Furniture DNA I: Ernest Gimson … A kind of perfect Cotswold trailblazer

Nobody relishes damnation by faint praise, but the influential theorist W R Letharby described the furniture of Ernest Gimson as, ‘One kind of ‘perfect’…. pleasantly shaped and finished, good enough but not too good for ordinary use’.

Nevertheless, Gimson was to become one of the most gifted and influential designers of what became known as the Arts and Crafts movement.

Gimson was born in Leicester in 1864 into a family of makers. His grandfather was a carpenter and his father an engineer and iron founder whose Vulcan Works cast the great beam engines which pumped sewage as part of badly needed improvements to municipal sanitation. At about the same time the firm also cast two bridges over the Grand Union Canal.

The family genes however skipped a generation because it was at his grandfather’s profession that Gimson made his mark. And after attending a lecture on ‘Art and Socialism’ given by William Morris in January 1884 at the Leicester Secular Society, Gimson’s talent received its’ philosophical underpinnings.

After attending Leicester School of Art, Gimson moved to London and worked for the architectural practice of John Dando Sedding where he learnt craft techniques, an understanding of textures, animals and other naturalistic forms all drawn from life. And it was from here that he frequently visited Morris & Co’s adjacent showrooms, and where he met Ernest Barnsley and subsequently Sidney Barnsley with whom he would ultimately establish the preeminent Arts and Crafts workshop in Sapperton Gloucestershire and cement the movement’s link to the Cotswolds.

Not, however, before the very short-lived Kenton and Company was established in the best traditions of the Arts and Crafts movement to produce well designed furniture with the best possible workmanship. Gimson wrote about his company ‘Lethaby, Blow and I are joining together in a little business.  We are going to take a shop in Bloomsbury for the sale of furniture of our own design…We are all to have bedrooms and offices in the same building and to share expenses.’ Each furniture piece was stamped with the initials of its’ designer and maker, a far cry from his father’s sewage pumps manufactured to combat Leicester’s growing diarrhoea epidemic.

When Gimson and his Arts and Crafts pals finally moved to Sapperton it would be to experiment with a different approach to life and work with the emphasis very much on understanding the area, using local building traditions, local materials and local craftsman. This romantic rural vision extended to keeping hens and goats, baking bread and brewing cider. But the Cotswolds was also well placed for Leicester, Birmingham and London and in addition it had cheap accommodation for rent.

The design approach of the Arts and Crafts designers presaged so much of what we now call the Modern Movement. Where design comes out of a full understanding of furniture’s purpose and a deep understanding of proportion, materials, tools and assembly techniques. The Gimson/Cotswold variant of this approach used solid wood and veneers to express character. And it delighted in using the pattern of dovetail, tenon and dowel construction to further add character. The furniture was often not perfectly smooth, left with the mark of the carpenter’s plane and only finished with beeswax.

There was some restrained decoration that took the form of gouging, chamfering and sometimes panelling with curved moulding. There was also inlay work with contrasting timbers such as holly and ebony, but these ‘decorative’ effects were all applied to reinforce the very simple and to our eyes ‘modern’ compositions comprising simple geometric furniture forms. All supported by an elegant architecture of legs, rails and stretchers, with connection details that subtly add to the character and identity of the individual piece.

As far as Gimson’s international standing is concerned, a relationship existed with his European counterparts through exhibitions and magazines. The furniture from Sapperton probably inspired the American Arts and Crafts Movement and surely inspired the Deutsche Werkbund and the Wiener Werkstatte. Contemporary designs by Adolf Loos for interiors in Vienna and Pilsen show furniture, strikingly similar to Gimson’s, stripped to its’ essential components and giving no quarter to needless decoration.

Indeed, so renowned was the Sapperton workshop that even the young Swedish designer-maker Carl Malmsten visited Gimson and took that reverence for materials and craftsmanship to create some of the mid- 20th century’s most enduring designs still available in Stockholm furniture stores. In conclusion we could say Gimson, like Malmsten, stood at that cusp, in the story of design, between the claustrophobic opulence of the Victorian age and the empty machine-like interiors of the modern age. The last gasp of a gentler time before the cataclysms of 20th century would change our sensibilities for ever.

The writer would like to thank the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Musée d’Orsay for the use of their images of Gimson’s furniture.

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