Wheathills - creating personal pieces to mark life’s greatest events

A Period House memory box

A Period House memory box - Credit: Archant

Derbyshire Life meets local craftsman, Nigel Heldreich, who on the face of it is a French polisher and a maker and restorer of fine furniture but who is really in the esoteric business of making dreams tangible

The team at Wheathills: Byron, Carolyn, James, Taryb, Nigel, Nick, Jan, Cameron, Lee, Russell, Chris, Dan, Harold and Bailey ...

The team at Wheathills: Byron, Carolyn, James, Taryb, Nigel, Nick, Jan, Cameron, Lee, Russell, Chris, Dan, Harold and Bailey the dog - Credit: Archant

‘A walk at 5.30am on 12th May at Cubley. Scent in the air is hawthorne: May blossom. The sky is full of goshawk. The feeling on my face is brisk and cool.’

This was an artistic brief presented to an extraordinary Derbyshire craftsman, Nigel Heldreich, who on the face of it is a French polisher and a maker and restorer of fine furniture but who is really in the esoteric business of making dreams tangible.

His client’s exacting brief – which so clearly identifies the feeling and experience of an intensely lived moment – has now been interpreted and captured in art form and portrayed in exquisite marquetry on a bespoke memory box made from the finest rare woods.

Nigel and his team of specialist craftsmen, who range from artists to engineers, cabinet makers to French polishers, chose to re-create and encapsulate the client’s special moment with the depiction of a single hawthorn branch; wind blowing off the blossom and morning light flooding in from one direction illuminating the white-translucent, fresh new leaves. The May flowers, each created from no less than 30 pieces of timber, show detailed botanical realism in marquetry: exterior white petals surround the tender inner pink ones, the micro marquetry is so fine we see the grey-brown stamens of the blossoms. Morning dew aptly suggests the time of day.

Creating an exquisite piece of marquetry for inclusion in a memory box

Creating an exquisite piece of marquetry for inclusion in a memory box - Credit: Archant

Nigel it seems, like a latter day shaman, diligently digests details of his client’s inner lives: their joys, their hopes, their dreams, achievements, losses and tragedies, their very quintessence, so he can faithfully represent them in a secret narrative of stunning symbolic highly personalised art.

He said: ‘I don’t know if we got 12th May but we certainly got close. The client was just over the moon with it. It was stunning. Just stunning.’

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To the onlooker it’s a beautifully crafted piece of art, to the owner it’s a physical, almost mystical touchstone imbued with private meaning and iconography which enables them to return instantly to a key moment of importance in their lives.

Nigel and his team have made 200 exquisitely crafted, highly individualised memory boxes over the past six years for clients, who come from all over the globe and are often rich, titled, famous, celebrated – and occasionally of royal stock.

'Celebrating achievements through tenacity, adventure and elation'

'Celebrating achievements through tenacity, adventure and elation' - Credit: Archant

Some arrive for their initial consultation with a lengthy entourage of cars, which sweep up the drive to Wheathills, the grand Regency house near Mackworth on the edge of Derby which has been Nigel’s creative hub and home and business base since 2002.

But Nigel is less moved by the trappings of their wealth and fame (‘I wouldn’t know a famous person if they stepped on my foot’) than by the power of a person’s lived experience. Researching the details of a person’s OBE on line can be less creative than pondering how to translate a memory with its feeling, smell and textures into a piece of art in all its Proustian glory.

Nigel comes from a long line of craftsman and artists who have been French polishers, fine furniture makers, antique restorers, clock makers and musical instrument makers for several centuries in the county of Derbyshire.

He can trace the family tree back to the early 1800s when his forbear Baron Theodore Otto Alexander Heldreich was held as a Napoleonic prisoner of war in Ashbourne where he later set up as a natural varnish maker.

'Glistening dewdrops and a fresh early morning breeze'

'Glistening dewdrops and a fresh early morning breeze' - Credit: Archant

During his career 47-year-old Nigel from Allestree has built up the family business known as ‘Kedleston Traditional French Polishers’ to become the region’s most highly regarded furniture and period property interior restorers. There are plans afoot to develop a new concept in Wheathills’ tradition of bespoke furniture making, but in recent years Nigel has focused his creative attention to the memory box in his search to imbue furniture making with more ‘spiritual’ significance.

To this visionary craftsman, a simple chair can possess a kind of ‘humanity’ or ‘spirituality’ but a memory box is almost ‘entirely spiritual’.

Nigel said: ‘If a chair is 300 years old it has a presence about it of all the people who have sat in it, touched and handled it but a memory box takes things to a different level. There’s a great deal of humanity in these boxes.’

Nigel believes an artist can infuse the essence of a person into a piece of bespoke furniture because its form is made for that specific individual. The act of making the item is a kind of celebration or understanding of the person. For Nigel this celebration of an individual, a kind of secret narrative in the furniture, is amplified many fold with the memory box representing a triumph of the importance of form over function.

A year spent completing a Bucket List culminated in a special place to keep all those precious memories safe forever

A year spent completing a Bucket List culminated in a special place to keep all those precious memories safe forever - Credit: Archant

‘A chair still has a job to do. A chest of drawers will always be a chest of drawers and a table will be a table. In order to make something purely spiritual you have to make something that can transcend its function.’

Magically, the box becomes a place where intangible feelings can be revisited.

Nigel’s memory boxes always reflect defining moments in an individual’s life and capture the recipient’s personality – their life in art. And their power also lies in the fact that they are the home to treasured possessions, small objects we collect that hold profound meaning and deeply held sentiment.

‘On one level the box engages all your senses because it looks beautiful and feels smooth and smells amazing because of all the natural finishes such as beeswax or the scent of leather inside because it might have leather upholstery. But the important things are also on the inside.

Intricately detailed marquetry work with hidden meanings

Intricately detailed marquetry work with hidden meanings - Credit: Archant

‘That pebble or shell you collected may look insignificant but is infused with a special moment and is impossible to replace. Everything is symbolic in a memory box!

‘And the box – because of your interaction with it – transcends its physical use of storage. It becomes something very human.’

Nigel made and sold his first boxes as a teenager, whilst studying under a cabinet maker.

‘I knew a box designed with a sentiment “mother” or “father” or “love” would always make an extra £20 than one that had nothing on it. I knew it somehow stirred something in the person buying the box but I was too young to understand what was happening.’

Monument to a passionate interest

Monument to a passionate interest - Credit: Archant

Ironically what Nigel tapped into as a mature businessman is the simple recognition that ‘things’ are less important than ‘feelings’. So he makes things that reflect those feelings so precisely and so respectfully that they sell – for as much as £250,000. Feelings are the basis of his thriving business.

Nigel said: ‘Important things are what you feel inside and anything that we can do to create or generate that feeling is what we try to do.

‘Memories are intangible but the physical object of a memory box can make them tangible. We make those things you can’t see visible.

‘In a sense the box is irrelevant – what is important is the feeling it recreates.’

The notion of the memory box as a business idea took off from the onset. During the research period alone, when Nigel approached former clients to ask what they thought of the idea he got seven commissions.

We are chatting in the spacious and comfortable morning room at Wheathills, where the antiques throw off a soft warm glow (no nasty synthetic polished finishes here). It is here where Nigel sits down with coffee to consult with his clients.

‘They come in here, relax, enjoy themselves and start to talk.’

There are many reasons why a client wants a box, either for themselves or a loved one. Commissions commemorate occasions such as a birth or a wedding, an anniversary or a memorial. The average spend per client is £7,600.

‘Over a period of time I have to develop a complete understanding of why the box is being created, what message is being conveyed and what is the character of the recipient who will receive the box.’

On occasion it’s an emotionally demanding and difficult process, particularly if it involves a tragedy such as the death of a child.

He said: ‘Sometimes I have to sit here and listen so intently, without saying a word because it can be a very sad time. The death of a child will affect me for days and days well after the box is given and I go through the whole emotional experience with the client. But in some small way it is important I manage to help them.’

A box of tissues is always present in the morning room because most of the recipients end up crying; overcome with emotion. For they see in their boxes a crystallisation of their life story.

For Nigel and his team of specialists the moment of giving and receiving a memory box is a sincere acknowledgement of a special relationship and understanding between two people.

Nigel said: ‘The gift has little to do with the box and more to do with celebrating at a very high level a relationship between two people, something understood but often unspoken. It’s the giver saying to the recipient “I love you and I do understand you.” The box is irrelevant. It’s about an understanding between two people – the synergy between their souls.’

Wheathills’ most unusual memory box request was from a lurcher dog for a Lord.

‘It was one of the most interesting boxes we have done and it looked fantastic,’ enthused Nigel, who met the dog and spent time with it in order to draw inspiration for the commission.

The devoted dog, who had been rescued from the moors and saved from certain death by the Lord was portrayed in a piece of marquetry art with his paw protectively covering a frog. The frog, Nigel explained, represented aspects of Lord ****’s character and his name.

‘He was a huge character who had achieved some incredible things in his life and leapt from one idea to the next giant idea.’

The Lord’s wife, who aided the lurcher in making the commission, was portrayed as a beautiful butterfly ‘flitty and full of fun’ fluttering above the dog and frog and taking care of them both.

Aside from the great and the good, clients who want a box for themselves often begin by saying they have little to tell about themselves.

Nigel: ‘I find it fascinating that we all tend to think we should go out of this world thinking we have to have done ground-breaking achievements when the truth is we spread a bit of ourselves about, spread our love.

‘It’s only when people begin to talk about their connection to other people or another person that a deluge of information comes out and it becomes an enormous story, an enormous design concept. It’s just that tiny spark of goodness or happiness that makes things work.’

Dialogue with clients might go on for months before any designs are put down and Nigel claims the creative journey itself is a gift to the giver and the recipient, a cathartic process.

Nigel relays to his team of specialists a final brief, concept and narrative for each box and an artist completes the research and presents back to Nigel an artist’s impression. The ‘timeline’ and subject matter are checked very precisely ‘because two similar things are not the same.’

It’s then that the full team, representing eight separate disciplines, swings into action including digital artists, cabinet makers, marquetry artists, gilders, French polishers, upholsters, carving artists and the engineers who design and create the myriad of precision mechanical movements, delightful and playful opening mechanisms for hidden drawers and a cornucopia of compartments.

Nigel ushers me through the ground floor of Wheathills, introducing some of the twelve people who work in the four integral workshops. (It’s a large building and there are plans for an extension to accommodate the new and exciting furniture project to be launched next year).

There is a pervasive and pleasant scent of French polish and suddenly we are in the veneer store – a treasure trove of countless fine sheets of woods from a host of different species, in an array of natural colours as resplendent as any artists’ palette. Some of the veneers originate from Nigel’s grandfather’s workshop, others are cut on site. The marquetry artists choose their pieces based on colour and how well a grain configuration suits the subject matter they are creating in wood.

Nigel’s passion is writ large in his face and language. He holds aloft a sheet of eucalyptus. ‘If this isn’t the back of a peregrine falcon!’

Then he presents a fine sliver of arctic maple and proclaims it to be: ‘The first fall of snow!’ A veneer of quilted walnut is a ‘sweeping road’.

Back in the morning room, before us on a large table are three elaborate works of art awaiting collection by a client. Two are mirror images and are of neo-classical architectural design immaculately executed in hand-carved English ‘Butt’ walnut and box wood.

The owners are a Nottingham-based couple, patrons of the arts, who share a passion for the Romantic poet Byron. Their twin ‘Passionate Life Boxes’ are design-inspired by the monumental tomb of the poet’s beloved Newfoundland dog, Bosun who was buried at Byron’s ancestral home Newstead Abbey. Each box is ingeniously engineered so that the rare wood side panels are interchangeable and each moveable side panel is in itself a work of art depicting key scenes from Byron’s life.

Nigel explained: ‘The purpose of a Passionate Life Box is so the owner can start a collection of miniature art to reflect his interest and it’s a fantastic method of displaying miniatures, which can be changed depending on your mood.’

One of the boxes currently displays scenes from Byron’s life depicted in fine micro-marquetry, the second displays specially commissioned miniature oil paintings by the Byron enthusiast and British painter Nick McCann, a graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art. The lid of each box lifts off to reveal hidden hand-carved boxwood buttons. These can be pressed to release finger handles so that an inner section of the box can be lifted out – perfect storage for the enthusiast’s collection of miniature art.

Also on display in the morning room is a new large-sized memory box whose exterior takes the form of a delightful country cottage – its hand-carved thatched roof, complete with peeping mouse, is made from a single piece of oak. Each wall depicts a season in the country garden with a profusion of delicate marquetry flowers and plants created with a myriad of different woods ranging from quilted maple to sycamore and tiger oak.

The box is to be one of a limited edition of 25 inspired by a Regency period tea caddy and its interior, which can be custom designed for each client, picks up the theme of tea with a quotation from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, ‘But indeed I would rather have nothing but tea’.

The Austen theme is extended with a cameo marquetry portrait of the writer and similar quotations from the novels – hinting darkly that this particular memory box has been commissioned by a great literary enthusiast.

The extraordinary personalised nature of the memory boxes, reflecting the individual’s passions and personality, have become a central and integral theme in other areas of Nigel’s work. Next year he officially launches the Sublime English Furniture brand and is planning to take on three new apprentices and create a new 4,000 square foot work space extension in anticipation of its success. It will mark a new degree of personalisation in furniture making.

He said: ‘We will be making conversation pieces, inspiring furniture, extremely unusual bespoke items. There will be stories and memories involved in their construction.’

One of the first pieces has already been commissioned. It is a Vienna style six-panel wall clock – its movement completely designed and hand-made by Ashbourne clockmaker Rob James. Borrowing principles from the memory box, its marquetry decoration, inlaid into flame walnut, is imbued with personal significance to its owner for it depicts the riotous blossoms of his garden from blue agapanthus to pink lilies. A simpler border design on the clock case of thistle and maple leaf is iconographic – representing the identities of the couple for whom it was made.

Nigel said: ‘This item is totally unique.’

Nigel has immersed his life in his art and lives ‘above the shop’ to prove it.

So, if he had a bespoke memory box made for himself, how would it look?

‘It would have to look like my first ever workshop. It was originally a super old oak stable and I bought it from a family for £70 and rebuilt it aged 17, at Allestree at my father’s house.

‘I’ve dismantled it and brought it with me wherever I’ve gone – it’s now here in the grounds at Wheathills.

‘I’d have various lenses in the windows so you would have to look closely to see different aspects of my life reflected in different panels dividing up the interior. And because I love wooden engineering there would have to be lots of secret drawers in it and you would have to puzzle out each little story of my life, like in a Chinese puzzle box. There would be an inner sanctum in the box which is where I’d keep my most treasured possession and you would have to work various levers and triggers to get to it...’

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