West Dean College

Friday 6 July 2018

The appointment of a new Programme Tutor at West Dean College has given me an ideal reason to write about the college at which I have been teaching for four years, without appearing to be blowing my own trumpet!

West Dean is set in the rolling Sussex downland near Chichester. The college is privately funded, which gives it some autonomy over its awards, but also offers a group of awards that are validated by the University of Sussex.


Michael S. Podmaniczky, currently Senior Furniture Conservator at Winterthur Museum and Associate Winterthur Professor at the University of Delaware, where he taught on the Master of Science Conservation of Furniture Course, joins West Dean College in July 2007. Mike's interests are not restricted to antique furniture. At different times, he was a model maker, pattern maker and boat builder, before coming to conservation of furniture in the mid 1980s. He has been active in the American Institute of Conservation and is past chairman of the Wooden Artifacts (sic) Group. He builds furniture, both traditional and contemporary, and enjoys woodturning. His lathe work has been exhibited at the Wood Turning Centre in Philadelphia. He considers a high point of his career to be an exhibition of innovative bentwood chairs, designed and patented by Samuel Gragg of Boston, Massachusetts in 1808, of which he was the curator – the virtual exhibition of The Incredible Elastic Chairs of Samuel Gragg, can be seen on the website of the Chipstone Foundation.

Mike has also written for Fine Woodworking magazine and hopes to write for Furniture & Cabinet Making in the future.


The courses offered at West Dean can be divided into three groups. The first group is really a continuation of the traditional conservation and restoration course with which the college began in 1972. Many of the present luminaries in the antique furniture world were students in those early years, and The British Antique Furniture Restorers' Association (BAFRA) came into being as a result of those students' late night discussions. Ah those were the days! But back to 2007!

Upon completion of the first year, present students will receive a West Dean Diploma, which is supported by BAFRA and BADA (The British Antique Dealers' Association). Both organisations contribute lecturers and course advisors. Second year students receive a Professional Development Diploma, which is similarly supported. Last year, West Dean Students received first prize in both the Graduate and Postgraduate levels of the BAFRA Student Competition.


The second group of courses offered, are validated by the University of Sussex. These are Graduate and Post-Graduate Courses in the Conservation and Restoration of Antique Furniture. These courses have a higher academic content, but don't let that put you off! Written work takes up about 25% of the student's time and benchwork fills the remaining 75%. The written work relates to furniture history, material science, and other contextual studies. Students also attend short courses in carving, gilding, turning and upholstery, as well as visiting important collections and workshops.

Second year students have a six-week work placement in a prestigious conservation workshop. Host workshops include the Royal Collection and Windsor Castle. During the teaching year, objects that students work on come from the major museums – English Heritage and The National Trust – as well as private collections. Then there is the new range of courses; future plans include some new flexible programmes.


Mike Podmaniczky says of his role at West Dean, “Conservation of furniture and related objects really requires a particularly heightened mechanical and craft ability. The tutors at West Dean have collective skills that are suited to teaching these subjects directly, as well as obliquely, in the conservation courses and my intention is to utilise these skills to offer a one year intensive course in 'woodworking', leading to a West Dean Diploma.

“Students in this Diploma course would be folded into the workshop with conservation/restoration students working alongside them and spicing the learning environment with projects and activities that complement the restoration work being carried out at nearby benches. I am intentionally leaving the description broad and somewhat undefined because I will allow it to be customised to the student's needs.

“There is another direction that I would allow students to move in, and that would be furniture making without the intent of going into conservation. This course would allow the student to develop skills to go on and make furniture, either traditional or contemporary, as their primary activity. As you can see, the primary point of the course would not be contemporary design and furniture making, but would include that as one option. I would expect a liaison with the fine arts programmes for any student who chooses to focus on contemporary design. This is the sublime beauty of studying at West Dean. Whatever one is interested in, there are related courses and artists all around for support and enrichment”.

Musical instruments

West Dean also offers short courses in most woodworking disciplines as well as a musical instrument making course.

The two-year programme, Making Stringed Musical Instruments, teaches the making of a whole range of instruments from the viola da gamba and violin families, with some early plucked instruments included such as baroque guitar and other wire strung instruments.

Most of the time is spent working at the bench making instruments, although some care, repair and restoration are undertaken. There is a series of lectures including history of instruments and also playing tuition. Models are based on existing instruments and so it is important that the students continue to visit collections and gather information on originals. The annual study tour this year was a four-day visit to the Music Museums in Brussels and Antwerp. Many public and private collections in this country are also visited.

Students come with a variety of skills, some with many years of instrument making behind them, but a proven interest in musical instrument making and good woodworking skills, are essential.

The college is often commissioned to make a particular instrument and currently, they are making a bandore with the ribs (sides) constructed of two pieces of plum wood and Italian cypress with holly and ebony lines between the joints. The back is of alternate staves of these woods, built around an internal mould to keep the shape. The bandore has seven pairs of iron and twisted brass strings, with a decorative rose in pear wood and parchment in the central sound hole.


Some students live locally, while others live in accommodation on campus. Course fees for 2006-2007 were £9,360 per annum. Accommodation fees are £1,560 per term for full board including weekends. There is a very extensive library and a computer suite in the main building.

There is a distinct atmosphere at West Dean, which comes from being part of a Country House Community. I can say this with some certainty because this atmosphere was noticeable right from the first year of operation, as I was a guest (gauche young man!) at the opening event in 1971. The house was built in the early 19th century and is what one would call a 'Grand House'. Being part of this artist and craftsperson led community within a country house estate, is a unique experience. Living with and being able to handle on a regular basis the fine furnishings similar to those found in National Trust houses and museums, prepares the student for object handling in their professional life in a way that few other courses can offer.

Students who are accepted at West Dean may apply for financial assistance from a number of sources. The college office has details of a number of Trusts and other organisations that can assist with funding. In any one year, a considerable number of students receive financial assistance, and lack of funding should not be considered a barrier to application to the college.