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Benson, W. A. S. (1854-1924)

Benson, W. A. S.

London; furniture designer and metalwork designer and manufacturer (b.1854-d.1924)

Benson learned his skills working on a lathe as a child. He was educated at Winchester and Oxford before serving an architectural apprentice at Basil Champneys where he remained until 1880. Through Edward Burne-Jones he met William Morris, who possibly was the inspiration behind the opening of his metal workshop, Benson & Co., in 1880.

By 1883 he ran a large factory, The Eyot Works, Hammersmith, and from 1887-c.1900 ran a retail outlet at 82-83 New Bond Street. He issued regular fully-illustrated catalogues and played a leading role in the formation of the Art Workers’ Guild, The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society and in 1914 the Design and Industries Association. He embraced the use of machinery in manufacture and was particularly renowned for his lighting, some of which was retailed through Sigfried (Samuel) Bing’s Maison de l’Art in Paris. Richard Llewellyn Benson Rathbone (c.1864-1939), a relative, was trained in metalwork design and manufacture by Benson.   

Most of Benson’s furniture designs were made and retailed by Morris & Co. He became a director of Morris & Co. in 1896 and then chairman in 1905. His furniture designs for Morris & Co. included metal-mounted rosewood cabinets and seats incorporating a sinuous line, for example a cabinet now in the Victoria & Albert Museum (Circ.19-1959). Benson’s firm also produced furniture designs for J. S. Henry, Coalbrookdale, Shapland & Petter, and Falkirk iron foundries. An oak dresser, designed by Benson for use at his own home in Manorbier, Pembrokeshire, was offered for sale at Christie's, South Kensington, 1 July 2004 (lot 83).

For examples of Benson’s light fittings see those in the Albert Dawson Collection (illus. Hamnett(2016) pp. 98, 102 & 107) and at the V&A. He designed and supplied floral-shaped electric ceiling lights for Standen, Sussex, and for the gallery of Constantine Ionides’s home at 23 Second Avenue, Hove. In 1883, with Burne-Jones, Benson designed a piano for Alexander Ionides at 1 Holland Park. Metal furniture by Benson includes the table of copper and iron, formerly part of the Handley-Read Collection and now at the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford (HAGM: M245).

In 1914 Benson founded the Design and Industries Association and in 1920 his firm was bought by Allen-Liversedge, a lighting company.

Benson’s obituary in the Times, 9 July 1924 stated: ‘In fact Benson metalwork was almost an inevitable feature of Morris decoration, and so to a smaller extent was Benson furniture, conceived on rather severe constructional lines, like the Philip Webb furniture, but always charming. He was one of the first and foremost devotees of green stained ash’.

Details and illustrations of his furniture designs are covered in Mark Golding’s chapter, ‘The Furniture and Interior Designs of W A S Benson’ in W A S Benson, Arts and Crafts Luminary and Pioneer of Modern Design (2005) pp. 154-179). Only one example of Benson’s own wood furniture manufacture is currently known to exist, a large mahogany sideboard (illus. Hamerton (2005) p. 156). Other furniture designs included a coffee table in lime-tree, sycamore, cherry and walnut woods, made by C. Rand and shown at the 1916 Arts and Crafts Exhibition at Burlington House.

Sources: Agius, British Furniture 1880-1915 (1978); Gere & Whiteway, Nineteenth-Century Design.  From Pugin to Mackintosh (1993); Rose, ‘It Must Be Done Now: The Arts and Crafts Exhibition at Burlington House, 1916, The Decorative Arts Society 1850 to the Present (1993); Harvey and Press, ‘The Ionides Family and 1 Holland Park’, The Decorative Arts Society 1850 to the Present (1994);  Hamerton, W A S Benson, Arts and Crafts Luminary and Pioneer of Modern Design (2005); Evans & Vandenbrouck, ‘A Collection as a Man of Taste would wish to live with: Constantine Ionides at Home’, The Decorative Arts Society 1850 to the Present (2012); Cargin, ‘An Introduction to the Birkenhead Collection’,  The Decorative Arts Society 1850 to the Present (2012);  Hamnett, ‘The Albert Dawson Collection: A Handley-Read Legacy’; The Decorative Arts Society 1850 to the Present (2016); Wallis, R, ‘A Hand-List of the Handley-Read Collection’, The Decorative Arts Society 1850 to the Present (2016).