John Speight - The Point of my Art
Papercut Artist John Speight explains why he uses Swann Morton blades.
Papercutting has been a tradition in our family since 1921 when my grandfather, Arthur Forrester, picked up a pair of vining scissors and set out on a career as a silhouette profile artist.
After Arthur's death in the early 1970s my uncle John continued portrait cutting with the same scissors at Arthur's last studio on Brighton's Palace Pier. John sadly died too several years later.
My journey into the family tradition of papercutting took a bit of a wayward route. I had contemplated taking up a career in art but instead entered forestry, and worked with VSO as an Assistant Forest Officer in east Nepal. My village, Bhojpur, was perched on a Himalayan foothill ridge, two days hard walk away from electricity and roads. It was not an easy place to live and I remember being stunned when I heard the local labourers only earned the equivalent of 15 pence a day in UK money. I returned to North East England in the mid 1980s and was shocked when I noticed a print in a gallery window for £140. How on earth could you tell one of my Nepali friends that this printed piece of paper was worth two and a half years of their labour?
It appeared to me that art was becoming exclusively for the wealthy, as even prints were outside the pocket of many. For me, that wasn't good enough. In my opinion, original art should be available to everyone. It wasn't until a few years later that I discovered a bag full of my uncle's black silhouette paper in the top of a spare wardrobe at my parent's house. As I looked at it, two ideas came to mind. Firstly that I could use it to begin the career in art that I had regretted not taking, and secondly if I could work out an appropriate technique and style I could hopefully create an art form that would produce originals that customers could purchase at a sensible price.
I thought it would be best if the work was small and detailed, and I would therefore need a cutting implement that was very sharp with a fine point, and so a logical place to go to seek out a tool would be a surgical supplies shop in Newcastle upon Tyne. Looking around the shop I was surprised how many instruments there were to consider. I slowly inspected rows and rows of very strangely shaped surgery scissors. I didn't even want to imagine what they were designed for!
There was also a wide range of Swann-Morton scalpel blades and handles. Some blades had curved edges and others looked very sharp with a fine point. There was a choice of handles too. Long, short, flat, round. I eventually decided to purchase a couple of handles and two or three types of blades. Back at home, after an hour or two of cutting paper in various ways, I decided a No.3 handle with a 10A blade was the tool for me. Using the black paper and scalpel, I kept experimenting until I had developed a style of silhouette papercut that could be made reasonably quickly without sacrificing quality. I then tested the pictures at craft fairs to see if customers were interested. Thankfully they were!
To be honest, as the years went by I slowly forgot my original goal of producing art at a price suitable for everyone. Some of my originals are now several hundred pounds each, but most of my range has stayed at the lowest price possible. Then a couple of years ago a young boy visited my studio with his parents, and after looking around he said to his mother "Can I buy the one of James Bond's car with my saved pocket money?" And he did. I was thrilled, suddenly remembering the original goal and realising that my business had actually achieved it.
Now, nearly three decades and tens of thousands of papercuts after starting the business, I'm still using 10A blades and have never used anything else. I honestly can't see how you could produce a better blade for making papercut artwork. My work is only limited by my skill level, not the scalpel.
An American visitor to my studio recently told me that she had a friend who practised papercutting and she had 124 tools. Then she asked me how many I used. I kind of sheepishly raised my scalpel. "Just this" I said. "It can do anything".