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The life and work of Bryan Saunders at Grange Barn

The work and tools of Bryan Saunders on display at Grange Barn in Coggeshall
The work and tools of Bryan Saunders on display at Grange Barn in Coggeshall | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Bryan Evett Saunders was a craftsman born in Coggeshall in 1893. A master wood carver, he developed a reputation for excellence with his high- quality furniture that was celebrated with a good deal of publicity during his lifetime. His workshop, complete with all his tools and plans has been recreated at Grange Barn.

Bryan Saunders’s early life

Bryan Saunders’s father, Harry Bryan Saunders, had a furniture and hardware business on Market Hill. In 1907, at the age of 14, Bryan was apprenticed to Samuel Marshall, a master carver of Bridge Street, Coggeshall.

He completed his apprenticeship in 1914, taking over the business with glowing references from both Mr Marshall and the vicar, Rev.M.B. Eardly Wilmott.

Bryan tried to enlist in the army in 1914 but was turned down due to varicose veins. Thought to have developed while working on a mechanical lathe during his apprenticeship, the condition would have stopped him from making the long marches required of a soldier.

Later, in Bryan’s own workshop, no mechanical aids were allowed, and the constant noise of sawing was a fond memory of his two daughters.

Expanding the business

After the First World War trading conditions were difficult and Bryan accepted any work that came his way. As his reputation grew, he took on an increasing number of private commissions, and a large amount of ecclesiastical work both locally and further afield.

Bryan married Victoria Maude Norfolk in 1919 and took the lease of a house on Market Hill, now 2 Stoneham Street. To begin with Bryan’s workshop was upstairs while Mrs Saunders had a china shop downstairs, but as more work came in the china shop closed, and Bryan moved his workshop downstairs to provide more room and better light.

Bryan took on an assistant in 1929 named Ernest Prentice, who had also served his apprenticeship with Mr Marshall, and the two worked together until after the Second World War.

Tools belonging to Bryan Saunders on display at Grange Barn in Coggeshall
Tools belonging to Bryan Saunders on display at Grange Barn in Coggeshall | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Publicity and praise

Bryan’s work earned praise throughout his lifetime and as early as the 1930s his craft was the subject of an article in a monthly pictorial. It was in the 1950s and 60s that his renown reached its height, winning second prize for his table at the Essex County Fayre and Social Services Exhibition.

He was also featured in several glossy magazines of the time including The Sphere (1953), The Field (1964) and Essex Life (1966). In an article in The Essex Countryside in 1953 the author wrote:

‘ can stand enthralled for hours and watch Mr Saunders take an inanimate piece of wood and create a thing of beauty and skill that none can rival.’

– The Essex Countryside

Bryan Saunders’s final years

Few people outside of his immediate family were aware that Bryan was very ill for several years before his death. He sent a letter in 1953 explaining that he could only take on light pieces of work, which may account for the large number of picture frames and workboxes he was commissioned to make.

As his health deteriorated even large frames became too much, and his daughter Janet assisted him with the polishing and lifting. By this time, he had been diagnosed with cancer and his suffering was apparent, but he continued to work up until a few weeks before his death.

By 1973 regular visits to the hospital were necessary. On his final visit he must have been in great pain and aware of his coming death as he cried out that he wanted to be taken home. A bed was set up downstairs in the sitting room behind the workshop, where he spent the last three weeks of his life watching the comings and goings in the shop through an open door.

His end came peacefully, with his wife and daughters beside him where his life had begun, in his beloved Coggeshall.

Sharing Bryan Saunders’s work

Bryan’s daughter Janet opened a small museum as a tribute to her father. She later generously gave the entire contents, including his tools, to the National Trust in 2003 so that they could be preserved and make available to the widest possible audience. 

Janet sadly passed away in June 2010 but was able to see her father’s workshop recreated in a temporary exhibition inside the barn. The exhibition was moved into a permanent space in a converted byre onsite at the barn. The rehomed exhibition was dedicated to the memory and generosity of Janet Saunders and opened in 2011.

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