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Gimson, Ernest (1864-1919)

Gimson, Ernest

Leicester, London, Pinbury & Sapperton, Gloucestershire; architect, chair maker, furniture designer and workshop owner (b.1864-d.1919)

Over a period of more than thirty years - from 1885 to 1919 - Ernest Gimson developed his early student interest in furniture to become a practised maker of turned rush-seated chairs and from 1903 the owner of a business employing around ten cabinet makers. As early as 1907 Lewis F. Day, himself a furniture designer, claimed that Gimson’s cabinet work was ‘as well made as that of Chippendale, and for the most part better designed’, and by 1916 Gimson was hailed as ‘the presiding genius’ and ‘high priest’ of Arts & Crafts furniture.

Gimson’s first interest in this field arose during his architectural apprenticeship in his native Leicester. The son of Josiah Gimson, who had established a successful engineering company, Ernest Gimson was articled to Isaac Barradale in 1884 and also attended classes at the local School of Art. As part of the South Kensington National Training Course he submitted drawings to the National Competition, including some for drawing-room furniture. Sadly these appear to have been lost. They gained him a silver prize medal but also, rather surprisingly, the comment that they were ‘based on an illogical, fantastical, unfruitful and embarrassing style’. Described elsewhere as in ‘a refined kind of Chippendale style’, they presumably reflected the teaching of the course and late-Victorian interest in the ‘golden age’ of the eighteenth century.

In 1886 Gimson moved to London to the architectural office of John Dando Sedding and during the seven years he spent based in the capital he made numerous designs that were executed by professional cabinet makers. The first known were two overmantels made for his older brother Sydney and for Sidney Perkins Pick, a fellow architect, by a Leicester maker, William Henry Noble. When Sydney Gimson moved house in 1889, Ernest proposed a new fire surround to improve the existing one and was commissioned to design a sofa and easy chair. These are well documented in illustrated letters which work through questions of ergonomics, cost and style, which was initially based on Regency curves. The final idea was very simple in comparison with his first sketches but is of particular interest because Gimson produced very little upholstered furniture later. Despite his suggestion that his brother could buy something cheaper and more comfortable from Morris & Company, these pieces appear to have been executed, probably by Augustus Henry Mason, a London cabinet maker who worked for several Arts & Crafts designers at this time, including Gimson’s friend William Richard Lethaby. Mason later made a writing cabinet submitted by Gimson to the 1890 Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society show (hereafter A&CES), the catalogue of which credited Mason along with C. Smith and J. Beaner who were presumably his employees. Of simple rectangular form with an inlaid roundel of a stylised tree, it was much less historicist in design than the earlier pieces, although at the same exhibition Gimson also showed a traditional Windsor-type armchair, made by a J. Britnell who may have been based in High Wycombe.

Prior to this Gimson had discussed with Lethaby, Detmar Blow and Sidney Barnsley, the idea of setting up a small firm to produce furniture, plasterwork and embroideries and to share workshops and living accommodation. Blow dropped out but the others got together with two more architects, Reginald Blomfield and Mervyn Macartney, who were aiming to improve the standard of furniture at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society which had held its first exhibition in 1888. These five formed Kenton & Company, along with Colonel Harold Malet, a sleeping partner who ‘had taste and knew people’ and Stephen Webb, an established designer of plasterwork and elaborate intarsia decoration but a short-lived member of the group. The firm was set up as a Limited Company and was officially in existence only from February 1891 to May 1892. A workshop was rented in Brownlow Mews near Gray’s Inn Road and several cabinet makers were engaged. Their names are known from A&CES catalogues and the practice of stamping finished pieces with the initials of the designer and the maker’s name: Bellamy, Bowen, Hall, Thorn and Urand are recorded and it has been suggested that Mason was also involved, though this is less certain. Each partner made his own designs, chose the materials and liaised with the maker. Some pieces by Sidney Barnsley bear only his stamp with the Kenton & Co. mark and it seems most likely that he made these himself, but the known Gimson designs all have a cabinet maker’s name attached. An early publicity flier stated that the object of Kenton & Co. was ‘to supply furniture of good design and the best workmanship’ under the personal supervision of the members. In this respect it was similar in its ambitions to the Century Guild and the earlier work of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Press reports also suggested that they aimed to have everything made entirely by hand, a scheme considered unrealistic at a time when there was already fierce competition from other ‘art furniture’ makers.

Kenton & Company held two exhibitions in the Art Workers’ Guild premises at Barnard’s Inn in 1891. The first was probably a small private display for Guild members but the second, in December, was more substantial and is recorded in a set of about twenty photographs. Gimson’s contributions included a plain oak sideboard with chamfered detailing and handmade ring handles, dining chairs with wavy back rails and two highly decorated cabinets on stands. The simpler of the two – bought by the architect and textile designer Allan Vigers and now in the V&A [Circ.404:1 to 4-1964] – was a version of the one shown at the 1890 ACES.

Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cabinet on stand designed by Ernest Gimson for Kenton & Co, 1891 [CIRC.404:1 to 4-1964]. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The more complex was in ebony with an extensive interlocking marquetry pattern derived from Gimson’s drawings of 13th-century mural paintings in a church in Berkeley, Gloucestershire. This piece is now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris [OAO 457]. It has handmade silver handles and unusual circular trays between the leg rails. Reviews of the display also mentioned Gimson’s ‘kitchen chairs’, raising the question of whether the turned chair seen in the background of one photograph was made by him. At some point between 1890 and 1893 Gimson went to the workshop of Philip Clissett, a chair maker in Bosbury, Herefordshire, who supplied chairs to the Guild, having been ‘discovered’ by the Scottish architect James MacLaren. Accounts differ on how long Gimson spent with Clissett but he learned to make turned rush-seated chairs and showed one at the 1893 A&CES exhibition, by which time he had moved to the Cotswolds.

Kenton & Company’s exhibition made sales of £700 and was well reviewed, though the prices drew some criticism; but the partners required more capital and appear not to have considered appealing for backers. They were also trying to build architectural practices and were perhaps put off from developing the firm by the RIBA’s disapproval of architects engaging in any business that might lead to a conflict of interests. Gimson and Sidney Barnsley were also increasingly keen to practise some crafts themselves and it is said they were advised by William Morris that if they were serious they should go to the country and get on with it.

In early 1893 Gimson and Sidney Barnsley based themselves near Cirencester and found a suitable property to rent at Pinbury Park, where they were joined by Ernest Barnsley and his family. The three men shared a workshop where the Barnsleys made furniture in solid English oak with chamfered and inlaid decoration and Gimson set up a pole lathe to make chairs. The spindle-backed rocking chair he showed at the A&CES in 1893 was a best seller at £1 and his 24 orders for repeats would have kept him busy for about six months.

Gimson was also working on a series of houses and cottages for friends and family in Leicester and Leicestershire and appears to have designed little furniture apart from chairs between 1893 and 1901, though he exhibited at the 1899 A&CES a mahogany chair made by A. H. Mason and an inlaid oak box executed to Gimson’s design by Sidney Barnsley. In 1901, however, Gimson and Ernest Barnsley went into partnership together, employing cabinet makers to make their designs, initially in a workshop in Cirencester and then at Daneway House, just below the village of Sapperton. Curiously, the six surviving drawings by Gimson signed ‘B&G’, and therefore definitely from this partnership, are all dated 1902, but there are also several from the previous year for a very different type of piece. The B&G works were made in English oak with heavy chamfering and lattice patterns derived from farm wagons, while the 1901 designs were for veneered cabinets in mahogany, ebony or walnut with decoration of marquetry or gilded gesso. Barnsley’s drawings were later destroyed and it is difficult to assess his contribution to the business, but it appears that they may have had different ideas about the kind of work they would produce.

This diverse range was possible because they had recruited a highly skilled and experienced young cabinet maker as foreman. Pieter van der Waals (aka Peter Waals) was a Dutchman who had worked in The Hague, Brussels, Berlin and Vienna and whom Gimson had encountered in London. He also took on other experienced men, including Harry Davoll, who had been with Waring & Gillow in Liverpool, and Percy Burchett. From the beginning, boys recruited locally were trained as apprentices.

The partnership with Ernest Barnsley soon broke up and Gimson took sole control of the workshops from early 1903. Around this date he also organised the chair making on a different basis since he no longer had time to do it himself. He approached Edward Gardiner, the local sawmill owner, about putting a lathe in his mill and Gardiner suggested his son, also Edward, would have a go at turning. When it became clear that young Gardiner was quick to learn and enjoyed the challenge they came to an arrangement that Gimson would supply the designs and the profits would be divided between him, Gardiner and the workshop account. Numerous paper designs by Gimson survive to show the development of this enterprise and the introduction of new patterns for particular projects, such as village halls, churches or club rooms. Gardiner also took on apprentices and continued with Gimson’s encouragement even after he moved to Warwickshire in 1913.

A little before he established the chair business Gimson set up a blacksmith’s shop in Sapperton village under another local man, Alfred Bucknell. The immediate impetus was the need for architectural fittings such as hinges and bolts, but Bucknell and the other smiths, Fred Messenger and Stephen Mustoe, were soon making handles and latches for furniture as well. Gimson and Sidney Barnsley are reputed to have made (or at least decorated) their own handles in the beginning and Gimson commissioned some special ones from J. Paul Cooper, a Leicester friend who had also joined the Sedding office and became a skilled silversmith. But from 1903 Gimson was able to design fittings in brass or steel which could be repeated or varied and which add an important quality of individuality to his furniture. Wooden handles were also often used, including a sinuous vertical type that drew adverse comment from critics but do not become grubby as predicted in normal use and fit nicely to the fingers. The quality of making of the furniture was so good that drawers glide smoothly and easily without the need for much handling. Other metal fittings such as locks and small hinges were usually supplied by Hobbs & Company.

Gimson combined his work as a furniture designer with his architectural career, making drawings in his office at home and visiting the workshop twice a week or so to check on progress and discuss any queries with the craftsmen. Waals took day-to-day control, selecting the timbers, allocating the work and supervising the apprentices. Gimson’s designs were in 1/8th scale, often with details at 1/4 or full-scale, but were not very prescriptive and left much to the initiative of the makers. This was evidently a source of some pride when they were interviewed later: Ernest Smith, for instance, remembered some spiral turning that he believed neither Gimson nor Waals knew how to make but which he had worked out for himself to everyone’s satisfaction.

Through Gimson’s friends and contacts in the architectural circles of the Art Workers’ Guild and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) the workshop attracted a range of projects on different scales, including substantial schemes of woodwork for churches, institutions and large houses, as well as individual items of domestic and ecclesiastical furniture. Little is known about the layout of the premises but it appears there was a separate space for large-scale joinery as well as the usual cabinet makers’ shop for the smaller work. It was Gimson’s view that the makers derived more pleasure from working in the traditional ways and also that they enjoyed the variety when turning from a big architectural project to the making of an inlaid box. A hand-and-foot-powered circular saw was in use but there were no powered machine tools and it is likely that any trees bought locally were cut into planks at the Daneway sawmill. A receipted bill of 1917 in the Gimson collection at the Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum [VC2] shows that he also bought from Samuel Westlake & Sons, Foreign Wood & Veneer Merchants in London.  

Small items were generally made by one man but the surviving job book shows that if something was required quickly it could involve everybody available. Larger pieces were often a joint effort and some commissions, such as a war memorial screen for the church at Crockham Hill in Kent in 1919, needed everyone in the workshop. The job book also shows the type of simple piece made by apprentices, such as towel rails and small tables, while the most complex items were executed by one of the older men or by Waals, who was particularly skilled with veneers. Gimson did not make furniture himself, apart from the early turned chairs, but was said to have had a very good understanding of the materials and processes. English oak was the most-used timber for domestic and church work, always in the solid, preferably left from the plane and simply waxed or occasionally stained black or limed. Heavy dressers, sideboards, settles, chests of drawers and tables in traditional forms were the most produced pieces. In some conservation projects for the SPAB, new woodwork was combined with fragments of old fittings to save them from redundancy and this became something of a speciality for Gimson when working with Arthur Grove or William Weir on historic churches.

Walnut was also mainly used as solid timber – often in combination with ebony or Macassar ebony – with fielded panels showing off carefully chosen figuring and revealed dovetails and tenons that highlighted the skills of the makers. In many of these pieces – cabinets, desks, chests and sideboards – the forms were very severe and most of the interest is in the handling of the timber and placing of the metal fittings. Smaller items such as boxes and letter cabinets were made with unusual materials, such as coconut shell and bone, or more traditional luxury ones, including mother-of-pearl, ivory and silver. Occasionally painted decoration was added by Alfred and Louise Powell or modelled gesso by Gimson himself. Figured walnut, mahogany and other cabinet making favourites were also employed as veneers – often in book-matched panels to display the patterning – and corners and edges were emphasised with inlays of chequered holly and ebony or light-catching chamfered beading.

Over time Gimson built up a loyal clientele for his work, in addition to his supportive family members. His architect friends tended to buy the plainer oak pieces and to commission designs for churches and other institutions, while wealthy businesspeople and aristocrats bought the more flamboyant veneered and inlaid furniture. This variety must have been good for cash flow but it is difficult to be categorical because the only surviving workshop job book dates largely from the period of the First World War, which inevitably disrupted activities. The book indicates that some pieces were made for named clients and others for stock, which would be shown in the attractive setting of Daneway House or in the Arts & Crafts exhibitions in London, to which Gimson contributed regularly. Entries also show who made each piece in how many hours, and the complicated sums working out the price. Gimson’s overheads were low since he did not keep a London showroom nor pay for advertising, but he appears not to have made a profit since he added only 10 percent for overheads, though work for other architects may have brought in fees on a different basis. Institutional commissions usually involved hundreds of pounds, while individual pieces cost anywhere between £2 10s and £98. Further information on clients and prices can be found in the many surviving designs in the Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum [VC3], and more analysis will be possible when the current digitisation programme is completed.

Gimson’s marketing was through word of mouth and coverage in magazines such as Studio, which featured his work often from 1905 onwards. He commissioned photographs that he sent out to prospective clients and many of these survive in Cheltenham, Leicester, Brighton and elsewhere. In addition to submitting regularly to the Arts & Crafts exhibitions he also had two major shows in London at the Royal School of Art Needlework in 1904 and at Debenham & Freebody’s department store in 1907. These established his reputation early on, but his crowning achievements were the large selections of work at the 1913 Ghent International Exhibition and in Paris in 1914, as well as his displays at the 1916 Arts and Crafts exhibition in Burlington House, parts of which were shared with May Morris and the Women’s Guild of Arts. This event, in the middle of the First World War, was an important milestone for the A&CES which, under the leadership of Gimson’s friend Henry Wilson, initiated discussions on the future role of the crafts and craft workers. Gimson developed a plan for a much larger community in Gloucestershire, to include architects and a wide variety of makers in different media, as well as the range of workshops he had already established. How viable this would have been in post-war conditions, when wages and prices rose enormously, is difficult to tell, but Gimson died in August 1919 after a short illness and the plan died with him.

Peter Waals kept the workshop going in premises in Chalford near Stroud, employing many of the Daneway men and taking on new apprentices and pupils. In 1935 he also became part-time design adviser at Loughborough College in Leicestershire, a post taken by Edward Barnsley after Waals’s death in 1937, thus ensuring the continuation of the ‘Cotswold tradition’ into the second half of the twentieth century. The chair making business was also revived by Edward Gardiner after the First World War, has survived to the present day under Neville and Lawrence Neal and is now based at Marchmont House in Berwickshire. Gimson’s furniture was not as well known in Europe and America as that of some of his contemporaries, but the Austrian designer Josef Frank and Gustav Stickley in the US were clearly very interested in it. His work continues to be admired by woodworkers, collectors, curators and museum visitors for its superb design and quality of making.   

Annette Carruthers 

Addendum: for a full list of Gimson exhibits at the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, London, 1890-1916, click here. The index of these catalogues records Gimson's address as 41 Ossington Street, Bayswater, London (1890), Ewen, Cirencester (1893), Pinbury, near Cirencester (1896) and Daneway House, Sapperton, near Cirencester (1906-16). 

Sources: Lethaby, Powell, & Griggs, Ernest Gimson His Life and Work (1924); Jewson, By Chance I did Rove, (1951, 1973, 1986); 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, Gimson and Barnsley: Designs and Drawings in Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museums (1984); Carruthers & Greensted (eds), Good Citizen’s Furniture: The Arts and Crafts Collections at Cheltenham (1994); MacCarthy, ‘Gimson, Ernest William’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004); Roscoe, ‘Stoneywell and the Gimsons – Furniture and Family History’, Furniture History (2014), pp. 351-65; Carruthers, Greensted, & Roscoe, Ernest Gimson: Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect (2019).