Gimson's plasterwork

Ernest Gimson: simple as piecrust

Modelled plasterwork and the Arts and Crafts movement

gimson plaster
Plaster decoration by Ernest Gimson at Owlpen Manor

ERNEST GIMSON (1864–1919) was at the forefront of the group of craftsmen intent on the revival of craft skills under the influence of William Morris in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The craft of modelled plasterwork was central to his teaching and critique, and the one craft that he "messed about" with his own hands. In November 1887, William Morris lectured on 'plasterwork as applied to ceiling decoration' to The Art-Workers' Guild. It was a craft on which he spoke and lectured, demonstrating processes as he went. In A Dream of John Ball he describes a room of a Rose Tavern of Richard II's day, implicitly as an idyll:

The walls were panelled roughly enough with oak boards to about six feet from the floor, about three feet of plaster above that was wrought in a pattern of a rose-stem running all round the room, freely and roughly done, but with (as it seemed to my unused eye) wonderful skill and strength. On the hood of the great chimney a huge rose was wrought in the plaster and brightly painted in its true colours.

"Architecture is building touched with emotion": this is the provisional definition that William Richard Lethaby (1857-1931), following Ruskin's aphoristic habit, worked out with Ernest William Gimson (1864-1919) when they were young men on holiday in Yorkshire in 1890, adapting a phrase of Matthew Arnold's. For Lethaby, older by seven years, was the theorist and educator who defined the emphasis of the second, turn-of-the-century, generation of the English Arts and Crafts movement. It was based on evolving principles of a new and simpler 'rational building' (as he called it), building which is right or beautiful in the honesty of its structural principles, its 'necessary structure or anatomy', as well as in method, in the co-ordination of the craftsmanship involved in its outer form and adornment.

For the High Victorians, as evidenced by John Ruskin, "ornamentation [was] the principle part of architecture", conferring with its magic touch the beautiful surface which is truth. James Fergusson was writing in 1862 that architecture was "a system of ornament"; soon various competing systems of ornament, in a restless series of historicisms and revivals, were overlaid. A giddying sequence by the last decade of the century was declining in England to an architecture of exhaustion, losing energy and direction. An orgy of historical fragments picked at random had played out to a fatigue with historical revivals and opened the door to escapism, in the early groping towards clean Modernism.

Morris and Webb's youthful project of the Red House of 1859 had sought a new direction where architecture would turn away from the falsification of forms in all industrial methods and objects of trade and be redeemed by a revival of the domestic handicrafts on which the house beautiful could be resurrected. The essential unity of architecture as a social system would be demonstrated in all its honesty and structural truth. Their demonstration that the way to reform 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 Lethaby.

William Morris's architect and friend Philip Webb had designed a frieze for the South Kensington Museum Green Dining Room in 1866. By 1888, Webb, Reginald Blomfield and Mervyn Macartney were all exhibiting plaster friezes at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition, with Joseph Whitcombe being responsible for the execution. George Jack, who worked with Gimson on his repairs at Whaplade Church, modelled figure panels in plaster, also executing designs for other architects like Mervyn Macartney. Other Arts and Crafts architects interested as practitioners or designers included Sir Reginald Blomfield, Esmond Burton, J. Starkie Gardner, Sir Robert Lorimer, E.J. May, T. Stallybrass, Sir Lawrence Weaver. The office of John Dando Sedding was committed: Sedding executed scrolling plasterwork in low relief at St Agnes House orphanage in south Bristol; and both Sedding's assistant, Henry Wilson, and in turn Wilson's assistant, John Paul Cooper, practised.

 

Plaster ceiling in dining room at Wightwick Manor
Plaster ceiling in dining room at Wightwick Manor

 

Edward Ould uses plasterwork with great effect in a number of his buildings. Wightwick Manor in Staffordshire is richly textured with a ponderous, churchy exuberance of the late 1880s, in its stained glass and tiles, wallpapers and textiles and panelling. Here Leonard A. Shuffrey was responsible for executing the ceilings and friezes, those in the dining room dating to the turn of the century (about 1903), which has double-moulded ribs, terminating in pendants with Pre-Raphaelite masks. A wheat-sheaf design said to represent the Eucharist predominates, referring to its pious owner, Theodore Mander, and a strapwork frieze, much more Jacobean in inspiration, has the zoological signs. The Great Parlour at Wightwick has a bold painted plaster frieze by Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907), to Orphic themes of nature enchanted by art, with exotic animals, after the one in the High Great Chamber at Hardwick Hall (1599), so influential at this period.

The Mount of 1908 was a nearby house re-ordered for Theodore's cousin, Charles Tertius Mander. In the Library, a grand room like one of Ould's Cambridge college halls, Shuffrey executed Italianate neo-Renaissance ceilings with pendant bosses. (There are hard terracotta friezes outside.)

George Percy Bankart (1866-1929) taught plasterwork at the Bromsgrove School of Handicraft in Worcestershire. While he was there he accepted a commission to execute the plasterwork at Dumbleton Hall, near Tewkesbury, in Gloucestershire, where the Great Gallery was remodelled for the marriage of Carloline Eyres, with diapered ribs to the ceiling and a frieze with oak tree foliage, flowers, peacocks, cherubs, squirrels, probably conscious of the Kempe plasterwork at Wightwick. It was originally coloured in tempera, under the influence of Joseph Southall at the Birmingham School of Art; this or watercolour was used on figurative reliefs by a number of artists at a more self-consciously 'painterly' level, from Edward Burne Jones to Robert Anning Bell.

Other analogous craft techniques, in ceramics and tiles, had been explored throughout the Gothic Revival.William Godwin of Lugwardine was experimenting with the revival of medievalizing encaustic floor tiles, so popular in Victorian churches. Harold Rathbone established the Della Robia pottery at Birkenhead. The use of scratched ornament, or sgraffito, where the plaster surface is incised, engraved, on a finished smooth surface,  was revived for the Arts and Crafts by G.T. Robinson and notably Heywood Sumner; a good example of whose work can be seen in the apse of St Agatha's, Portsmouth, here in a neo-Byzantine style. The technique was praised by Bankart for its accord with the Arts and Crafts principle of a legitimate craft done in its place and for its place, putting the craftsman in direct communication with the surface to be decorated.

The Byzantine Revival

Lectern (detail)
Lectern (detail)

 We find the Byzantine in Gimson's work not just in the forms he adopted, the references in his architecture, above all his public projects like his scheme for the Port of London Authority, or the germ of a Greek church, and government offices in his competition project for the new capital at Canberra in Australia. Eric Sharp was one of the first of his contemporaries to note that Gimson's work has a Byzantine feeling. It is expressed in his arrangements of pattern, in the extreme simplicity of massing, in the bounding line or form and the intricacy of work contained within it. The Byzantine Revival after 1890 of architects close to Lethaby -- like Sidney Barnsley, Robert Weir Schultz, Beresford Pite and John Francis Bentley (the architect of Westminster Cathedral) -- was one attempt at transcending stylism. It involved what may seem like the exploration of yet another style or mood, finding a synthesis between the classical and the Gothic, in a more 'universal' anti-Gothic classicism. But for Lethaby, such ancient buildings were "an essence not a style".

Designs for ironwork
Designs for ironwork

Ruskin had already identified qualities of rudeness or savageness, vitality and imperfection of ornament, sharp energy, in the Byzantine as a 'healthy' architecture. Its study of minute and various works of nature, the humility of its craftsmen; its search for models among the forest leaves, for vigour of effect rather than refinement of texture or accuracy of form; the graceful and softly-guided waves and wreathed bands of Southern gothic decoration, fusing itself in the surface of the masses on which it is traced, all suggest the work of Gimson. Ruskin's admiration for Torcello as perfectly graceful, but severe and almost cold in its simplicity; built for permanence and service, so that ... no stone of it could be spared, could be a Gimson manifesto. Ruskin describes the lateral door [with its] crosses of rich sculpture there, which a few years later were sought out and sketched by Gimson as a student.

Design for sconce: "oakleaf"
Design for sconce: "oakleaf"

Of course, various Ruskin-inspired Byzantine or Italo-Byzantine revivals were not new; we have seen them since the 1860s in Bristol warehouses or George Aitchison's Mark Lane (1864), where he builds an independent facade tacked on like a veil modestly drawn over a cast iron-framed office building. But under Lethaby the inspiration was more scholarly and assured, expressed from within the structure. He was chief assistant at R. Norman Shaw's office (1879-89), when Sidney Barnsley worked there (in 1885). He was the force behind the departure of Weir Schultz to Greece and the Near East, where Schultz travelled with Sidney Barnsley for two years, both seeking inspiration in the massiveness of Ruskin's Italo-Byzantine, but also the purer Greek prototypes. These are academic studies, not seeking another fashion, but an inner affinity which aided them in uncovering the latent expressions of their own period: in Sidney Barnsley's case, the Church of the Wisdom of God [1890-2] at Lower Kingswood (Surrey) resulted, with a decorative surface integrated and uncluttered; here in mosaic above the central apse by James Powell & Sons of Whitefriars.

Carnation pattern sconce
Carnation pattern sconce

The other Byzantine decoration is of course plasterwork. Lethaby describes the use of modelled stucco work by late Greek and Byzantine builders. Paulinus tells us that at Nolas "a cornice of gypsum" separated the mosaic and marble of the apse. About the middle of the fifth century, Galla Placidia built the church of St Croce in Ravenna "of very precious stones and with stucco (gypsea) modelled with the tool…" "The rich decoration of the chapel of S. Maria at Cividale (eighth to tenth century), and the Arab-Norman modelled stuccoes of Sicily, show that the traditions of this kind of ornament were not lost at a later time" (Boni). Lethaby draws attention to an ornamental plaster frieze at Haghia Sophia on the sides of the south porch, to a flat, frieze-like cornice of the first floor with two patterns of leafage. He quotes a contemporary poet describing its walls with ornament "like blue cornflowers in the grass, with, here and there, a drift of fallen snow".
 
The Byzantine was a style which used light subtly, diffusing it throughout its interior surfaces and volumes to create a feeling of movement, varying the thickness of plaster in which tesserae were set, making every relief or mosaic shimmer with life. Had not Plotinus defined beauty as symmetry irradiated by life? Lethaby among others was extending the notion of Gothic in its transition from the Byzantine. His popular survey ofMedieval Art begins its compass in 312 AD. He praises Byzantine buildings, with their domical vaulting ... wide-spreading [recalling perhaps the design intentions of his own Liverpool Cathedral] rather than high, for their "unity of construction"; for the Byzantines, he writes, "decoration was conceived as a covering over, but not disguising, of this frame, with a continuous and beautiful surface-skin".
 
Modelled plasterwork, rather than mosaic, was this surface-skin for Gimson, "fusing itself in the surface" of his buildings. Here was a traditional craft, more or less recognised by the great Arts and Crafts designers, one of the crafts revived by the Art-Workers' Guild itself as part of the general revival in traditional handicrafts. A natural evolution had followed from George Devey's picturesque, vernacular revival, already employing parge-work decoration in 1848-51 on a cottage at Leicester Square, Penshurst. But it was given to Gimson to reinvigorate it in its state of decline with rational thoroughness, penetrating to the reason of the thing, in Lethaby's phrase, following through every stage, as he did with his furniture design, from an analysis of materials, methods of working, design and then execution, touched "with emotion". According to Lethaby, Gimson revolutionised the craft: "his experiments in it were comparable to those of Morris in printing".
 
Gimson did not re-invent the craft of plasterwork single handed, of course. His methods and interests were always collaborative and he first studied the trade with the best available practitioners, like the firm of Whitcombe and Priestley. Lethaby wrote of this episode: "Mr Whitcombe was puzzled by Mr Gimson's 'messing about with plaster, dirty stuff' but finally explained it as 'just his hobby'."

The English tradition

Gimson practised the craft of plasterwork in collaboration with architect friends such as George Bankart, whose work is often hard to differentiate from his own, and Laurence Turner. Bankart was the most prolific designer and theorist in modelled plaster, responsible for the standard book, The Art of the Plasterer (Batsford, 1908), primarily an historical survey tracing its development from Antiquity, and for editing Plastering, Plain and Decorative (1926), a comprehensive technical treatment by the craftsman, William Millar, illustrated with his own work, and that of Gimson, Laurence Turner and Sedding.

Bankart cites the almost universal use of plasterwork in Greece from the new finds by Arthur Evans at Knossos, to Paestum, a site already well described, and its survival in Byzantine enrichments. The Roman use of plasterwork was widespread, with modelling in shallow relief, as described by Vitruvius. Then there are successive revivals such as that among the Moorish civilization in Spain, where its grammar of tireless virtuosity in calligraphic filigree and interlace had been famously celebrated at the Alhambra by Owen Jones. But above all Renaissance Italy, with the discovery of Roman stucco-duro, re-invented the processes of modelling in fine white plaster, and heightened colour treatment in tempera, encaustic colours or gesso, culminating in imitations after the antique in grotteschi by Giovanni da Udine and Giulio Romano, passing on to the school of Fontainebleau in France and, in England, to Henry VIII's opulent fantasy of applied adornment at Nonsuch in Surrey, dating from 1538.

The Arts and Crafts historical critique, according to Laurence Turner, Bankart and Gimson, extolled the native vernacular in earlier English examples, "old work [which] reveals the personality behind the design". There could be no better example than the work at Burton Agnes itself, produced when, Bankart writes, "the work of the English plasterer was at its zenith".

Gimson admires the simple, hand-modelled work at houses around him like Daneway, the sub-medieval Cotswold manor house at Sapperton where he exhibited his furniture; also houses like Wilderhope (Shropshire), Speke Hall (Merseyside), Chastleton (Oxfordshire), and Haddon Hall (Derbyshire). He sketches early plasterwork, like that at South Wraxall Manor (Wiltshire), and tellingly describes the treatment of flowers at Knole House (c. 1607) (in Kent):

The modelling is very simple. There are no sharp lines, no quick curves, no undercutting, none of those tricks of the modern plaster-worker for making his designs 'sparkle'; but instead, dull lines, gentle curves, and little variety of relief ... though it may lack something of realism, it expresses the freshness and healthy growth which is the most vital quality in the natural flower.

The emphasis is on the direct study of nature, decorating with an evidence of fresh thought, "a delight in growth, form, humanity ... Nature". His pupil, Norman Jewson, recognised similar qualities:

It is interesting to see how the study of nature affected the art when it was first brought to England. Plasterworkers went to nature then, perhaps because their craft was a new one, and possessed no tradition to be followed... Plasterwork was inspired with a life and freedom that sometimes reminds one of Romanesque and Early Gothic Art.

The decline of the tradition

But the subsequent development in the English tradition was not so happy. The Arts and Crafts critics find something to praise in the work associated with Inigo Jones, at Kirby Hall or Raynham Hall, for example, and for the School of Wren they retain a grudging admiration, Bankart completing successful pastiches in his Edwardian baroque at Barnett Hill (Surrey). But their thesis is simply that the craft of English plasterwork had steadily atrophied ever since.

The Arts and Crafts writers have no eye for the Georgian, and it is well to see what they were aiming at by comparing it with what they disliked. They describe its Entartung, in Max Nordau's memorable phrase of 1893, in a departure from Art, leading to deterioration, stagnation, misuse, degeneration, with enrichments of lifeless and meaningless ornaments, showing a distinct decline to a foreign and barbaric 'rococo' with detail less delicate, typically flat and clumsily handled. Kent and Campbell are "purely mechanical", "utterly devoid of any distinctive character"; while Hawksmoor's Christ Church, Spitalfields (1715) is already "crowded and heavy"; Isaac Ware's Chesterfield House, Mayfair (1749) is over-elaborate, and plasterwork, truly debased, has "fallen to its lowest ebb".

With Robert and James Adam, between say 1760 and 1790, the modelling is further restrained, but a delicacy of effect is attained by keeping the relief very low, and using a large amount of plain ground relative to ornament. Bankart concedes that the decoration of the Adams is delicate and subtle, though "feeble in its relief"; their ideas are mostly borrowed from the far more beautiful buildings they studied, "the imitation a substitute for the reality". Turner glosses: "But it is no longer worthy of the title 'plasterwork'; neither is it plaster, for most of it is 'compo' [like the material used for moulding picture frames]... In truth it is a reproduction of wood carving." The Adam brothers were followed by others like George Richardson, author of a book of ceiling designs (1776), working in compositions of scagliola, "and plasterwork as an art was dead and buried". Gordon House (1800) "is a specimen of how not to do it" (Turner).

Victorian plasterwork became increasingly dull and lifeless, pompous and mechanical with its complicated techniques producing cement-like effects, with Italianate schemes in 'Gothic compo', sometimes on a prodigious scale, with heavy consoles and festoons, as at Harlaxton, Lincolnshire (c. 1840), altogether losing "the quality of softness and ductility that should be the great charm of plasterwork" (Laurence Turner). The techniques of various patent fibrous plasters, like Desachy's French patent of 1856, involving combinations of plaster of Paris, glue, wood and canvas, were based on casting. Other patents involved producing fibrous slabs, as used in the old British Museum Reading Room, or papier mache ornaments pressed from moulds (a patent of 1858). There is less reliance "upon texture and delicate modelling, which is what I delight to see in plaster decoration", writes Turner. The Victorian work becomes bad because technically "it is almost too good", and "uncouth". The material itself is not seasoned, producing work as accurate as the slate bed of a billiard table, overdone. With its heavy undercutting, widespread use of armatures and bracketing in wood, wire and lath-work, it had come to deny the truth to material, in the great Arts and Crafts catch phrase: it was dishonest.

If the work was bad, the fault lay also in the conditions under which the trade operated. The industrial system of training, workmanship and supervision contributed to shoddy design and execution. Intrinsic to reform was a necessary redefinition of the dialogue between architect-designer, modeller and plasterer (Turner), between art and craft, conceiver and producer (Bankart). The modeller should stop copying old forms quite unsuited to the material and be taught to plaster, becoming responsible for the effect, and the plasterer should be taught to model, making the work healthy, as distinct and typical of our period as old work was of the time in which it was made.

The Arts and Crafts critique

In contrast, 'true plasterwork' for the Arts and Crafts critique shows decoration as the most natural expression of the artist's feeling for his material, vitalised by the energy behind the tool, addressed to the senses of seeing and feeling. It tells of a man's impressions, of his environment, of his susceptibility or dulness of nerve. Bankart makes a plea to get back to a childish simplicity, easy arrangements of ever-varying detail, giving pleasure and hope. Good plasterwork is vernacular in the sense that all men can participate and enjoy it. There are no craft 'mysteries'.

Plaster as a material combines ease of manipulation, with being sympathetic, susceptible to every touch and emotion from the hand. It is versatile; it can be modelled, cast, incised, coloured, stencilled, stamped -- from the size of a cameo to the vastness of a dome. It can be set as a jewel, or it may be applied, as at Nonsuch, to the facade of a palace. It is always a clothing to the rough material forming the structure, whether in a grand building or in a humble cottage, combining cheapness and durability.

Gimson was aiming at qualities of spontaneity of craftsmen who moved about from place to place; careful observation, simplicity and reticence, which he found together in the best work of the past, informed by the personality behind the design, the force of character. If constructive design has a purpose to fill apart from ornament, it is excusable only when it fulfils its own mission by being 'beautiful', that is, suitable to the material from which it springs, to the place it is to occupy, and the purpose it is intended for: "its loveliness is its apology". Gimson wrote:

If [the designer] is able to get a suggestion of nature in his work and is able to get a certain amount of order and rhythm into his design, his work will be interesting, be the modelling never so lumpy and never so dull. Indeed, something of dulness is always noticeable in good plaster-work … a quality which, together with the extent of the background, gives it a character of its own, and distinguishes it more than anything else from its sister art of carving.

Parge work decoration at the White House, Leicester
Parge work decoration at the White House, Leicester

In his extant works, or old photographs and design sketches and drawings, we can see that modelled plasterwork was one craft that Gimson practised with great originality to embellish his otherwise restrained interiors. His designs of vivid local animals, squirrels, birds, flowers and foliage of the countryside, of acorns and lilies, running vine trails, meandering stems of roses or blackberries, honeysuckle, strawberries, laid in careful repeats, framed among ribs in lozenges and panels, are playful enrichments to many of his houses, or the houses of other architects. Gimson's technique involves working from life, usually modelling in clay to produce plaster moulds, which are greased with shellac before casting in plaster of Paris. It was cast in short sections, like the old Byzantine plaster work at S. Apollinare in Classe, according to Lethaby, then applied.

Avon Tyrell, Hampshire
Avon Tyrell, Hampshire

Some of Gimson's earliest plaster ceilings he designed and executed for Lethaby in the main rooms at Avon Tyrrell, Hampshire (1891-2). Gimson notes the contrast here in the exterior pargework of a "raised rough surface" against the smooth, with his stag, the Manners' cipher and hearts. Lethaby recalled that in the summer of 1892, "he lodged for months in a cottage close by, and after my visits to the 'worker' in the morning we played cricket with the children in the afternoon." Lethaby described Gimson's work with soft rounded forms as

quite original and modern, but as good, every bit, as old work, and yet as simple as piecrust.

The White House, Leicester, for Arthur Gimson (Owlpen collection)
The White House, Leicester, for Arthur Gimson (Owlpen collection)

Bankart collaborated with Gimson at The White House, Clarendon Park, Leicester, for Arthur Gimson (c. 1897), another house where Gimson uses pargework as a bauplastik on the exterior; here it is formed of limewashed wire-cut bricks, with panels incised in the render coat with an oak tree and the date. Upper Dorvel House (c. 1901) at Sapperton has some of his most inspiring work, executed for Ernest Barnsley. A low linking hall has a ceiling divided into four compartments with plastered cross beams; 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, are delicate in the south light because only a few inches above head height.

Other buildings with good Gimson plasterwork include Pinbury Park (drawing June 1903) (he and the Barnsleys had formerly occupied the house and dependencies), one of his best-known designs, with trailing friezes and monograms to his patron, Lord Bathurst, in a new room; Borden Wood, Liphook (June 1903) with a frieze of curved diapers with floral panels in muted tempera colours; Purton Manor (1908), for L.R. Debenham; Wilsford House (March 1904-5) (a classical London house next to The Ritz); 8 Addison Road (1907), a house by Halsey Ricardo for Sir Frank Debenham, where good plaster ceilings still survive, as well as in his family's department store, at Debenham & Freebody's in Wigmore Street; Sheffield Park, Sussex (1911-2) (a grand drawing room and dining room); Sherwood Hill, Tunley, for Alfred Powell (c. 1902); The Council Chamber of the Town Hall, Bradford (1908); and The Cambridge Medical Schools (1915), with tempera-painted highlights to the trailing vines and roses.

Gimson also used designs raised in gesso work on his furniture, attaining the suavity of modelling of the absorbent ground for gilding of a Georgian looking glass, but here it is plain and unpainted, in soft relief. A flowing design is built up with the brush "full of a thick treacly paste", writes Millar, favouring forms such as dots, blobs and spots ... springing forms in branch, leaf and scroll work. There is a small oak box with interlace panels and Tudor roses in the Leicester Museum and an oak coffer with floral motifs, unfinished at his death, in the Cheltenham Museum, reminiscent of the formal patterns of early English needlework; we see him here characteristically developing the design with the potentialities of the medium and tool, and informing the past with his observation of nature.

Many other crafts were revived with new ornament appropriate to the transition from Victorian to twentieth-century design and materials under the inspiration of Gimson and his School. Lethaby was advocating new architectural uses for cast iron; Gimson followed the Seddon tradition as a successful designer in metal, and his sconces and fire andirons, often reworkings of late Tudor designs, are typical forms, taken up with enthusiasm by Jewson.

Leadwork

Another related architectural craft with which the Gimson School experimented was ornamental leadwork. It was a natural development as a craft associated with modelled plasterwork, using many of the same motifs and designs as positives for casting decorative details to functional rainwater heads and the collars to locate downpipes, with typical ornament of initials and cypress, heraldic decoration and dates, but also witty monkeys, squirrels and owls, and rope-twist or scalloped edges.

Leadwork was a craft preached, and to some extent practised, by architects in the same circle, Bankart, Lawrence Weaver, Francis W. Troup, and Lethaby himself, who saw it as characteristically English. He designed leadwork for Wenham and Waters, wrote a book on it, Leadwork, old and ornamental and for the most part English, 1893, and had a registered plumber, William Dodds, to give a class on lead casting at the Central School. He stresses its versatility in handling, like plaster, from hammering it out, casting, cutting and piercing, working in repousse, inlaying and engraving, gilding and ornamenting with tin, enamel or colour.

Like plaster, it is serviceable, durable and ductile, and it can be handled on any scale, from a medal to the great spire of Old St Paul's. England, with native supplies, had a 2000-year tradition of working in lead, particularly in architecture for roofing, then for guttering and downpipes with ornamental rainwater heads, while in France, for example, gutters remained in stone, with gargoyles and shutes. Again Lethaby cites the examples described or sketched by Gimson at Knole, Haddon, and various Oxford colleges. Jewson's leadwork can been seen to effect on Rodmarton Manor, the great monument of the Cotswold Arts and Crafts revival, begun by his father-in-law, Ernest Barnsley in 1909, and finished by him in 1928, with the addition of its leadwork. Another house with good Jewson leadwork is Cotswold Farm nearby, where many details first worked out for modelled plaster can be seen. The leadwork at Owlpen has been removed.

In his old age Jewson was a mentor and friend, a predecessor at Owlpen, who showed me something of Gimson's plaster techniques, telling how Gimson would model with his fourth finger, and lending his own and Gimson's moulds for embellishments to Owlpen cast under his supervision. For Jewson, like Gimson and Lethaby, was a teacher generous with his knowledge, and had shown other friends in this Cotswold Arts and Crafts Survival, like Simon and Judith Verity and David Gould, with whom we modelled flowers and animals from Norman Jewson's moulds, adding them to Owlpen in a manner which might mislead latter-day architectural historians.

Leadwork by Norman Jewson, for Owlpen Manor
Leadwork by Norman Jewson, for Owlpen Manor
 

Legacy of Gimson

Title page to Gimson memorial volume,  prepared by his friends after his death
Title page to Gimson memorial volume,prepared by his friends after his death

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.

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.

His plasterwork 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.

But as we enter the 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.

Bookplate for Sydney Gimson
Bookplate for Sydney Gimson

 

Literature

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

Adapted from a paper read at the University of York Institute for Advanced Architectural Studies Conference: Architectural Decoration 1900 given at Burton Agnes Hall on Wednesday 20 May 1998

© Nicholas Mander, Owlpen 2008