The art and craft of Caroline Groves

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When I was a little girl there was a certain fairytale that I found totally unbelievable. How was it that not a single woman in the whole kingdom could fit into Cinderella’s glass slipper? Growing up in an age where shoes were bought off the shelf and were only available in a miserable range of sizes, surely there was a girl with an approximate size. I have spent a lifetime wearing shoes that only to accommodate the length of my foot, and I have the scars to prove it.

Caroline Groves is an artist who makes shoes. She does not make beautiful drawings of elegant designs and then send them off to a factory overseas to be made. She meets her clients, measures their feet, has lasts made to their exact dimensions  –possibly several depending on the heel heights – and discusses the designs she has in mind with them. Then she builds up her design from the lasts, taking the contours of the foot as a sculptor would work with the veins of marble or a carpenter with the knots in wood. “I am proud to be a maker, an artist. I believe design only evolves from understanding one’s craft.”
My first meeting with Caroline upended all my expectations about footware, and pulled the proverbial rug out from under my much neglected feet. We do not meet in a showroom but her at her workshop, an atelier where real leather is exploited for all its wonderful characteristics and her creations come to life at the tips of her fingers. “It is mellowed and soaked, and left overnight takes on this wonderful malleable state.”
There on the scuffed wooden workbench is a masterpiece in production – an ankle boot in milky pale jade leather with iridescent stitching along an artfully high arch that sweeps up onto a delicately stacked heel. Moving over to the table she lifts up her creation, fingers moving deftly over the lacing and flips it over to show me its sole – layers of leather moulded and stitched together. Her hands follow the contours of the shoe as she remarks, by way of introduction, “my shoes are all curvy. I don’t draw but develop from the lasts which are all about curves.”
Caroline Groves’ passion for shoes and leather began in a pastoral setting, “I remember I had this pair of little red boots that I adored, and I was lucky enough to have a pony, but for some reason I was more interested in the saddle and bridle, how the leather was worn and stretched.” At this point, she reaches out behind her and takes hold of a dog-eared book featuring an obscure image of a bowl like leather object. “A fisherman’s creel. It was just extraordinary to me how this shape was achieved without cutting and stitching.”
Caroline’s knowledge of her craft is immense, and there is something of an historian about her; but while her creations do have a vintage quality to them, this is due to the way they are made, individually and by hand, rather than in imitation of form. “I was so inspired by Thomas Heatherwick’s show at the V&A, which really demonstrated how integral art is to industry.”
She then shows me an Art Nouveau silver brooch from the Ashbee Guild of Handicraft – a remarkable social experiment in the Cotswolds – which she is going to use on a handbag she is creating for one of her patrons. With about 35 very loyal clients, Caroline has more work than she can manage on her own. However she faces the dilemma of many small businesses who struggle to acquire the talent they need before they reach the critical mass that can afford it.
The Arts and Crafts movement in the 1880s and early 1890s, was marked by the utopian hopes of an era that preceded the devastation of two World Wars. Thoughtful and sensitive members of the upper-middle class, like the artist and writer William Morris, were becoming disenchanted with the social order. The young architect, Charlies Ashbee, was so appalled by the waste of ability and inadequate training available to the working class he decided to start teaching, and lectured to workers on his heroes John Ruskin and Walt Whitman.  He approached Morris with his plan for a Guild and School in the slums of London’s East End, and, despite objections, set up the Guild and School of Handicraft in the East End with five founding members in 1888.
From humble beginnings in an empty warehouse opposite Toynbee Hall, in Spitalfields, Ashbee hoped that the Guild would provide a beacon of light and a means of livelihood for the slum dwellers. It soon expanded and eventually migrated, with entire families from the East End, to the village of Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. Incidentally very close to where Caroline Groves lives.
What was remarkable about the Guild is that it adopted an experimental, unconventional approach to production, and there was an emphasis on co-operative labour. Ashbee, like A H Mackmurdo,  believed in an organic connection between design and manual craft. As Mackmurdo’s diary for the first Arts and Crafts exhibition in 1888 stated, its intentions were “To turn industry in the direction of producing such kind of decorative form as can be produced without detriment by mechanical process.”
The large majority of schools today put all the emphasis on design as the route to success in the business of the fashion industry. “The irony is that you can copy a design, so once it is released it immediately looses value.” Having an industry that supports things hand made is critical to the future success of the United Kingdom, but finding people who have been taught to make things with their hands is increasingly rare.
There are, however, plans to expand her atelier, and she has just found her first apprentice, Nicholaos, who has a degree in product design combined with woodwork “so that he can eventually make our lasts, or at least finish the clunky bricks I am sent. ” It is virtually impossible to have them made these days, with the last existing manufacturer in Northamptonshire, where the country’s shoe industry used to be located, due to close down.
At this point in my eye opening reveal about the history of shoes, something in my peripheral vision catches my attention. There in the window of her atelier is a court shoe that seems to embody the very essence of what Caroline Groves is all about. “Ah those are my troopers, based on the Balmoral. When a client first comes to me I really encourage them to start with a two-and-a-half-inch heel – a very difficult height to find which is very flattering and shows off all the curves of the foot.”
Carefully picking it up my finger-tips perceive a kind of lightness and substance all at once. I turn it over and she shows me where the steel shank – that lies between the heel and the ball but is traditionally hidden and flattened – has been left raised to compliment the overall aesthetics of the shoe whilst allowing for better support. Then she shows me the stacked heel, made of layers and layers of leather, rather than a plastic block covered with a fake rings – like a bookshelf lined with false books. I look down at my budget shoes, half a size too big, tell-tale plastic showing where a ring of leather has come away, and I feel a lifetime of discomfort catch up with me. My poor abused feet.
My only regret is that as the artist of her creations, she cannot replicate herself fast enough to create a bigger atelier that would make her signature pieces more affordable. Caroline Groves is a “cordwainer” from the fairytale I am going to tell my daughter, in which a young woman seeks out what she has been told is impossible, and in the process discovers an impossibly beautiful pair of high-heeled shoes that fit her foot exactly.
by Nico Kos Earle
Follow Caroline on twitter @carolinemgroves and pinterest

About The Author

Glass Online arts writer

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