I was invited to visit The Harry Hems Centre at Exeter by Lisa Sands when she came across our blog some weeks ago. At the Centre, which is at 86 Longbrook Street where Hems used to work, I was given a warm welcome by Lisa’s father, Alun Sands, one of the directors of A J Sands, a civil and structural engineering company based in Exeter.
Alun Sands doesn’t so much talk about his company, which is based in the building, as the Hems workshop, as it was, as it is now, what is left – the remains. He walks me through the two floors, showing me views of one building (the house) from another (the workshop), helping me to imagine spaces that are no longer there as they were once, guiding my imagination and suggesting I take images of remarkable features like this removable glass floor, which allowed Hems to move heavy stone and timber from the ground floor into the workshop.
When Lisa Sands arrives and shows me a massive file she compiled over the years about Harry Hems, I realise how much they have invested in understanding him, who he was, what he represented and achieved, how he worked in the very physical space in which, over a hundred years later, they now worked. I am allowed to peek at Hems’s old office, in which Alun Sands now works – a wonderful space with an amazing bookcase, framed by the tiles he collected, which in turn were framed by the writing he carved all around the room.
Alun Sands shows me a remarkable system Hems invented to hold a flag outside the building. He then translates the inscription that runs along the wall. He shows me the downstairs restaurant, once Hems’s showroom, in which Sands upholds Hems’s old tradition of inviting the poor of Exeter for a Christmas meal, by running a Christmas charity dinner the earnings of which are donated to St Petrock, an Exeter-based charity helping homeless people or people who are vulnerably housed.
Simon Olding tells us that in order to ‘inspire his craftsmen with true medieval principles, not only of workmenship but also of design, Hems utilized his vast personal collection of 15 century gothic wood-carving’, the ones which are now in the RAMM collection. Olding says: ‘Around the studio Hems arranged in rows hundreds of bench ends, misericords, roof bosses and other original pieces, collected mainly from West Country Churches. Hems did not want his workmen to religiously copy the designs they saw around them – rather to use the images as the springboard for their own creative ideas, which would still work in the tradition of gothic design.’ (Olding, 1977: 28)
I try to imagine these spaces, with the objects that are currently at RAMM. I try to imagine being told not to copy them, but to pursue my own creative idea of it. I must pick up on this in relation to Baudrillard’s theories around simulation – but this will be for another blog.
I am told that once the upper floor consisted of two spaces, Hems’s office and the workshop, and that Hems built a tiny window so that he could see the workshop from the office. Back into the adjacent space, I can see the Hems office, and wonder whether Hems’s workers could in fact see Hems too, just like he could see them.
I realise, as I look at Lisa’s carefully put together folder on Hems, whilst keeping an eye on the adjacent space in which Alun Sands is at work, that Moor Stories has now begun.
Olding, Simon (1977). “The Indefatigable Mr. Hems of Exeter”. Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries 33 (8): 25-31.