Ernest Gimson, furniture designer, teacher and architect, was described by the art critic Nikolaus Pevsner in his influential study, The Pioneers of Modern Design (1949) as "the greatest of the English architect-designers". Today his reputation is securely established as one of the most influential designers of the English Arts and Crafts movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in particular the genius behind the Cotswold school in furniture and design.
Ernest William Gimson was born in Leicester, in the East Midlands of England, in 1864. He was a generation younger than William Morris, the son of Josiah Gimson, a successful engineer and owner of the Vulcan Works in Leicester. When he was 20, Morris stayed as a guest of the Gimsons, to give a lecture on ‘Art and Socialism’ at the Leicester Secular Society, an event which changed the course of his life.
Morris's insistance that the way to reform of the arts and society itself lay through a handicraft system for the production of furniture, textiles, ceramics, wallpaper, printed books, above all for building itself, “made the profoundest impression on Gimson”, according to the Arts and Crafts theorist, William Lethaby.
Morris recommended Gimson to the architectural practice of John Dando Sedding (1838-1891), an ecclesiastical architect in London at whose studio many of the leading designers had trained. Sedding had been, like Morris and Webb, a pupil of G.E. Street, a lover of the textures of simple barns and rural buildings, who went on to run his own stimulating office next door to Morris & Co. in Oxford Street. In 1876 Sedding met Ruskin, under whose influence he developed a freer Gothic, introducing natural ornament in his designs. Ruskin exhorted him:
Modern so-called architects are merely employers of workmen on commissions and if you would be a real architect, you must always have either pencil or chisel in your own hand.
Sedding studied and practised stone carving and iron work himself and, in the 1880s, was preaching here urgent and practical reform, based on living and reviving craft skills. Hermann Muthsesius realized that "he formed the first bridge between the architects' camp and that of handicraft proper". We see a 'fresh lif'e', as Sedding put it himself, a freedom of style and a naturalism of decoration from which he generates his modern 'crafted Gothic', with its hybrid of late Gothic forms and Arts and Crafts detail. His love of handicrafts is demonstrated profusely in sketchbooks, and simple carved naturalistic detail, as seen in his Devon churches at Hoberton and Ermington: based on leaves, flowers, animals and birds. Always we see the close involvement of the architect in the simple craft processes of building:
the real architect ... must be his own clerk of works, his own carver... the familiar spirit of the structure as it rises from the ground.
Lethaby wrote of him:
his originality arose in stimulating himself by a study of old work considered not as mere forms, facts, and dates, but as ideas, as humanity, as delight.
From Sedding, Gimson derived his interest in craft techniques, the stress on textures and surfaces, the naturalistic detail of flowers, leaves and animals, always drawn from life, and the close involvement of the architect in the simple processes of building and in the supervision of a team of craftsmen, employed direct. Ernest Gimson taught a "cleaner" and more committed honesty; the direct practice of craft skills, preferably in an organic village community of the type later described by George Sturt. There was no pretence of 'stylism': "solid realities ... not names and dreams" were his aims.
Gimson soon studied the crafts of traditional chairmaking and modelled plasterwork, as well as architecture and furniture design, visiting the master exponents of the crafts and learning their techniques at first hand. In 1889 he joined Morris's Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). In 1890, he was a founder member of the short-lived furniture company, Kenton and Co., with Sidney Barnsley, Alfred Powell, W.R. Lethaby, Mervyn Macartney, Col. Mallet and Reginald Blomfield. Here they acted as designers rather than craftsmen and explored inventive ways of articulating traditional crafts, "the common facts of traditional building", as Philip Webb, "their particular prophet", had taught.
Pinbury Park Sapperton near Cirencester, Gloucestershire
Gimson had met Ernest Barnsley (1863––1925) at Sedding’s studio, and united in their ideals as enthusiasts for the Arts and Crafts, they planned to move out of London together with Sidney Barnsley (1865–1926), Ernest’s younger brother. The three young architect-fugitives from the city sought a place to practice their ideals for the organic community, and for the revival of the arts and through them the reform of society itself.
In 1893 Gimson and the Barnsley brothers moved to the Cotswolds “to live near to nature”. They settled first at Ewen, near Cirencester, but in 1894 they were offered a repairing lease of Pinbury Park, at £75 a year, a fine Elizabethan house on the edge of Lord Bathurst’s estate at Sapperton, where a group of barns and cottages cluster round the gabled manor house. It is set in an enchanting position above the beech hangers of the Frome valley, its garden planted with an avenue of yew trees known as the Nuns’ Walk, after the nuns of Caen who had owned the manor until the suppression of alien monasteries in 1415.
The main block is a small T-plan manor house built for the Poole family in the late sixteenth century. It was altered with the insertion of panelling by Sir Robert Atkyns, the country historian of Gloucestershire.
Ernest Barnsley, the eldest of the three friends, occupied the main house with his young family, while Gimson and Sidney Barnsley converted the outbuildings for their use and occupation. Pinbury was to be the centre for their communitarian experiment, where the group would attempt to invigorate the old village life with vision and idealism, planning somehow to found a Utopian craft community.
In 1900, Gimson set up a small furniture workshop in Cirencester, moving to larger workshops at Daneway House, a small medieval manor house near Sapperton, in 1902, where he stayed until his death in 1919. He concentrated on designing furniture, made by craftsmen, under his chief cabinet-maker, Peter van der Waals.
When Lord Bathurst took Pinbury Park back for his own occupation in 1902–3, Ernest Barnsley was commissioned to add a library, inner hall and service accommodation. The library contains one of Gimson’s best-known plasterwork designs, with trailing honeysuckle friezes, and ceiling beams with roses and monograms to Lord Bathurst. A fine stone fireplace is carved with a design of oak fronds, set with squirrels munching acorns.
Bathurst offered to patronise the three men to build or convert houses for themselves in the village of Sapperton, using local materials and craftsmen.
The Leasowes, Sapperton: Ernest Gimson’s house
The houses which Gimson and the Barnsleys built for themselves in Sapperton in 1902–3 are some of the most successful examples of the late Arts and Crafts ideal on a cottage scale. Gimson’s own house, The Leasowes, is built to a compact L-plan, with a typical Gimson stepped chimney and a roof which was originally thatched. It exemplifies the ideal of a haunting ‘austere beauty’, which contemporaries remarked upon, sparse and uncluttered, with plain whitewashed surfaces relieved only by the gentle play of light over the modelled plasterwork. We cannot imagine a Gimson house with wallpaper, or neo-medieval conceits. A new spirit of Modernism informs his work: the presentation of pared-down fundamentals, the concern with the honesty of structure and truth to materials, the exploitation of the levels of the site. But the emphasis on texture and tradition is quite un-Modern: there are plain boarded doors with hand-made nails, stone floors, drystone retaining walls and steps. The organic quality of the modelling and contrasts of surface transitions are skilfully handled: random stone and the softness of thatch, the stark plasterwork. Henry Wilson described his architectural style as “solid and lasting as the pyramids … yet gracious and homelike” (1899).
The Leasowes has suffered most from subsequent alteration of the three houses, particularly when the thatch was replaced with stone tiles after a fire in 1941. H. Avray Tipping documents it in Country Life[ref] in its heyday during Gimson’s occupation, in the issue after Daneway, suggesting by the juxtiposition that the two houses, old and new, are a foil to one another.
Upper Dorvel House, Sapperton
Ernest Barnsley’s house was Upper Dorvel House, set charmingly in a dip to the north east of Sapperton churchyard. Today it is the best preserved of the houses of the Sapperton Group, formed by uniting two small cottages with a low linking hall set between them. At the north end, the cottage has been rebuilt as a tall gabled tower block, inspired by the high building at Daneway. The south end is the kitchen range.
Inside it has some of Gimson’s most inspiring plasterwork (c. 1901). The hall has a low ceiling divided into four compartments with cross beams cased in plaster; the designs evolve in refinement and density from the service to the parlour end, following precedents in vernacular tradition; there are little panels of flowers; simple friezes with trailing acorns, delicate in the play of the south light because only a few inches above head height.
Gimson's "school of rational building"
Over the following years in the feudal-seeming village of Sapperton, Gimson began to lay down in collaboration with the Barnsley brothers the principles of the 'Sapperton' style, defining a “school of rational building”, architecture with all the whims we usually call “design” left out. He described his role in a letter to the etcher F.L. Griggs with characteristic humility as that of a kind of “King’s carpenter”, working in a medieval anonymous system, and adapting traditions to new uses. Gimson experimented in architecture and furniture making; as well as chair bodging and modelled plasterwork. These last two crafts he practised himself, achieving a new style based on thoroughgoing simplicity. Morris's architect and friend Philip Webb was a regular visitor to Pinbury, describing its craft colony approvingly as “a sort of vision of the New Jerusalem”.
Country Life’s H. Avray Tipping was one of the first to recognise the significance of the group settled at Sapperton writing in 1911:
Sapperton became the headquarters of a village industry directed by men deeply imbued with a love and understanding of ancient forms and ancient processes. Mr Ernest Barnsley, Mr Sidney Barnsley and Mr Ernest Gimson are among the leaders of a school that is seeking to create an original and living style in architecture and in the associated decorative arts, founded not on copying old forms, but on accepting old principles and evolving from them products which, while they retain a flavour of the past, are fully characteristic of the habits and aspirations of today. Mr Gimson more especially has organised and still directs the handicrafts which now give so much distinctioin to the little Sapperton community, and Daneway is available to him to use as a storehouse and showroom for some of the output...
There is very simple and solid furniture, made of one kind of wood massively used, which calls to mind the appurtenances of the little manor house of Elizabethan times, such as Daneway itself.
This synergy of the natural and the cultural is a key tenet. There is a rigorous logic in Gimson's touch of decoration. It is often structural, always vital, delicate; the emotion is not a surface deception, disturbing in the perpetration of some neurotic fantasy or phantasmagoric dream-world inspired by a Nietzchean cathartic drama. Gimson's analysis accomplishes a deconstruction: he takes the system apart to understand the method; like a Metaphysical poet, he sees the skull beneath the skin. The work of art or craft is always a local distillation in this frenzied dialogue with nature and tradition, not at a nationalist, but at a timeless geological and agricultural level. Ornament, materials, craft, structure and process are developed as an organically interdependent and rational system. He was working like his contemporaries, like Voysey, like Berlage, to take native traditions towards modern goals (Pevsner).
Gimson's architectural commissions include a number of early works in and around Leicester, such as Inglewood (1892), The White House (1898), Lea and Stoneywell Cottages (and others) at Markfield (1897/8); his own cottage, The Leasowes, at Sapperton (1903, with a thatched roof, since burnt); Bedales School Lupton hall (1911) and memorial library (1918-), near Petersfield in Hampshire; alterations to Pinbury Park (with plasterwork) and Water Lane House (1908), both in Gloucestershire; cottages and the village hall (built under Norman Jewson in 1933) at Kelmscott; a cob (rammed earth) house, Coxen, at Budleigh Salterton, Devon; and the window for Whaplade Church, Lincolnshire.
The adornment of his architecture is the craft itself, the confident handling of materials its own valid expression, so that the articulation of the very fabric of the building, its wood, its stone and plaster, forms the beautiful surface which is truth. Lethaby wrote that such architecture is the easy and expressive handling of materials in masterly and experimental building -- "it is the craftsman's Drama".
Gimson's buildings take the simplification of applied ornament one step further, in this direction of humanity, of logic and structural honesty. The emphasis is on the use, selection and articulation of a few well-understood local materials: the careful laying of a floor, boards tapering with the bole of the tree; the grading of the tiles in a roof in diminishing courses, often with monolithic eaves courses; the use of 'soft' textures, like cob and lime and plaster, plaster floors, thatch; a wooden door latch. He allows the retention of a few happy faults which emerge in the building: cuts of the adze on timbers, contorted, cambered, crucked; outsize stones, rough, unfinished; rubble laid in random or tiny herringbone courses. Just as Berlage in his striving for sincerity and purity ensures the stone is left rough, so we note Gimson's instructions to builders: "surfaces to be left from the axe, chisel or saw, no drags to be used", "quarry edges to be left alone". He wanted his buildings to be 'quiet', the quality which distinguished old monuments from the buildings of today. He discovered the hidden expressiveness of purely utilitarian or traditional solutions which were unobserved, playing with them and adapting them.
At Stoneywell Cottage outside Leicester (1898), he uses broken horizontal plains, rejecting altogether the flat datum, as levels vary with the grades of the site, 'cultivating' it with terraces and steps, different ceiling heights, with an emphasis on eaves and offsets, the weathering of chimney stacks, the use of abstract surfaces, materials contrasting the structural elements, such as the soft thatch of the roof with the rough lime-washed rubble of a wall, carefully battered.
There is an urge towards the organic, building houses in the folds of the earth so that they seem autochthonous, to grow by accretion into nature and out of it, to melt into their surroundings. Here we see him developing the organic possibilities of architecture, which in different materials and with a different aesthetic was being developed by Modernists, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, or on the Continent by the Art Nouveau: Antoni Gaudi, Hugo Harin and Hans Scharoun.
In his interiors, too, we begin to see the reductive lines and simplified surfaces of Modernism emerging. Alfred Powell describes his living room at Pinbury (right):
The room was large, and the floor flagged with white stone, the walls and ceiling, beams and joists white. A large black dresser, hung with gay and well-used crockery, a large settle at the fireside … and other rush-bottom chairs made by himself on his pole lathe, were its furniture.
These are not the clean boxes of the modern movement. Gimson accomplished a study in elimination more radical than Godwin in his Japanese house in his rejection of the confused and the trivial -- a conscious asceticism and a zeal for truth. Rooms are uncluttered, "austerely beautiful" (Norman Jewson wrote), to an extent which became a revelation to contemporaries and visitors (like Gerald Brenan). Their adornment lay in the decoration of the plaster surface of the wall itself, the play of light and shadows in soft relief, tactile and textured. We cannot imagine a Gimson interior with wallpaper. A few pieces of furniture are placed in a contrived and pleasing way, with an emphasis on useful but beautiful forms, traditional, timeless: fire irons, settles, dressers, chests.
Gimson's furniture: King's carpenter
In his furniture, Gimson retains the logical construction of his buildings. The furniture of this Cotswold School is analogous, a form of rational building in miniature, both as to constructional details and decoration. It observes the Ruskinian precept of architecture, "confessing the way it is made", its ambition the ornament of a structural anatomy, more delicate, like a flower exposing its genitals, with its surface textures elaborated with care and emotion, and apparent craftsmanship. Van de Velde had overstated when he praised new English furniture for "systematic discarding of ornament".
We find Gimson rediscovering external skeletons, creating this discourse between structure and cladding, a syntax in which the form is embodied in the revealed ligaments binding together the construction, celebrated in its jointing, for example; dovetails, exposed fox tenons, wedge tenons. But the decoration is not purely technical, for it is more than the simple revelation of a constructional framework. There is a delight in the virtuoso inscapes achieved by the joiner or the village smith in his articulation of a tradition. Under his supervision, the details of functionality are codified, and raised to an art form. And there is over-engineering, the functionally adequate form may be adapted to give more vivid expression to its function, distilling this play, this tension, this touch, between material, craftsmanship and aesthetic gravity, to present a poetic rather than a facade.
The forms -- of his ash-turned chairs, the Spanish vargueno, the William and Mary cabinet -- are rooted in historical prototypes, but reinterpreted in their translation, never a reproduction. The local agricultural dialect is specific in hayrake stretchers, whose 'shaving', or chamfering, so well described by George Strut, another prophet of the organic community, forms curious patterns of faceting. Some of this became mannered and hackneyed in the hands of imitators, but in Gimson's work the observation which "makes it new", in Ezra Pound's phrase, is that of a master craftsman: fresh, inventive, playful.
In the finest work increasingly demanded by his patrons, his 'state furniture' for formal rooms, the elaboration of the structural is not always a sufficient ornament. Gimson delves into tradition to come back with exhibitions of stringing in macassar ebony and holly; wood treated with pickles and stains to bring out grain; there is studied handling of the timber surface, emphasis on the figuring of quartered Birdlip oak and English walnut; forged ironwork; simple decoration in gougework; lines which are bowed and curved and canted; open-work rails derived from wagons; multi fielded panels, often raised with octagons.
Gimson caskets and church furnishings, reduced in scale, focus the eclectic intensity, with their floral inlays, boldly executed in mother-of-pearl or bone or silver, in intarsia and marquetry, in a distillation from many sources: we find him studying and adapting a Gujarati cabinet, Venetian work, Lombardic-Byzantine Cosmati work, Portuguese-Indian work; or translating, as truth to materials demanded, a seventeenth-century needlework design, mediated by his own observation of nature in the Sapperton valley.
Gimson's furniture, as his contemporaries recognised, is the best known and most original part of his oeuvre, with lasting cross-cultural references; now often icons, contradicting his aesthetic of usefulness, as museum pieces. But his wider work expresses concerns consonant with subsequent twentieth-century development. Critics may challenge the backward-looking vernacular of the Cotswold Arts and Crafts with its stress on pre-industrial architectonic forms, processes and technology, causing it to dismissed as another blind alley of nostalgic historicism, which repudiated the international energies of modernism, its new materials and clean surfaces and engineering structures, in favour of improving on tried and tested methods, deepening them, honouring them to bring out their peculiar beauty.
Today his furniture and craft work is regarded as a supreme achievement of its period and is well represented in the principal collections of the decorative arts in Britain and the United States of America. Specialist collections of his work may be seen in England at the Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, and in the Cotswolds at the Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery, Rodmarton Manor and Owlpen Manor.
Legacy of Gimson
Modelled plasterwork is another craft where Gimson excels, described on a separate webpage. It expresses tactile concerns, inscribing the surface of his architecture with its regional character, where the light plays across modelled surfaces to guarantee a place-conscious aesthetic in an intertextuality of art and light, culture and nature; its stress on surface patterning and relief subtly defying the perspectival plane and the terms by which we interpret architectural space. These simple, tactile reliefs invite a search, exploring, penetrating even, the scenographic veil over the surface of buildings with their capacity to arouse the instinct to touch, returning the observer, as in his furniture, to the poetics of construction. The tactile and the tectonic are vitally interfused.
Gimson died aged 54 in 1919. As Sir George Trevelyan hypothesised, it was just as he was achieving widespread recognition and when his creative inspiration was at its highest: "There is no knowing how great his influence on the Modern Movement might have been". Gimson's wider influence beyond the small coterie of Sapperton craftsmen is harder to assess, even controversial.
Norman Jewson was his foremost student, who carried his design principles into the next generation and described his studio practices in his classic memoir By Chance I did Rove (1951).
But in a new millennium, Gimson's concerns with the creative nucleus of crafted decoration as a playful, even therapeutic, part of architecture; with at the same time regional tenderness of inflections and universality; with eco-communitarianism; with the dehumanisation, in Ortega's phrase, of Art; his practice of art as "thoughtful workmanship" (Lethaby); his stress on the inspiration of the vanishing regional heritage, on simplicity and spontaneity of ornament; on the honest repair, conservation and translation of old work; the synthesis of nature and tradition: however much of their own time in expression, attain a note of prophesy. Gimson's "touch of emotion" often strikes an eerie familiarity. Lethaby recognised that a prophet may appear to be in opposition to his own age, but in a peculiar sense he is its balance, its complement, who represents it; his teaching may be absorbed, and the flashing inspiration becomes a commonplace. So the prophet is abolished in absorption, lost by diffusion.
Gimson was temperamentally an anti-Modernist, who would have disapproved of the International Style with its machine aesthetic, its disregard for weathering of materials, and utter rejection of ornament. Yet in a curious way we see in him intimations of post-Modernism, of 'critical regionalism', in an arriere-garde which cultivates a resistant, identity-giving culture while at the same time having discreet recourse to universal technique. He confronts the paradox every culture faces today: how to become modern and to return to the sources of spiritual and cultural revindication. He was not a theorist. He was a prophet of simplicity who like Cratylus spoke few words, who spoke in this warm piecrust, this tactile surface modelling of his fingers. Lethaby described him poignantly as an 'idealist-individualist':
Work not words, things not designs, life not rewards were his aims.
W.R. Lethaby, A.H. Powell, F.L. Griggs, et al., Ernest Gimson, His Life and Work, 1924
Norman Jewson, By Chance I Did Rove (Cirencester, 1951, 1973; Barnsley 1986)
Annette Carruthers, Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen, Leicester Museums Service, 1978, revised 2007
Mary Comino, Gimson and the Barnsleys, 1980
G.P. Bankart, The Art of the Plasterer, 1908
W.R. Lethaby, Leadwork, old and ornamental and for the most part English, 1893
R.W. Schultz, Raffles Davisson (ed.), The Arts connected with Building, 1909
A.R.N. Roberts, William Richard Lethaby, LCC, 1957
W.R. Lethaby, S. Sophia, 1894
© Nicholas Mander, Owlpen 2008