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Talk to the Hand

King Charles’ cousin and close friend David Linley, a master cabinet-maker and an honorary chairman at Christie’s, is on a mission to keep British craft alive and enable a new generation of creatives who can’t bear the thought of a desk job.

Talk to the Hand

David Linley, left, with a student at the Snowdon School of Furniture. The school is located at Highgrove, King Charles’ family residence in Gloucestershire, England.

Despite having grown up at Kensington Palace with a viscount’s title and a queen for an aunt, David Linley loved nothing more than working with his hands: building, measuring, sawing and transforming timber planks (preferably aged ones, like wine) into sleek, functional objects.

He is now the Earl of Snowdon, a first cousin of King Charles III, and honorary chairman of Christie’s EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa), where he’s surrounded by art, antiques, jewelry — and luxury handbags.     

Yet his parallel world is still covered in sawdust and crowded with dovetail joints, band saws and complex marquetry patterns. He spends his spare time making things, and preaching the gospel of craft in his quiet way, and often with a wry sense of humor.

He’s the sort of person who takes a few days’ holiday to make a ladder for a friend’s library and then transports it, under driving rain, to its new owner. He tells the story with delight.

“A ladder is a tricky geometric problem because it needs to be wider at the base and thinner at the top. I also made complicated double joints that came out through the wood and were wedged, so they looked very nice on the side,” says Linley, 62, from his office at Christie’s in London, which is crammed with glossy books and small, surprisingly complex, wooden objects he’s created over the years.

After he made the ladder, he wrapped the ends in clingfilm (it was raining hard that day) and wedged it into the back of his VW Golf so that it was sticking out of the windows. Then he drove 100 miles to deliver it.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been wetter,” but the ladder was fine, says the softly spoken Linley with a cheeky smile.

Talk to the Hand

A student at the Snowdon summer program at Dumfries House in Scotland, headquarters of the King’s Foundation.

This is not an unusual story.

Helen Chislett, the author and gallery owner who’s known Linley for more than 25 years, says “his happy place is in a workshop, probably eating fish and chips or a bacon sandwich, surrounded by sawdust, and joshing with everyone around him.”

Chislett and Linley have a shared love of design and craft, and cowrote the recently published coffee table book “Craft Britain: Why Making Matters,” (OH Editions).

It’s an-depth exploration of the country’s traditional skills and makers and features interviews with rush weavers, fleece producers, steam-bent furniture experts, paper marblers, tailors, and many others whose livelihoods depend on their hands.

Chislett says that, from the get-go, Linley wanted the book to “bang the drum, wake people up, and get the message out that craft isn’t just a pretty thing but something important, worthwhile, and still relevant.”

The two are now in the early stages of planning a second book on the subject, which may look beyond Britain to artists and makers throughout the European continent.

“Craft Britain” is one of Linley’s many projects aimed at promoting cabinet making — and all sorts of craft — to a new generation.

Linley also serves as vice president of the King’s Foundation charity (formerly the Prince’s Foundation), where he often deputizes for his cousin Charles. For decades the king has supported handmaking skills, and environmental conservation, and the cousins are in lockstep when it comes to educating and training a new generation of craftspeople.

The King’s Foundation was founded by then-Prince Charles in 1986 as an educational charity and today works nationally and internationally on projects involving sustainability and environmental regeneration. It offers training and education for people from all ages and backgrounds.

For years, Linley had been running a weeklong Snowdon summer program at Dumfries House in Ayrshire, Scotland, headquarters of the King’s Foundation.

That summer school was the inspiration for a more recent project, the Snowdon School of Furniture at Highgrove, King Charles’ family home in Gloucestershire. The school, located in a converted old barn, is part of a complex on the estate that’s becoming a training hub for traditional skills and crafts.

Talk to the Hand

Outside the Chanel Métiers d’art Training Atelier at Highgrove.

Last year Chanel teamed with The King’s Foundation, on a new, highly skilled Métiers d’Art education program that focuses on traditional hand-embroidery and beading skills.

The program is being taught at the newly established Chanel Métiers d’Art Training Atelier at Highgrove. Students also receive tuition at le19M in Paris, the multidisciplinary space, creative hub and base for Chanel’s artisanal brands.

The Snowdon school at Highgrove hosts intensive weeklong programs for people of all ages, ranging from the young to second careerists. Successful applicants already have a foundation in woodworking and, during the program, they’re tasked with building pieces of furniture which they can then take home.

In the past, the assignment has been to build a table with a marquetry top. “That’s been quite fun, because they don’t all look the same,” Linley says. “Some are bonkers, others are very regimented. Often a student’s character is summed up by the tabletop they create.”

The school is a true family operation. Last year, staff and students made chairs for the coronation in 2023, a special commission from the king.

Linley says establishing the Snowdon schools “stemmed from my enthusiasm for wanting to help other people, and because I was so lucky in the way I was trained.”

He was working with his hands from a young age, having attended the famously bohemian, ultra-progressive Bedales school in Hampshire, England, which focuses on “doing and making.”

“When you turned 17 you got the keys to the workshop. There were machines in there that could kill you — but we were grown up enough to understand that it was about trust,” says Linley, adding that his teachers were encouraging from an early age.

Talk to the Hand

David Linley at the Snowdon summer program at Dumfries House in Scotland.

During the interview he points to a ceramic teapot that he made at Bedales when he was 13 years old. It was far from a triumph, but it brought him closer to his passion.

He recalls the teacher saying to him: “’You’re too precise for pottery. I’m going to take you to the woodworking workshop.’”

Linley also wants younger generations to understand that a background in handcraft can lead to a gratifying career.

“I think there’s a shift in younger people wanting to do something with their lives [that’s not office based],” Linley says. He uses his 21-year-old daughter, Margarita, as an example. She makes jewelry out of recycled materials “and sits for hours with her little vice. Her workshop is a couple of pliers.”

Talk to the Hand

David Linley’s double-helix marquetry.

Conservation is another part of Linley’s wider craft message. As part of the Snowdon courses, students troop into the local forest to learn about felling and regeneration.

“Wood is a renewable resource when it’s harvested correctly. In my mind, it’s like laying down wine. People are perfectly prepared to lay down a bottle of wine and keep it for five or six years. If you do that with a plank of wood, it increases in value because naturally air-dried timber is worth more than conjoined timber.

“As long as you have more farmers who understand the benefit of laying down the material and then replanting the trees, then you have a circular economy,” Linley says.

Linley, who is the son of Princess Margaret and a nephew of Queen Elizabeth II, inherited his love of craft from his father, Antony Armstrong-Jones, the first Earl of Snowdon. Armstrong-Jones, who died in 2017 and who had contracted polio as a teenager, was a fashion and celebrity photographer, filmmaker and lifelong campaigner for the disabled.

Linley’s grandmother Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, supported him throughout his career, up until her death in 2002. She bought the young Linley one of his first band saws and he gave her his first wooden creation: a humidor with invisible dovetail joints.

Talk to the Hand

The Rose Garden at the Queen Elizabeth Walled Garden at Dumfries House in Scotland. Van Cleef & Arpels is principal patron of The King’s Foundation Gardens and Estates.

After Bedales, Linley went on to study under John Makepeace, the British furniture designer, maker and founder of Parnham House School for Craftsmen in Wood.

In 1985 he established Linley, a furniture and home accessories brand. It was an unconventional move as royals never get involved in commerce, let alone work with their own hands or serve customers.

Although the famed British tabloids initially took their expected jabs, Linley’s brand quickly became known for its quality and renowned for marquetry, the 17th-century decorative technique featuring thin layers of different-colored woods.

He resigned from the board in 2022, and no longer works at the company. Nowadays he spends most of his time at Christie’s.

When he’s not there, or making furniture for friends, Linley can be found at the Snowdon summer school at Dumfries House, which has become a hive of training and conservation.

The house’s rose gardens are cared for by Van Cleef & Arpels, which last year was named principal patron of The King’s Foundation Gardens and Estates.

As part of the deal, the Richemont-owned jeweler is overseeing the flora at three properties tied to the king: Dumfries House; The Castle and Gardens of Mey in Caithness, and Highgrove Gardens in England.

Talk to the Hand

A student at the Snowdon summer school.

Keeping the Dumfries House schools and programs running is a another job that Linley has fully embraced.

He describes the house and its charitable activities as “sort of a little secret in Scotland, and it’s important to keep it going. We’re always raising funds for the next project,” supporting the creative minds, and hands, of the future.