Ernest Gimson who died on 11 August 1919 was described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the greatest of the English artist-craftsmen’. He made significant contributions as an architect, a maker of plasterwork and turned chairs, and a designer of embroideries and metalwork but is probably best known today for his furniture. So how do you mark the centenary of one of Britain’s greatest Arts and Crafts designers? The Gimson Celebration organized by Annette Carruthers with Hugo Burge and held at Marchmont House in the Scottish Borders in May was a perfect example of how to go about this. The first of several country-wide events planned for the next twelve months, it focused on the art, craft, and business of furniture design – looking back of course at Gimson’s illustrious career but also looking forward to the work of contemporary makers inspired by his work and ideals. As he wrote: ‘I never felt myself apart from our own times by harking back to the past – to be complete we must live in all the tenses – past, future as well as the present.’
The event brought together academics, curators, dealers, designers, makers, students and many passionate enthusiasts from all over Britain, all of whom found much to stimulate, inspire and enjoy in the course of the day. Gimson and Arts & Crafts furniture were the focus of the morning, beginning with a life in three parts – from Leicester to the Cotswolds via London – by Barley Roscoe, Annette Carruthers and Mary Greensted, the authors of the forthcoming book Ernest Gimson, Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect to be published by Yale University Press in October. The context for his career as a furniture designer was set by Max Donnelly, curator of furniture at the Victoria and Albert Museum with an in-depth visual tour of work by Gimson and his contemporaries in the museum’s collections. The historical part of the day concluded with three talks: the first looked at the significant support and patronage of Gimson’s family including two of his most interesting domestic projects, Inglewood in Leicester and Stoneywell in the Charnwood Forest outside the city. The nuts and bolts of his furniture making practice – Gimson’s relationships with his workforce and clients, and the importance of ecclesiastical commissions such as those for Roker Church in Sunderland – were described by Annette while I focused on the contributions of his friends and colleagues Ernest and Sidney Barnsley. The impact of Sidney’s designs for the Church of the Wisdom of God in Lower Kingswood, Surrey were significant while he also played a major role as Gimson’s executor in supervising the building of the stunning Memorial Library at Bedales School.
The afternoon was devoted to contemporary woodworkers including the local firm Charles Taylor Woodwork responsible for numerous functional but carefully designed and beautifully made pieces for Marchmont including trestle tables based on one of Gimson’s designs. Adrian McCurdy who makes cleft oak furniture and decorative carved panels nearby in Jedburgh is very much part of the living Arts & Crafts tradition through his father Alec, a fine furniture maker who trained with Edward Barnsley at Froxfield near Petersfield. Another contemporary maker Nicholas Hobbs introduced us to his work culminating in his impressive pieces he designed and made for St Hugh’s Chapel, Lincoln Cathedral in 2017 – furniture that is full of meaning yet intensely practical. One of the highlights for many of us was the intensely personal and moving short film The Chair Maker: Lawrence Neal produced by Hugo Burge. The last in line from Gimson’s chair-making enterprise, Lawrence is now being supported to train two apprentices who will carry on the craft in new workshops at Marchmont. Some of Lawrence’s chairs and those of his father are in the regular use at Bedales and a new addendum to the film was a series of interviews with ex-students who treasure their formative experiences studying in the school’s library including the furniture maker David Linley, the Earl of Snowdon.
And then, of course, there was the venue to luxuriate in. Marchmont House is an impressive Palladian mansion with a wing designed by Sir Robert Lorimer, the Scottish Arts and Crafts architect and a contemporary of Gimson who admired his work. The house is in a beautiful rural location near the town of Duns with extensive grounds seen possibly at their best in the spring sunshine we were blessed with. We were able to appreciate new projects including a fresco painter at work at a mural using the newly-unearthed Marchmont red. From our extremely comfortable bedrooms to the dining area we were surrounded by contemporary art and 19th-century to Arts & Crafts furniture from Pugin through to Gordon Russell. The official part to the day ended with an informal but hands-on look at some of these pieces.
Gimson’s main concern was the provision of useful and rewarding work for his craftsmen and from the lively discussions, we saw how handwork can still provide a worthwhile and rewarding occupation. Nicholas Hobbs’ thoughts have offered me a fitting conclusion:
‘Approximately one hundred years since the death of Ernest Gimson and just fifty years later on the 20th July 1969, man steps onto the Moon.
A sample of the moon rock collected on that mission made its way to labs at Sheffield University and into the hands of a Ph.D. student who had developed a new technique and was able to date the Moon rock faster than the team of NASA scientists.
As a result, he is now a renowned academic and has been, and continues to be, awarded many accolades for this single piece of work. One was in the form of a monetary prize with which he commissioned a dining table from me.
Each generation creates wealth by the advancement of technology and a part of this wealth via enlightened individuals is then used to support the crafts of the age.
Ernest Gimson received support from members of the family in the engineering business, I have received support as a result of the first Moon landing, the apprentices of Lawrence Neal are supported by Hugo Burge with the proceeds derived from digital technology.
And so we have a further rendition of the oft-quoted Gimson, past, present, future’.
As the London Times noted recently: ‘March 29, 2019 is etched in the minds of many. No, not as the date that was set for Britain to leave the EU, but the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sir Edwin Lutyens.‘ The young ‘Ned’ Lutyens’s father was a painter of horses and had him christened Edwin Landseer in honour of his hero, the artist Sir Edwin Landseer, beloved by Queen Victoria and later to be celebrated throughout the world as the painter of The Monarch of the Glen.
Ned Lutyens was precocious and a compulsive drawer. He set up his own architectural practice in 1888 at the age of nineteen, having already completed his studies at the South Kensington Schools and worked briefly for the practice of Ernest George and Peto. His first commission was a house in Surrey, at which time he met the renowned landscape gardener Gertrude Jeckyll, initiating a partnership that was to have an effect world-wide in regard to the relationship between building and nature, and we will see tangible proofs of this when we visit Le Bois des Mouitiers (1898) at Varengeville in June. A few years later he built Munstead Wood for Miss Jeckyll, a landmark in domestic architecture, and in 1904 the German writer and architectural critic, Hermann Muthesius, in his great work, Das Englische Haus, predicted that Lutyens, who was still only thirty five, would ‘soon become the accepted leader among English builders of houses.‘ He was not wrong!
Lutyens was the most inventive British architect since Sir Christopher Wren, as is borne out by the seldom seen La Maison des Communes, built on a triple-butterfly plan, which we will visit while we are in Varengeville. However, he was not just content to design and build houses. The imperial city of New Delhi, which he planned and created in an often uneasy partnership with Herbert Baker, is architecture on the grandest scale, and the gardens of the Viceregal (now the Presidential) Palace are yet another tribute to his collaboration with Miss Jeckyll. However his greatest work was still to come.
Towards the end of the war he was appointed one of the three principal architects to the Imperial War Graves Commission. Among the many monuments and memorials he was to design is the Monument to the Missing at Thiepval, which we will also visit in June. This stark monument is not only awe-inspiring in its complexity, it is also chilling in the respect it inspires for those tens-of-thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers, whose bodies were never found but whose names are here engraved in stone – ‘Their Name Liveth For Ever More’. This great monument , with its elaborate geometry, stands in stark contrast to his simplest – and possibly best known – memorial, the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall, the scene of the annual Service of Remembrance.
Join us in June in Normandy and Picardy when we can toast his memory once again, perhaps this time with a glass of the refreshing local cider, or even calvados.
This is a year of centenaries and celebrations. Any of you lucky enough to be in London before 22nd April should head straight for Two Temple Place, that extraordinary Gothic mansion beside the Thames, just along from the Savoy Hotel. Number Two was Waldorf Astor’s London office, purpose-built by John Loughborough Pearson, the architect of Truro Cathedral, in a style that can only be described as Fifth Avenue French Gothic. It is a treasure house in its own right, but it is also currently the venue of a splendid and wide ranging bi-centennial exhibition devoted to John Ruskin, who was born on 8th February 1819. Ruskin’s passions and obsessions are well covered both in his own work, the works he commissioned and also in the multi-varied items from his collections ranging from Turner watercolours to cases of minerals – mineralogy was a life-long passion – as well as drawings, photographs and plaster casts of decorative carvings from the great medieval cathedrals of Northern France..
It has been said of this visionary educator that whenever he wanted to learn about a subject he wrote a book, and his collected works in the standard Wedderburn edition fill thirty-eight weighty volumes. I have one by me now as I write which contains his Bible of Amiens: it is 2 1/4 inches thick and weighs 3 3/4 pounds, and is copiously illustrated with the photographs he commissioned to accompany his hundred and eighty page text, covering not only all the prophets and saints whose images bedizen the triple arches of the great West door, but also the elaborate choir-stalls. The Cathedral at Amiens will be one of the architectural highlights of our June tour, when we are lucky enough to have the Cathedral archivist as our guide.
Although we will be following in William Morris’s footsteps, Ruskin had already visited both Chartres and Rouen a couple of decades earlier, as had others of the great Gothic Revivalists, inspirers of the Arts and Crafts Movement, including Augustus Welby Pugin, who regarded the city as a ‘touchstone’, and William Burges.
2019 is also an anniversary year in the Morris calendar for two reasons: 1869 marks the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the completion of The Earthly Paradise, his best known literary work, and was also the year he took up the serious study of the Icelandic Sagas. A study that is reflected in the final sections of The Earthly Paradise which was part inspired by the “Volunda Saga”. Morris’s friend Magnus Magnússon not only taught him the ancient Norse language, but fed his appetite for the Icelandic legends, poetry and literature, but Normandy, too, was a Norse country, its people, including Duke William (William the Conqueror – King William I of England) were descendants of its original Viking settlers. It is this Norse heritage that has recently prompted the Museum at Rouen to purchase Walter Crane’s mural, The Skeleton in Armor. This vast mural in seven sections, inspired by Longfellow’s poem of the same name, was commissioned by Catharine Lorillard Wolfe in 1883 for her Summer residence, ‘Vinland Mansion’, at Newport, Rhode Island. Our group will be given privileged access to the conservators and conservation studios to see work in progress on its restoration. Duke William’s brother had his main castle, now a ruin, at Arques, just outside Dieppe, but more importantly for us as we progress it was along the coast here at Varengeville-sur-Mer that Edwin Lutyens built one of his earliest country houses, Le Bois des Moutiers for the Mallet family, who we will visit and dine with, and enjoy the world-renowned gardens, as well as visiting another little known Lutyens masterpiece.
Lutyens, along with fellow architects, Herbert Baker, Charles Holden and Walter Allward will dominate our last two days making us accutely aware of the imminence of yet another centenary. We will be visiting the monuments and war memorials at Thiepval, Delville Wood, Neuve Chapel and Vimy Ridge, just a week before the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28th June 1919, that signalled the official ending of the First World War. Lest we forget.
A new book titled Ernest Gimson: Arts and Crafts Designer and Architect written by Annette Carruthers, Mary Greensted and Barley Roscoe is being published by Yale University Press in October 2019.
Ernest Gimson has been described as ‘the greatest of the English artist-craftsmen’ (Pevsner 1960) and was a central figure in the British Arts and Crafts Movement. He died aged 54 on 12 August 1919 so it’s appropriate that this book will appear in his centenary year. Based on extensive new research from original sources, written by experienced authors and illustrated with many unpublished images and superb new photographs by James Brittain, it will fill a major gap in the field of Arts and Crafts studies and is expected to become the standard work on Gimson.
The book is divided into two sections: the first looks in detail at Gimson’s life, the development of his approach to his work, his contacts and his influences. Trained as an architect in his home town of Leicester, Gimson worked in London in the 1880s, joining the circle around William Morris and Philip Webb at the Art Workers’ Guild and in the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. In 1893 he moved with friends and fellow architects, Ernest and Sidney Barnsley, to live and work in a radically different way deep in the Cotswold countryside. There he practised as an architect, made modeled plasterwork and set up workshops for the production of furniture and metalwork, rapidly establishing a reputation for both his distinctive style of design and the superb quality of making by his assistants.
Gimson’s architectural projects, the making of furniture, metalwork and plasterwork, and his designs for the embroideries and bookbindings executed by his female relatives are described and analysed in detail in the second section. The final chapter discusses Gimson’s influence in Britain and overseas and his continuing relevance to debates about the role of craft in the modern world.
Finally a list of Gimson’s major works brings together newly researched and existing information.
We would love to have you join us and share our enthusiasm for this history – and the continuation – of this extraordinary Movement and group of architects, designers, philosophers and urban planners. For more information, visit the official Gimson and the Barnsleys tour page and join us on this wonderful tour
The Arts and Crafts Movement was a deeply serious philosophical, practical and committed response to the industrialization of England, its ‘green and pleasant land’ in danger of being blackened by the ever burgeoning factories and the movement of the rural population to the sprawling, insanitary slums surrounding the industrial cities, epitomized by Charles Dickens’s Coketown in Hard Times. Nonetheless William Morris and his friends still found time to enjoy friendship and the joys of life, and perhaps never more so than around Christmas.
Indeed, the Art Workers’ Guild of which he was Master in 1892, has a long tradition of mounting Revels and other such communal expressions of enjoyment. The most famous of these is Beauty’s Awakening, which was performed in London’s Guild Hall in 1899 with most of the great names – Ashbee, Walter Crane, Christopher Whall, Harrison Townsend, etc – either taking part or contributing to the script, with music specially arranged and performed by Arnold Dolmetsch.
Alan Crawford in his great monograph on Ashbee describes Beauty’s Awakening thus: ‘This curious extravaganza had started in a small way, at a meeting of the Art Workers Guild on ‘Masques and Pageants’ in April 1897; but it grew, slowly at first, and then uncontrollably. The architects, painters, sculptors and craftsmen of the guild versified, argued, rehearsed and argued again; lavished disproportionate care on the stage and its furniture; drove their womenfolk to extraordinary lengths of patient needlework; and produced a gorgeous and ephemeral spectacle, the event of the Arts and Crafts Movement, a demonstration of its various talents and of its blessed irrelevance. Somehow the time was ripe. It was to be formal, like the old masques, design, pageantry, allegory, but not an antiquarian revival, for there was a symbolic and processional strain in the Arts and Crafts which found a welcome expression in the masque: it was as if their allegorical figures had stepped out of the picture frames, down from the sculpted friezes, and now enjoyed the extra freedom of verse, music and dance. And, being the Arts and Crafts, it was didactic, an allegory of London and the artists’ hope for their city, touching and specific.’
The masque nearly bankrupted the Guild and nothing as ambitious has ever been performed again, but a few years ago, when Glynn Boyd-Hart was Master, we had a glorious pantomime with costumes by Brother Madeleine Dinkel, and a splendid performance by a yodeling cow!
The spirit of irreverence lives on and long may it continue to do so, and not just at Christmas. Ashbee recalled one occasion when the Guild was expecting a lecture from William Morris he read them a chapter of Brer Rabbit instead!
Fiona MacCarthy in William Morris: A Life for Our Time, describes Morris recalling nostalgically the poplar meadows and little villages of the Somme as well as the long straight roads of Picardy seemingly stretching into eternity: “Those long straight roads of Northern France”, she wrote, “remained in Morris’s mind as they would remain in the memories of the English veterans of the First World War.”
The Road from Arras to Bapaume
Elaine and I recently traveled many of these same roads, which neither Morris nor the British troops would have difficulty in recognizing today, as the landscape is little changed, apart from the implantation of the now ubiquitous wind farms, and the chilling number of cemeteries and memorials to the British and Commonwealth war dead. As we drove through this wide open flat landscape two images kept coming into my mind; Harry Lauder’s poignant ‘Keep right on to the end of the road‘, adopted by the British troops as one of their popular marching songs, and C.R.W. Nevinson’s haunting (and daunting) 1918 lithograph The Road from Arras to Bapaume. It was, of course, the memorials that drew us to Picardy and Flanders, but given the pounding this area of Northern France suffered during two World Wars it was surprising to find that anything of antiquity still endures.
Following our stay in the lush Norman countryside our base for the last two days will be Arras, a remarkable city with two great cobbled squares – the Grand Place and the Place des Heros. The architecture of which – as indeed the cuisine – reminds us that we are now unmistakably in old Flanders, its towns and cities only ceded to France in the early eighteenth century. In June we will have unrestricted access to these squares and will be able to walk freely around, a pleasure denied to us because, true to their roots, the locals were busy setting up the round-a-bouts, hurdey-gurdies, and other trappings of a typical Flemish Christmas Fair.
In 1917, well before the end of the war, the British Government had the foresight to set up the Imperial War Graves Commission under the chairmanship of Sir Frederick Kenyon, paleontologist, biblical scholar and Director of the British Museum. In January 1918, Kenyon published his prescient and authoritative report: ‘War Graves: How the Cemeteries Abroad Will be Designed’, which established the architectural and administrative framework for the design of all the British and Commonwealth cemeteries.
Lutyens, Herbert Baker and Reginald Blomfield were appointed by the Commission as the Principal Architects, and Arthur Hill, from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was appointed to devise the simple, sustainable and dignified planting of trees and shrubs. Despite these guidelines the architects’ job was no easy one as the combatants, to be memorialized side by side, were of all religions and none; their gravestones simply carved with their names in the Roman typeface specially designed by Macdonald Gill, brother of the better known Eric Gill, and along with their regimental badges. Lutyens designed the altar-like, but non-denominational, War Stone inscribed simply ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’, which was placed at the heart of all the cemeteries, often in conjunction with Blomfield’s equally dignified non-denominational cross. Between them they give an overall unity to otherwise diverse designs.
le Maison des Communes.
In my last blog I described Lutyens’s late nineteenth-century domestic architecture at Varengeville-sur-Mer, and his inventiveness and playfulness with architectural forms, especially the triple-butterfly plan for le Maison des Communes. Here on the battle fields of the Somme, faced with the realities of mass slaughter, a hardness entered into his architectural vocabulary. His delight in the effect of contrasting architectural forms is still evident, but coupled now with a sense of grimness: his playfulness overlayed by a rigid austerity, emphasized further, in a number of instances, by the close proximity of serried ranks of identical gravestones.
Our June tour is devised primarily as an Arts and Crafts tour in the footsteps of William Morris and Lutyens, rather than a tour of the many cemeteries and memorials on the Western Front, so for these two days we have been ruthless in selecting those we will visit. These will include the four grandest – Lutyens’s Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval and his Australian Memorial at Villers Bretonneux, Herbert Baker’s Delville Wood (also Australian) and Walter Allward’s Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge.
We will also visit Lutyens’s Daours Communal Cemetery Extension, which, in its modesty and human scale, reflects more closely his earlier Arts and Crafts ideals, which are also evident in Charles Holden’s nearby Corbie Military Cemetery. Herbert Baker, architect of imperial buildings in South Africa and Lutyens’s nemesis at New Delhi, exemplifies in his work that period progression from Arts and Crafts to stripped-down classicism and in addition to Delville Wood, we will visit his Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle which, in the diversity of its decoration, shows the eclecticism of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Walter Allward’s dramatic Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge is all together more starkly modernist, rising out of, and dominating, the landscape like some great pharaohnic obelisk. We were lucky enough to see it in the cold clear light of a setting November sun and, although the June days will be long, we will save this for the final experience on our last evening.