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Waals, Peter (1870-1937)

Waals, Peter

Gloucestershire; cabinet maker (b.1870-d.1937)

Born in the Hague in 1870, Peter Waals learned cabinet making in Brussels, Berlin and Venice before arriving in London in 1900. The furniture historian John Gloag described Waals in later life as ‘an enormous bulky great Dutchman with shoulders like a gorilla and a deep voice. He loved to contradict people, which he did all the time’. From about 1902 he worked with Ernest Gimson and Ernest Barnsley in building up the team of craftsmen in the workshops at the Fleece Hotel, Cirencester, and then at Daneway, near Sapperton, Gloucestershire. He became foreman of the workshops from 15 March 1905. 

The first cabinet makers employed at Daneway were vetted by Waals, including Henry Davoll to whom Waals wrote the letter stating terms of employment: ‘Mr Pugsley [the first chair maker employed] has, I suppose, informed you about the conditions. We pay 8d per hour and offer a permanency to good men. We make high-class furniture only, therefore, we want first-class cabinetmakers. But Mr Pugsley has assured me that you are used to that kind of work. You might start as soon as you can. You better bring some of your tools with you, as Mr. P. had delay with his. Please let me know when I can expect you’.

Ernest Smith, an experienced cabinet maker from London, joined the workshop in 1904 and he later commented that Waals was ‘a very clever workman’, and was particularly known for his inlay work in silver and ivory. George Trevelyan, a pupil of Waals 1919-31, wrote in 1969 that ‘Gimson would be first to acknowledge the immense debt he owed to him [Waals] as colleague. Though Gimson was, of course, the inspiration and genius, he used Waals from the outset in closest cooperation in checking and discussing designs and construction. The association of these two men was an essential factor in the evolving of the Cotswold Tradition’.

In 1903 Der Moderne Stil devoted almost two pages of one issue to the work of Gimson and the Barnsleys in which the only illustrated example was an oak sideboard executed by Waals, priced at £45 at the 1903 Arts & Crafts Society Exhibition. By 1914 Waal’s wage for cabinet work was 1s 2d, compared with the other cabinet makers who received 10d an hour and an apprentice averaged 3d an hour. He received about £2 10s a week as foreman, rising to about £5 in 1918.

During the First World War Waals found employment in aircraft production under Geoffrey de Havilland at Airco in Hendon. After demobilization Waals returned to the workshops at Daneway and after Gimson’s death in August 1919 he took over their management.

By December 1919 Waals was using his name under the Daneway Workshops letterhead. In early 1920, with the support of various customers including Alfred James of Edgworth, Annie and William Evans at Inglewood, Leicester, and Arthur Mitchell of Cheltenham, Waals set up a new workshop in an old silk mill, Haliday Mill, just outside Chalford, Gloucestershire. The new workshop was quite small, measuring only 70 ft by 20ft. Waals acquired the stock of seasoned timber and equipment from Gimson’s executors and having bought basic machinery, began to produce furniture there. Keen to protect the reputation of Ernest Gimson, the Gimson family came to an agreement with Waals that he would not produce Gimson’s inlaid patterns or experimental designs but continue to make the plainer domestic furniture. In November 1920 he wrote: ‘If I received orders for similar pieces and set myself to design these, after my 20 years’ experience at Daneway, the results would never exclude the impression that they were not copies. It will also be realised, that I do not feel myself in the position of a designer copying a dead man’s work, but in that of a foreman continuing his master’s workshop’.

Several former Gimson craftsmen were taken on although Waals was apparently not as highly revered as their previous boss. Ernest Smith, the foreman, felt that he was only allowed to take charge when Waals was not around, and Harry Davoll reported that one of the scrutinisers at an Arts & Crafts Exhibition noted that Waals was ‘indeed a busy man’ if he really had produced all the pieces on display. The furniture was presented under Waals’ name rather than that of the actual makers – men such as Percy Burchett, Harry Davoll, Derek and Fred Gardiner, Bert Hunt, Fred Orton, Frank Rust, Owen Scrubey, Ernest Smith, Percy Tanner, William Taylor, Rowley Young, Fred Foster and George Trevelyan. From about 1930 Norman Bucknell supplied metalwork handles and fittings. Like Gimson and Sidney Barnsley, Waals also collaborated with Louise Powell who decorated an ebony cabinet made by Waals in about 1925, which was bought by the Hornby family.

Much of Waals’ work continued to display his marquetry skills. Of one particular wardrobe he wrote: ‘I made this as a protest against the dull flat surfaces in modern furniture. Mass made furniture could be enlivened by the use of light on the simple fielding of small panels’. George Trevelyan wrote: ‘Although there is absolute continuity in the tradition under the founder [Gimson] and his successor [Waals], one can always tell the difference... To some degree a greater weight was apparent, but Waals continued with the outstanding features such as the heavily fielded panels of solid walnut, the chamfered stretchers reminiscent of the wheelwright’s craft, or the fine display of dovetails and other constructional joints, so valid while pieces were mostly made in solid woods... It is this quality of love put into each part of the work which makes the very special charm of each piece’.

Sydney Gimson recommended Waals to furnish the committee room of Leicester College (now University) and the Goddard and Pick families of Leicester both commissioned pieces from him in the 1920s. Other clients were the the Earl of Plymouth (an ebony Arthur Mitchell of The Glenfall, drawer-cabinet for his London home); the Biddulph family of Rodmarton Manor; Charlton Kings; W A Evans of Leicester; W A Cadbury of King’s Norton; the brothers William Rothenstein and Albert Rutherston. Other notable commissions were work at Eton College and some pieces for Queen Mary’s Doll’s House. In 1920 Waals supplied a commission of furniture for the sisters Gwendoline Elizabeth & Mary Sydney Davies and their adviser, Dr Thomas Jones, at Gregynog Hall, Powys. This included a large library suite comprising eighteen single and two armchairs with rush seating, and a large library table with wishbone stretchers; also a wardrobe and dressing glass; illus. Shen (1995), pp. 224 & 227. 

Like Gimson, Waals worked closely with a number of architects, including Norman Jewson and Robert Weir Schultz, supplying woodwork and/or furnishings. His work for Jewsen included an organ loft, an inlaid lectern and chancel screen with rood carved by William Simmonds. Waals also made furniture for the designer C F A Voysey in 1921-3, including a boxwood mantel clock and two tables for Voysey’s client C T Burke, as well as chairs and a clock case designed for C E Wellstead. Another Voysey client was Mrs T Eastwood, for whom Waals supplied dining room furniture in 1923. Waals’ Dutch origins were occasionally a drawback, as when his work was excluded from the 1924 British Empire Exhibition despite the fact that he had been granted British nationality in 1916.

In 1935 Frank Pick, a former customer of Waals and chair of the Council for Art and Industry, recommended Waals as consultant designer to the Loughborough teacher training college and this provided him with a steady income. Peter Waals died suddenly in May 1937 and although his widow, Ruby, and son, Leo (aged 24), tried to keep the business going, it ceased when Leo went off to war in 1939. 

Few of Waals’ design books survived a workshop fire of 1938 but two are at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum and a further two, with notes by Sir George Trevelyan, are at Leicester and Rutland Record Office (DE8532). Waal’s client book from November 1919-November 1936 is in the Gloucestershire Record Office. Photographs of the Daneway workshop staff in about 1902, Waal’s Chalford workshops in about 1925 and a photograph of Waals about 1930s are illus. in Carruthers, Greensted, Roscoe (2019), pp. 87 & 310. Examples of Waals’ work are at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum and a silver cupboard, commissioned by Frank Pick, designed and made by Waals in 1928, is now in the V&A (W.1:1 to 4-1942).

Sources: Sir George Trevelyan, Bt., The Workshop of Peter Waals. A Tribute from a Pupil (1969); Agius, British Furniture 1880-1915 (1978); Comino, Gimson and the Barnsleys ‘Wonderful furniture of a commonplace kind’ (1980); Lambourne, Utopian Craftsmen (1980); Gere & Whiteway, Nineteenth-Century Design. From Pugin to Mackintosh (1993); Shen, 'Philanthropic Furnishing: Gregynog Hall, Powys', Furniture History  (1995); Carruthers & Greensted, Good Citizen’s Furniture (1994); Massil, Immigrant Furniture Workers in London 1881-1939 (1997); Roscoe, ‘Stoneywell and the Gimsons - Furniture and Family History’, Furniture History (2014); Carruthers, Greensted, Roscoe, Ernest Gimson. Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect (2019).