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Wheathills puts the memories of a lifetime into an antique for the future
A chance enquiry at one of Wheathills open weekends turned into a labour of love that has resulted in the realisation of a dream for Ernest Clarke and his partner David Davidson. While chatting to owner Nigel Heldreich, Ernest wondered if it would be possible to create a memory box for some of his treasured keepsakes. Keen theatregoers, he and David wanted a reminder of all the journeys theyd made, plays and musicals theyd seen and their love of literature and art.
Nigels immediate response was, Of course, it should take about four to six weeks. But it wasnt until 18 months, countless conversations and about 100,000 later that The Pantheon, A Theatre of Memories, Secrets and Surprises, was finally unveiled.
Initial sketches grew into something more complicated, and then as Nigel confessed, It all seemed to gain a life of its own and the whole thing grew and grew. Each minute detail became finer and more realistic. Every time a memory was portrayed in symbolic marquetry it was added to and improved. Every idea we had grew into a more significant and better idea. Each memory portrayed became a gateway of re-discovery to many more which were once locked away and forgotten.
Ernest and Davids story became an endless tale, twisting through Manchester streets to a Tuscan market place, through the walled city to the Chianti Mountains, back to London cobbles and on around the world. Favourite characters from plays and musicals converse, sip champagne, peep around corners and run through the streets.
As Nigel says: All ten of the craftsmen and artists who have worked on the Pantheon are cabinet makers, gilders, designers, french polishers and upholsterers and have greatly contributed their expertise and creative thoughts, growing a spark of an idea into a seamless element of the whole concept. We are all extremely grateful to be chosen by Mr Clarke and Mr Davidson who have given us this fantastic opportunity to create such a wonderful work of art, which will surely be enjoyed for decades to come.
By the time it was completed The Pantheon had involved three months of design work, 15 months of cabinet making and about 10,000 pieces of timber. Gold leaf, bronze castings and rare woods combine with the finest, most detailed marquetry. The domed top (said by Ernest to be closer to St Pauls than a theatre) lifts to reveal a drawer where treasured programmes can be kept. With a flick of a remote control the theatre lights up. Front doors open, the gold shell limelights come on and the theatre slides forward to reveal a play in progress. Lord Byron and Noel Coward can be spotted in two of the boxes David and Ernest are, of course, in another. Dame Judi Dench, Sir Tim Rice, Sir Cameron Macintosh, Lionel Bart, Sean Kenny, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Michael Crawford, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Fagin, Billy Elliot, Romeo and Juliet, Oliver, the Artful Dodger, Mr Jingles, LS Lowry and characters from the Pickwick Papers all have been captured and re-created in minute pieces of wood, all representing significant memories or occasions in Ernest and Davids lives.
Nigel admits that the greatest challenge was to create a design in false perspective that flowed, bringing together disparate elements from different eras and styles into a complete whole. On the other hand each element of the production process had its own problems creating by hand 180 identical miniature spindles must have been no easy task!
Standing in front of the newly unveiled theatre on its specially designed rotating table, Ernest and David are obviously thrilled and cant wait to explore further. Thinking of the almost weekly visits to Wheathills over the last 18 months, Ernest comments, I dont know what Im going to do after this. However, it doesnt take him long to start thinking of more places to visit and memories to capture. A chance word to Nigel and they start discussing the possibility of creating other characters to inhabit the theatre all in exquisitely crafted wood, of course.
The history of Wheathills
The company as it is today started about 25 years ago but before that the Heldreich family had been involved in cabinet making, furniture design and French polishing for 200 years. As makers of bespoke items of furniture that were also often very personal, Nigel saw in a memory box a way of creating an intimate piece of furniture that could be made personal to an individual in itself while also holding their treasured possessions. As Nigel said, Weve all got objects that remind us of a particular occasion that means a lot to us. A memory box can symbolise a persons life, character, and the things theyve achieved. The designs on the outside are what they want to share and when they unlock the box whats inside is private. It is something to pass down to future generations and can be added to indefinitely. Each box can involve hours of discussion. One client commented as they collected their memory box: Im giving you this cheque but Im not sure whether Im paying for a high quality box or therapy.
A memory box can cost from 500 upwards, although the average price in the two years Wheathills has been making them is around 7,600. Boxes have travelled to Australia, Japan, Canada and America.