Ernest Gim­son (1864-1919)

Le­ices­ter’s Mas­ter Ar­chi­tect and Crafts­man

This England - - Great Britons -

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

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