Ernest Gimson (1864-1919)
Leicester’s Master Architect and Craftsman
One of the most recent acquisitions in the many and varied properties of the National Trust is not an exquisite and ornate country house or even a vast swathe of magnificent countryside. Rather it is a country cottage in the Charnwood Forest area of Leicestershire. Was the cottage, which lies snugly embraced by the rocky hillside, perhaps the lowly dwelling of some former farm labourer? Quite the contrary. In fact Stoneywell Cottage was built in 1898 solely as a holiday retreat for the wealthy family of Leicester industrialist Sydney Gimson, the owner of the Gimson and Co. Vulcan Works. Its particular significance is that it was built and designed by Sydney’s brother Ernest, the architect, who was a leading light in the Arts and Crafts movement of the time.
The cottage fulfils the ethos of the Arts and Crafts movement in every way. It is so much a part of the landscape that it has been built into the rocky hillside with the result that the six different floor levels reflect the contours of the terrain. This is particularly well-illustrated in the main bedroom where one can literally step out of the window onto the adjacent grassy bank. The interiors are simple, reflecting the rural location, and much of the solid and practical furniture was crafted by Gimson and his friend and collaborator, Sidney Barnsley. It was after that recent visit to Stoneywell and my general ignorance of the work of Ernest Gimson that inspired me to find out more about him.
Born in Leicester in 1864 into a privileged family of industrialists, his engineer father Josiah owned an iron foundry, the Vulcan works. Gimson was articled to a local architect at the age of 17 and later attended art classes at the Leicester School of Art.
He was already beginning to show promise when he entered a National Competition for Art Students. His design for a suburban house won him a silver medal and the remark, “very promising for the future of a designer who is only 18 years of age”, was encouraging. But the moment of real inspiration, and the one which would change his direction and ambitions, occurred in 1884 when he attended a lecture given by none other than William Morris at the Secular Society at 75 Humberstone Gate in Leicester. The title of the lecture, “Art and Socialism”, was obviously so thought-provoking that he had a long discussion late into the night with Morris himself. Inspired to study architecture in London, he was taken on by John Sedding after letters of recommendation from Morris.
Once in London at Sedding’s office, he found himself at the centre of the Arts and Crafts movement. He learnt the craft techniques of surfaces and textures and was introduced to the influences from nature: flowers, leaves and animals. Sedding’s offices were next door to those of Morris and Co., so Gimson witnessed at first hand the significance of Morris’s work.
At Sedding’s, he was introduced to Sidney Barnsley (through Sidney’s brother Ernest) who was to become a lifelong friend. Having the same ideology about life and the arts, they made a decision to move to the Cotswolds in 1893, where they planned to set up in business in an old and dilapidated farmhouse, Pinbury Park, leased from Lord Bathurst. Idealism prompted them to practise both architecture and the crafts within a rural community.
There in Pinbury, Gimson, together with the Barnsley brothers, concentrated
on designing and making furniture, following certain principles and criteria. They preferred to construct simple, well-proportioned pieces using specific woods to enhance the effect of the grain. Both he and Barnsley followed the Ruskin principle of architecture and craftsmanship, “confessing the way it is made”, celebrating in its jointing e.g. dovetails, exposed fox tenons etc. As neither had any formal training, they learnt their trade by trial and error and even from the local wheelwright! Designs were simple and decoration limited. Daneway House nearby was used both as a workshop and display area for the sale of their goods.
During their stay at Pinbury, which had formally been a monastic possession, both Barnsley and Gimson also repaired and decorated the interior, Barnsley improving the structure while Gimson was concerned with the embellishment of individual rooms. A specific commission was to decorate Lord Bathurst’s library, where Gimson created some of his bestknown plasterwork designs of trailing honeysuckle friezes, while the ceiling beams were covered with roses.
Prior to that final move to the Cotswolds, Gimson had still retained contacts in Leicester, gaining varying commissions, including in 1892 the building of a house in the prosperous suburb of Stoneygate. Inglewood was a
substantial dwelling constructed in the reddish sandstock bricks of Leicester and roofed with the local grey Swithland slates. Inside, the house was decorated with Gimson’s own plasterwork and the walls papered with Morris and Co. wallpaper. The interior was simple and a stark contrast to the fussiness and over-elaborate Victorian homes of the time. In 1942, artist and writer, Freda Derrick, noted that “in 1892 it might have seemed almost austere”.
Whilst I was researching Gimson and his work, Inglewood had simply been a name and a photograph online. Then I had a piece of luck. Waiting outside the Secular Society in Leicester one Saturday to catch a coach, a notice caught my partner’s eye: “A private visit/tour of Inglewood, courtesy of the present owners”. Outsiders that we were, a speedy call to the Secretary of the Secular Society, emphasising our particular interest, ensured us a place on one of the tours. The present owners, Adam Suddaby and Victoria Gifford, had kindly agreed to open their house to interested persons. And what a privilege to visit such a house!
Though subsequent owners have made some alterations to Gimson’s original design, for example adding a large bay window facing the garden at the back, many of the Gimson features still remain, in particular the doors, fireplaces and the distinctive panelling. And finally, what I had been hoping to see most of all: in the magnificent dining
room, high up on the walls, Gimson’s delicate plasterwork friezes of fruits and flowers.
And that day, more Gimson was to follow. Already in the Stoneygate area of Leicester, we were able to catch a glimpse of Gimson’s other Leicester house, the White House. Quite a day.
One of Gimson’s other Leicestershire projects was of course Stoneywell Cottage, commissioned by brother Sydney, at that time one of Leicester’s most prosperous industrialists. A holiday cottage (along with two other cottages for a brother and a friend) was the commission. And the perfect location to escape the smoke and congestion of an industrial Leicester was the neighbouring countryside of Charnwood Forest, a rocky area of PreCambrian hills and ancient woodland, where fresh air and beauty abounded.
Friends and colleagues helped with the project. Detmar Blow, another architect who followed the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, was brought in as the head mason. Having worked alongside stonemasons in Yorkshire, he was fully qualified for the job and at Stoneywell supervised the arduous work of the several stonemasons required to build the cottage.
Much of the furniture used in the cottage was crafted by Gimson and friends and many items are on display today. The high-backed settle, meant to exclude the draughts, was by Sidney Barnsley’s eldest brother, Ernest, whilst the magnificent dining table, made from a single plank of oak, was crafted by Sidney himself. The rushseated high-back dining chairs were Gimson’s contributions as well as many other ladder-back chairs in the cottage. In 1899 when Stoneywell was finally completed, Gimson carved a discrete G in the slate lintel above the front door.
Despite Gimson’s growing reputation, he did not receive glowing reports from all quarters. Following displays of several pieces of his furniture in the Arts and Craft Exhibition of 1903, the magazine The Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher gave his work a mixed reception (“Next comes a dresser or sideboard, I’m not sure which, in the butter-tub and carpenters’ bench style.”)
And later in Country Life magazine of 1908, referring to a piece of Gimson’s furniture, the writer commented, “Perhaps its simplicity is rather overpronounced — near kinship to a packing case.” But on a positive note adds, “There is great attention to form and proportion, a careful selection of material and painstaking thought to detail.”
Today much of Gimson’s work can be seen at the Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, including a variety of chairs. But there are also more decorative items influenced by nature and Byzantine art, including a walnut cabinet with inlay made in the Daneway workshop. But perhaps two of his grandest designs are in Leicester University, where a long table and set of ladder-back chairs are in regular use in the Gimson Meeting Room. The table is now protected with a glass top so that the workmanship can be appreciated but not spoiled. And what could be more imposing than the Ceremonial Chair of mahogany, with the University motto, “Ut vitam habeant” carved into a bone and set in the top of the chair?
Differences in taste are always prevalent when it comes to art, design and architecture. Gimson’s designs were very much of his time and the Arts and Crafts movement. But perhaps like me, all those people flocking to view and experience Stoneywell Cottage will reappraise the work of Ernest Gimson and be enthused and stimulated to find out more.
Atthe turn of the year it seems from the poems that you have been sending in that many of you are in a reflective mood. I have enjoyed reading everything I’ve received and have had a hard job choosing the ones to publish.
I liked this poem by Jennie Caddy of Bradfield Southend, Berkshire, as I had never before thought of puddles as works of art! Now I will look at them in a new light.
Ron Prideaux who lives near Barnstaple in Devon tells me he has been a farmer “man and boy”. Now that he has the time to reflect on what he has seen and done over his life, he has started to write poetry including this one about the things that mean so much to him — including Cherry his wife of 60 years.
Speculation about the way ahead and the romance of what lies behind the garden gate is perfectly captured in this poem by David Fleming of Barnhill, Dundee.
the years Audrey Kite (2 Westlands Road, Lindfield, West Sussex RH16 2SR) has kept recalling just a couple of lines from a poem she learnt at school. She hopes someone will be able to supply the complete version that has these lines in it:
In the 1940s Joyce Galbraith (2a Falstone Avenue, Newark, Nottinghamshire NG24 1SH) remembers reciting a poem at Milton Methodist Church. She can’t recall the