Skip to main content

Barnsley, Ernest (1863-1926)

Barnsley, Ernest

Birmingham, Pinbury & Sapperton, Gloucestershire; architect, furniture designer and maker (b.1863-d.1926)

Arthur Ernest Barnsley (known for most of his life as Ernest Barnsley) was an architect-designer and a craftsman who enjoyed life. He was outgoing, hospitable and loved buying and preparing the best foods. He was a good if easy-going businessman who took on only as many projects as he could comfortably cope with. Woodworking remained a constant element throughout his life although the dispersal of objects and archive material has meant that his contribution to the craft is often underplayed.

He was the sixth child and third son of Edward Barnsley who with his brother, Thomas, ran John Barnsley & Sons, the largest and most successful building firm in Birmingham, established by their father. The two brothers and their families were very close, living next door to each other in the pleasant Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston. Ernest Barnsley’s father fitted out a workshop for the family and all the children were encouraged to work with their hands. They regularly attended the nearby Wesleyan Islington Chapel although, as an adult, Ernest did not share that sect’s strong work ethic which seems to have shaped the careers of his siblings, especially his younger brother Sidney.

The Barnsley children were financially secure as their grandfather, who died in 1876, left his considerable fortune to be divided between his fourteen grandchildren. Ernest’s two elder brothers were intended for the family business while Ernest decided to pursue a career in architecture and from 1879 was articled to the young architect Joseph L. Ball, the husband of his cousin Edith. He moved to London early in 1885, attaching himself briefly to the architect W. H. Seth-Smith before moving to the more prestigious office of John D. Sedding. His younger brother Sidney followed him to London later that year, working for Richard Norman Shaw. The siblings thus formed an important link between the young architects in the two most important architectural offices of the day. Ernest Gimson, with whom the brothers are closely associated, joined Sedding’s office in the spring of 1886.

Early in 1887 Ernest Barnsley set off on a study tour in Italy and France with Gimson and by that summer he had left Sedding’s, returned to Birmingham and set up his own architectural practice in Temple Row in the city centre. He married Alice Townsley and their first child was born the following year in 1888. They lived near his siblings in Edgbaston who provided him with occasional commissions including a house at 320 Hagley Road (now demolished) for his eldest brother, Charles. Business was slow, however, and Barnsley decided to build a home for his new family near the village of Barnt Green in the Lickey Hills, Worcestershire.

Towards the end of 1893 Ernest Barnsley was persuaded by his brother Sidney and Ernest Gimson to join their proposed craft community in the south Cotswolds and to progress their negotiations with the Bathurst Estate for a permanent base at Pinbury Park, near Sapperton. Much to his wife’s disappointment, the new cottage in Barnt Green was sold and the family moved to temporary accommodation in Gray’s Inn, London. The largely Elizabethan Pinbury Park had been the seat of the Atkyns family before becoming a farm under the Bathursts and the house had been left to fall into disrepair. Barnsley’s architectural experience no doubt assisted in the negotiation of a repairing lease of £75 per annum and he took charge of the necessary repairs and alterations to the house and garden. He and Alice moved into the main house with their two daughters and the three men shared a workshop in one of the outbuildings.

Alongside his brother Sidney, Ernest started making furniture at Pinbury. His oak music chest and work box, which appears in the 1895 workshop photo and was shown at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition in London in 1896 (cat. no. 203), is a sophisticated piece of work with dovetails providing the open construction (illus. Carruthers and Greensted, p. 31). Herringbone stringing in dark and light wood flush to the surface is the only decorative element, recalling the tables by Sidney Barnsley for Kenton & Co., in 1892. The lid of upper part was designed as half a hexagon, the lower part includes two panelled doors. For many years it was stated that the Barnsleys only learnt to produce panelled pieces following the arrival of Peter Waals as foreman-cabinet maker at the Cirencester workshop in 1901, but examples survive of panelled work by both men at Pinbury. The current whereabouts of this music chest and workbox are unfortunately unknown. 

A. Ernest Barnsley was also recorded as the maker of a toy stand shown at the Arts & Crafts Exhibition, 1916 (cat. no. 495); this was displayed with figures lent by May Morris and exhibited by Norman Jewson. At the same exhibition four painted chairs designed and made Ernest, decorated by Jewson and exhibited in a bedroom arranged by Archibald H. and Mrs Christie (cat. no. 323j.). His work as a furniture designer and architect was shown at the Arts & Crafts Exhibitions 1903 and 1906; the catalogues sometimes incorrectly recorded him as N. E. Barsnsley [Arts & Crafts Exhibition catalogues, 1896, 1903, 1906 and 1916].

In 1898-99 Sydney Gimson, Ernest Gimson’s older brother, bought some pieces from Ernest Barnsley for his newly-built summer cottage, Stoneywell, in Leicester’s Charnwood Forest. This monumental settle in oak with a high curved back was a version of pieces that he would have seen in cottages and inns made locally throughout England.  It was intended for its traditional purpose – as a draught excluder in the kitchen, placed at right angles between the fire and the front door. It is now in Leicester Museum and Art Gallery

He also made two tall cupboards, one for Stoneywell now at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum (cat. no. 2003.174) and one for his own use and now in the V&A [W.39:1, 2-1977].

V&A [W.39:1, 2-1977]
Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Oak wardrobe designed by Ernest Barnsley, 1902 [W.39:1, 2-1977]. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Three pieces, boldly constructed from vertical boards of oak, clearly follow William Morris’s dictum from ‘The Lesser Arts of Life’: ‘I think that, except for very moveable things like chairs, [furniture] should not be so very light as to be nearly imponderable; it should be made of timber rather than walking sticks’. Both cupboards have open joinery in the form of exposed dovetails and through tenons. The only decorative details are lines of gouged and chip-carved patterns along the externally-expressed horizontal structural elements. These are somewhat reminiscent of decoration on traditional Scandinavian furniture.

Barnsley was involved in architectural work for the Bathurst Estate until about 1906, but in 1901 he and Gimson decided to go into partnership together to design furniture. Their motivation may have been inspired by Sidney Barnsley’s commitment to the craft and the resulting interest in his work. Neither man was interested in spending his days working at a bench so the decision was taken to start a second workshop and employ cabinet makers. Initially they rented a small workshop with just three benches in the yard of the Fleece Hotel in Cirencester and employed a foreman, Pieter van der Waals (commonly known as Peter Waals), an experienced cabinet maker originally from the Netherlands. Early in 1902 they moved to larger premises, Daneway House, also part of the Bathurst Estate, which they had rent-free for 15 years in return for giving up their lease to Pinbury Park. Sidney Barnsley detailed the new arrangements in a letter to Philip Webb dated July 1902: ‘My brother & Gimson have already started workshops at Daneway having 4 or 5 Cabinetmakers and boys so far – with the hopes of Chair makers & modellers &c in the near future’. There are six drawings at Cheltenham signed ‘B & G’ and dated between May and October 1902. Although the drawings appear to be in Gimson’s hand, the designs – in oak and mainly four-square pieces with prominent chamfered decoration – suggest Barnsley’s contribution. At the Arts & Crafts Exhibition in 1903 Barnsley exhibited a heavily chamfered oak chest of drawers (cat. no. 361 and illus. Comino (1980), p.107) to his design and made by H. Pugsley, one of the first cabinetmakers employed after the arrival of Waals although he stayed only for about a year.

The partnership between Barnsley and Gimson was, however, short-lived and had ended by February 1903. Barnsley was under pressure because of his architectural commitments for the Bathurst Estate and the temperamental differences between him and Gimson seem to have caused a breach, possibly enflamed by a clash of personalities between their wives. The Daneway workshops became Gimson’s sole responsibility while Barnsley pursued his architectural work, including the building of his new home, Upper Dorval House, in Sapperton.

Architecture became Barnsley’s main concern. Probably through the Bathursts he was introduced to Claud and Margaret Biddulph who commissioned him to design and build a substantial country house on their estate at Rodmarton, between the towns of Cirencester and Tetbury. Barnsley worked on Rodmarton Manor from 1909 to 1926. As well as providing a country home, both he and the clients wanted the building to serve as a focal point for the community. It was seen as a way of supporting traditional crafts and the rural social order, and providing training and employment for local people. Workshops were set up on site including a substantial woodworking shop under the foremanship of a local man, Alfred Wright, for the Manor and its furnishing. Barnsley’s enthusiasm for woodworking can be seen in some of the detailing of the building; the risers and handrails on the main oak staircase are all chip-carved, as are the ceiling beams in the chapel. He also designed – and possibly made – furniture for the house including a number of chests and tables although the Biddulphs did buy examples after his and his widow’s death. He spent a considerable amount of time in the workshops and must have inspired Wright and his men as, under his initial direction, they produced everyday pieces such as chests, small tables and cupboards very much in the Barnsley idiom through the 1920s and ‘30s. These pieces sit quite happily alongside furniture by both Barnsley brothers, Peter Waals and others.

Ernest Barnsley continued to execute pieces in wood throughout his life. He designed and made a sophisticated fall-front desk in walnut with holly and ebony for his friend, the printer and co-founder of the Doves Press, Emery Walker in about 1905-10. This piece is still at the Emery Walker House, 7 Hammersmith Terrace, Hammersmith in London (inv. no. 00165). He also made a number of pieces primarily for his own pleasure. These included a simple rocking horse for the Biddulph children at Rodmarton Manor and several pieces made with Norman Jewson who came to Sapperton in 1907 and worked for Gimson as an architectural assistant. He married Barnsley’s eldest daughter, Mary, in 1913. The 1916 Arts & Crafts Exhibition included a toy stand designed by Jewson and made by Barnsley (cat. no. 495) and four chairs designed and made by Barnsley and painted by Jewson (cat. no. 423j).

Barnsley died in January 1926 and is buried in the churchyard at Sapperton. His brother Sidney designed his coffin and it was made by the craftsmen at Rodmarton Manor, working overnight to complete it. Barnsley had regarded the team at Rodmarton as his craftsmen and the feeling was very much reciprocated.

Apparently all Barnsley’s designs were burnt by Jewson, together with many of his own drawings in the 1960s. The absence of archive material, apart from the few drawings in Gimson’s hand at Cheltenham and architectural drawings at Rodmarton, has had an impact on our knowledge of Barnsley’s work as both a furniture maker and architect, although Rodmarton Manor remains as a powerful reminder of his vision and capabilities and an expression of the Arts and Crafts ideal. A visit to the house is an overwhelming and inspiring experience.

Ernest and Alice Barnsley had four children, Mary and Ethel, who were born before the move to Pinbury, Harold who was born in about 1894 and emigrated to South Africa as a youth, and another daughter, Elizabeth, who died young. None of the children had much interest in their father’s work.

By Mary Greensted

Addendum – information from a descendant of A. Ernest Barnsley (June 2024)

The three children of Arthur Harold (d. 1968) and his wife, Alicia (née) Moriarty (d. 1933), were John Ernest, Elizabeth, and Rachel.  Their father abandoned the family for a local lady and they were consequently brought up by their grandmother (the widow of Arthur Ernest), their aunt Ethel, and other members of their maternal family. Elizabeth did not die in her youth but lived her life in South Africa with her husband.

A chest containing Arthur Ernest’s architectural drawings was located in the early 1960s in the hallway of their home, Upper Dorval House. Ethel and Elizabeth (Betty) lived in the house until 1966 when it was handed back to the landlord, Earl Bathurst. At this date the house was cleared and the contents sold; the family would have been responsible for this and the disposal of other unwanted objects.

Ernest’s drawings are not known to have been in the contents of family members’ future homes. The photographs and scrapbook of Norman Jewson (d. 1975), who had been married to Mary (Arthur Ernest’s eldest daughter), were donated to the Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum (now The Wilson).

For a full list of objects made or designed by Barnsley which were exhibited in the Arts & Crafts Exhibitions, London, 1888-1916, click here.

Sources: Comino, “Good Citizen’s Furniture”: The work of Ernest and Sidney Barnsley (1976); Carruthers, Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen (1978, 2007); Comino, Gimson and the Barnsleys: ‘Wonderful furniture of a commonplace kind’ (1980, 1991); Carruthers & Greensted (eds), Good Citizen’s Furniture: The Arts and Crafts Collections at Cheltenham (1994); McGrath, ‘Sidney Barnsley, a quintessential Arts and Crafts architect and craftsman’, in Originality and Initiative, Greensted and Wilson (eds), 2003; Crawford, ‘Barnsley Family’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004; Biddulph, Rodmarton Manor, 2012; Carruthers, Greensted, & Roscoe, Ernest Gimson: Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect (2019); Revised 31/01/2024 with information from Arts & Crafts Exhibition catalogues.