Every craft requires time and precision, an able hand and a good eye. It is this human definition of craftsmanship that binds it so closely to the culture of a people and a place. In 2015, the UK launched The Radcliffe Red List, an investigation into the country’s endangered crafts, identifying which professions had already or were at risk of disappearing. The list revealed that it is no longer possible to have a cricket ball handmade in Britain, and that there are only five people left in the country trained in making saws. If Belgium were to do the same, what would we discover?
Belgium has a rich tradition of craftsmanship, from medieval abbots collecting hops and brewing huge cauldrons of beer, to the lace makers of Flanders, who you can still watch at their tables threading hundreds of needles a day. These crafts play a central role in the country’s national heritage. Some are thriving and attract thousands of tourists to Belgium each year; in 2016, UNESCO added Belgian beer to its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Yet others are teetering on the edge of extinction.
Keeping the crafts alive
In Oostduinkerke, on the South West coast of Belgium, shrimp fishermen have been trawling the sea on horseback for over 500 years. Even today they are an unmistakeable sight on Oostduinkerke’s shores, wrapped in their yellow oilskin suits and wide-brimmed rain hats, being carried out into the waves by sturdy Brabant horses.
But this sight risks disappearing from view forever. Oostduinkerke is the last place on earth where people still fish with horses in the sea. Even here there are just 15 or so of these fishermen, known in Dutch as paardenvissers, left. In the 1990s their numbers dwindled to just two. Henri Lemineur, the official picture ambassador of the horseback fisherman, has lived and worked with them for many years. He explains, “Shrimping on horseback requires a great deal of skill. The first time the horse is taken into the sea it’s terrified; they’re almost blind while in the water, so they need complete trust in their rider. It takes about a year to build this kind of relationship.”
The trade is time-consuming, labour-intensive and does not make a profit. The local tourist board supports the fishermen by providing free stables and pastures for the horses. Why then do the paardenvissers persevere?
© Henri Lemineur
Eddy d’Hulster was taught to fish on horseback by his father, and he, by his father before him. He has been riding the shores of Oostduinkerke with his net for decades. He admits: “It’s not possible to make a living solely from fishing. It’s a passion not a profession. What keeps us men (and women) going is our love of the horse and our love of the sea. Being a fisherman is in our heart, our soul and our blood.” The unique sight of the yellow-suited, wellington-booted fishermen has begun to attract increasing numbers of tourists to Oostduinkerke, and the paardenvissers now supplement their income by performing demonstrations for curious visitors.
Reinventing and diversifying the activities
It is true that the viability of certain crafts as thriving industries is long since dead and gone. We’re unlikely to see a blossoming surge in the need for paper marblers (of whom Belgium used to boast a significant population). However, other professions are managing not only to survive, but to thrive, by resurrecting themselves in new forms.
Realising that his work was soon to be relegated to the shelves of museum exhibits, a Brussels blacksmith decided to rekindle the fire of Belgium’s forges by reinventing the craft as a social activity. His organisation, IJzer en Vuur (Iron and Fire), organises demonstrations, exhibitions and workshops designed to help people rediscover the art of blacksmithing.
Passing through gardens of old machines as you approach La Fonderie, the disused bronze smelting factory where IJzer en Vuur host their workshops, you’re greeted by the smoky smell of blazing coals and the thundering vibrations of an anvil being repeatedly struck by a hammer. The organisation’s founder Michel Mouton asserts passionately: “The craft of a blacksmith has a future. But without a modern reinterpretation, any craft is as good as lost.”
Michel Mouton, a Brussels blacksmith, set up the organisation IJzer en Vuur (Iron and Fire), which organises demonstrations, exhibitions and workshops designed to help people rediscover the art of blacksmithing.
For Michel, the appeal of the trade lies in its physical nature. “When you’re in the forge, you’re working with all four elements: earth, air, fire and water. You can feel your heart beat inside you. When can you get that feeling while sitting at a computer? I want to help people rediscover the pleasure of manual labour.”
Belgium’s craftsmen are not merely preserving traditional crafts, they are also bringing them back to life. Frederic Poppe, Lutgarde De Paepe and their daughter, Geraldine, all born and raised in Ghent, are refounding the art of gilt leatherwork in Belgium.
The husband and wife team first gained a reputation as skilled stained glass restorers. In the 1980s, they were approached with a special request: to reassemble an 18th century gilt leather tapestry from remaining fragments. It took them years of historical research, but finally they developed a technique to produce the embossing moulds needed and then to create the gilt leather. Frederic explains, “There are no schools where you can study the craft of gilt leather making, so we had to teach ourselves everything.”
Of all the opulent fashions popular in the 16th-18th centuries, gilt leather was one of the most expensive. Kings, queens, dukes and barons would vie to have the most rooms covered in these dazzlingly embossed leather hangings. Now Frederic and his family custom-make gilt leather items for clients across the world, from upholstered chairs for the Metropolitan Museum of Art to couture garments for Versace’s catwalk shows. Their company, Lutson Goudleder, is one of only five in the world still making these exquisite leather designs.
In the 16th-18th centuries, gilt leather was one of the most expensive and sought after products. A family from Ghent has brought this art form back to life.
Outlining the numerous steps required to make each piece of gilt leather, Frederic comments: “The process takes time and skill. There are at least eight layers to be added on top of the base leather.” He and his family perform each step by hand – from pressing on the metallic foil to hand-painting the background with oil paints. “We try to preserve tradition, using the right materials and producing the gilt leather as it was made centuries ago.”
Passing on the legacy
From Verviers’ master gun engraver, Roland Baptiste, who has spent over 20 years embellishing firearms with his intricate designs, to Angel Barrero, expert in the arts of stucco-marble and Scagliola, Belgium’s workshops still buzz with the sounds of chisels, needles and easels of talented artisans at work – if you just know where to look.
Are these crafts viable professions by modern standards? No, possibly not. But we often forget that the origins of the word “profession” can be traced back to the Latin profiteri (to declare openly). A profession is something that you are proud to publically declare as your occupation. Just as monks profess their vows when entering religious orders, these craftsmen are willing to dedicate their lives to their chosen profession. That is something we should protect.
The answer most of these craftsmen seem to have found to the question “How you can make money?” is by passing on the legacy. Almost all complement their trade with workshops, master classes and demonstrations that are necessary both to sustain their own livelihoods and to convince others of the need to keep these professions alive.
After all, at a dinner party wouldn’t you rather profess to be a horseback shrimp fisherman than a pension fund manager?