There is nothing new about the art of papercutting; it has been around at least since the 6th century. But there is something new and fresh about the way artists Chris Pope and his partner Helen Lawn approach the genre. Think ancient craftwork photobombed by Andy Warhol, and you begin to get the picture.
For years Chris and Helen had been working at their respective PR companies in the office they share in The Tannery in John Street, Tunbridge Wells. In their spare time they pursued all kinds of artistic interests, including photography and music. They also loved looking at and buying papercuts, and had built up quite a collection.
Then four years ago, their fascination with papercutting became something a little more serious.
“We had been collecting a number of papercut prints for four or five years and we were in a gallery in Brighton and they had a little kit for sale,” said Chris. “Helen said ‘I’m going to try that’. We started off with some fairly simple designs. I saw how much fun Helen was having doing it so I jumped in and had a go.”
The craft involves creating a design, then cutting it out on paper with a scalpel. Colour can then be added and it is then mounted on a background and framed. An exhibition of Polish papercuts, currently on display at the Tunbridge Wells Museum, created a flurry of interest in the town after it was featured in the Times of Tunbridge Wells a couple of weeks ago. It sounds simple, but what draws Chris and Helen to the artform – and fascinates the people who see their work – is the mindblowing intricacy that goes into it.
Chris said: “On one of my pieces – called Winston Churchill, We Shall Never Surrender – we counted more than 5,000 cuts. It took over a week of cutting.
“We had a stall at the SEEArt Fair in the Assembly Hall last June and we had such positive feedback. People thought they were just drawings and then we heard people saying, ‘Blimey, someone has actually cut this out’. A lot of people can’t get their heads around how intricate it is and how much time it would take. People go away with a sense of wonder and amazement.”
The couple held their first exhibition, Slice of Life, at Trinity Theatre in 2014, featuring 30 pieces based on places and objects in Tunbridge Wells that they had photographed. Since then they have exhibited at Fuggles Beer Café and Perk & Pearl in Tunbridge Wells. Then in December last year they took the plunge and converted the meeting rooms under their offices into a gallery. It is the only gallery in the south east dedicated solely to the art of papercutting.
Chris said: “We spend all day doing our day jobs, but we also love papercutting because people can appreciate the complexity and the beauty of it all.
“Papercutting is a very traditional folk art and it’s very romantic. But we wanted to try and do something different, so we base a lot of our designs on photos we have taken.”
Their current collection includes tributes to Darth Vader and Leonard Nimoy, daubed in purple and complete with wacky eyebrows and fringe, alongside depictions of delicate plants.
Chris said: “The thing we have always done and remain true to is this; it’s so easy to mass produce art. But everything we have done is original and unique.
“We have one-off paper cuts and they are the only ones that exist anywhere in the world. We are not trying to sell as many things as possible, but if someone likes it they can have something that is still unique in the world.”
There is a subtle difference in the way they approach their work. Helen is incredibly detailed and meticulous while Chris describes himself as ‘obsessive’ and ‘a repressed anarchist’. She uses pastels while he uses spray paints to create ‘bright, urban, funky colours’.
The Pope & Lawn gallery in John Street is open 10am to 4pm, but you can ring and make an appointment on 07814 020517 or email hello@popeandlawn. com Prices range from £20 to £1,000. Visit www.popeandlawn.com