Simpson, Arthur William & Hubert
Kendal & Windermere, Westmorland; carver and cabinet maker (fl.1879-1952)
Born in 1847 at Kendal of a Quaker family, Arthur W. Simpson was apprenticed first to Robert Rigg, a cabinet maker in Greenhow's Yard, Kendal and then as a carver to Gillows about 1875-79. Whilst in Lancaster he also spent evenings at Lancaster School of Art.
He worked for Samuel Barfield in Leicester and William Aumonier on the Tottenham Court Road, before joining George Faulkner Armitage (1849-1937) in Altrincham in 1882. He stayed there for three years before returning to his home town of Kendal to set up a cabinet and carving works. He started to advertise as an architectural and general wood carver at 22a Highgate, Kendal, and indeed he always referred to his profession as such, rather than cabinet/furniture-maker. The workshops moved to more spacious premises at the bottom of Berry’s Yard, off Finkle Street, in 1887 and this enabled Simpson to start holding exhibitions.
In 1888 Simpson married Jane Davidson, a nurse and fellow Quaker, with whom he had three children; Hubert (1889); Ronald (1890); and Hilda (1892). Hubert became head of the family firm and Ronald became a designer.
From 1893 Simpson rented Gillhead Cottage, a house beside Windermere in Bowness, as a summer holiday location. The visitor’s book showed the number of pupils who attended woodworking and carving breaks there. Pupil carvers included Richard Llewellen Benson Rathbone (cousin of W. A. S. Benson); Ann Macbeth and May Spence (both from Glasgow School of Art); and Harold Stabler. From Easter to September, Simpson would take the train to Kendal to attend his woodworking business and return to Gillhead in late afternoon to teach pupils.
At Christmas 1896 - with business booming - the workshop was moved to a new site at Queen Katherine’s Buildings in Kendal, where the Simpsons occupied the first and second floors and in 1919 also took on the ground floor. This building housed a showroom, workshops and offices with a cabinet makers shop and a timber-stoving cupboard next door. The first powered machinery was not introduced until after 1918.
Correspondence survives between William G. Collingwood and Simpson, which gives light on their friendship and the influence of the former in facilitating Simpson's work to be nationally known. In 1891 Collingwood commissioned furniture for his new home, Lanehead, Coniston, and it was probably him who introduced Simpson to John Ruskin at Brantwood. The Arts & Crafts Exhibition, Kendal, 1891 was opened by H.R.H. Princess Louise, who was given an oak panel carved by Simpson. Another client was Isaac Braithwaite, a prominent Kendal manufacturer and friend, who commissioned Simpson to supply a considerable amount of furniture prior to his marriage in 1890; the known pieces show the sound Simpson construction, with heavy brass drawer and cupboard handles and are marked 'A.W. Simpson'.
Simpson probably met C. F. A. Voysey through the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which exhibited one of Simpson’s carvings at its first exhibition in 1889. A bedroom chair designed by Voysey and made by Simpson was shown at the Arts and Crafts exhibition in 1896 and in 1899. The Studio published a photograph of a Voysey toilet glass made by Simpson; several examples of this are known. A gilded oak and pine convex mirror designed by Voysey in 1901 was probably made by Simpson (illus. Livingstone, Donnelly & Parry (2016), pl. 246).
In 1901 Simpson opened a showroom in Windermere, known as ‘The Handicrafts’, and in 1909 Voysey designed a house, Littleholme, for him at no fee. Simpson made several items as presents to Voysey and his wife over the years. He continued to make furniture for Voysey until at least 1916. A desktop case of oak and macassar ebony with inlays made to a Voysey design of 1902 made by Simpson and toilet glass c. 1916, probably made by him, is illus. Livingstone, Donnelly & Parry (2016), pls 262 & 282.
Stanley Parker spent the years of 1897-98 designing and making furniture with Simpson. James Morton (son of Alexander Morton, textile manufacturer) on his marriage and setting up of their first home. In 1901 they bought furniture from Simpson. In 1905 Simpson opened a retail shop, with a flat for family use above, on Church Street, Windermere.
In 1913 Arthur W. Simpson was elected a member of the Art Workers’ Guild and remained one until at least 1920, being listed in their literature as a Woodcarver and Furniture Designer. At its height in 1908/09 the firm employed up to twenty-five men as cabinet makers, carvers and ancilliary workers. Those featured in contemporary photographs include: Bill Phillipson, Tom Dixon (one of Simpson’s earliest employees), Thomas Dixon (upholsterer), Jim Cookson (carver) and George Alexander. Arthur Simpson bought in chairs made by W. P. Clissett, of Ledbury, Herefordshire, when they needed large sets. In 1912 Hubert Simpson designed probably the most successful piece of furniture sold by ‘The Handicrafts’, the Easy Stool, which the firm subsequently patented.
Most of the men in Simpson’s workshops enlisted in the First World War, including Hubert, leaving just Tom Dixon, Bill Philipson and the apprentices in the cabinet workshop together with Arthur W. Simpson and Tommy Parkin in the carving shop. After the war, the carvers Ernest J. Oldcorn and J. H. Cookson returned to the workshops, although the former left in 1923 to become Stanley W. Davies’ foreman.
Arthur Simpson died on 8 November 1922 and every man in the workshops of The Handicrafts had a hand in the making of his coffin. He was buried in the Friends’ Burial Ground, Kendal. Hubert Simpson took over as head of the firm and from that time on the furniture was often marked ‘Arthur W Simpson and Hubert Simpson’, although Hubert was more of a designer than craftsman, unlike his father who combined the two. Tom Dixon became foreman when Philipson retired in 1922.
Hubert was a member of various local Committees. His membership of the Red Rose Guild of Artworkers was probably of the greatest material value to him, particularly during the slump of the 1920s when domestic commissions were in short supply. A small amount of work was carried out for churches during the inter-war period. These included:
- A communion table in cuban mahogany for a church in Mount Vernon, New York (1930)
- Screens for Parr Chapel, Kendal Parish Church (1934)
- Furniture for Wasdale Head Church
- St George's, Darwen
- St James', Staveley
The showroom at The Handicrafts, 1922-50 is illustrated in Davidson (1978) fig. 13.
Tom Dixon died in 1930. Thereafter, although there were regular exhibitions by the Red Rose Guild of Craftsmen and in Lakeland, the workshops were minimally staffed with no apprentice carvers. After the death of Hubert's wife, Jane, in 1950 and the sale of Littleholme, Hubert decided to sell the work premises and dispose of the remaining stock. Believing that nobody would be able to match the standard of work achieved by his father and his workshop, Hubert sent the design drawings for salvage and burned the photographs; leaving an archive of a few specially chosen ones, some of which are illus. Davidson (1978).
Sources: Davidson, The Simpsons of Kendal. Craftsmen in Wood 1885-1952 (1978); Allwood, ‘George Faulkner Armitage 1849-1937’, Furniture History (1987); Wright, The Beautiful Furniture of The Simpsons of Kendall (2011); Carruthers, The Arts and Crafts Movement in Scotland (2013); Allwood, ‘Innate Bohemians All: decorative artists in the early Garden City’, The Decorative Arts Society 1850 to the Present (2017); Livingstone, Donnelly & Parry, C F A Voysey Arts & Crafts Designer (2016).