks by replanting and founding Borders Community Woodlands. In recognition of his work for the millennium forest of Scotland Tim was awarded an MBE in the New Year honours.
Stead’s life and work manifested an integration that defies division: furniture, sculpture, photographs, poems, late nights around the dining-table, each were part of the same life that he grabbed with both hands, wringing out its very essence.
© Alex Fraser