Thursday, December 12, 2019

Building touched with emotion

Annette Carruthers, Mary Greensted, and Barley Roscoe, Ernest Gimson: Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect

Published by Yale University Press

The time is ripe for a new study of Ernest Gimson, a man whose multiple careers as architect, designer and craftsman, seem to exemplify the Arts and Crafts movement. Three scholars who have long been deeply immersed in Gimson’s world and work have obliged, and the resulting book, drawing on Gimson’s buildings, designs, extensive archive of drawings, and on the writings and work of contemporaries, fulfils its promise.

The first section deals with Gimson’s life. His upbringing in Leicester is covered, together with his time articled to a local architect, followed by a longer period in the office of J. D. Sedding in London. Already interested in such progressive ideas as Secularism, Gimson is brought through Sedding’s office into contact with luminaries such as William Morris, and he soon shows interests in socialism and in the work of the SPAB. Still a young man, he travels to Italy and France, widening his visual education like many a young architect of the time, and designs both houses and furniture, but he also starts to learn craft skills such as plastering.

The book next describes how Gimson becomes one of those young architect-designers who follows the example of Morris and moves to the country – not merely by finding a rural retreat, as Morris had done at Kelmscott, but by going the whole hog and setting up house and workshop in the Cotswolds. The book’s account of his life at Sapperton in Gloucestershire is full and absorbing. We learn about his marriage, his friends and colleagues the Barnsleys, who also move to Sapperton, and his houses. Above all, we learn about the variety of his work.

Never let it be said that a country life is a quiet one. Gimson soon became occupied practising a range of arts and crafts – architecture, design, plastering, chair-making – and of creating the conditions where related activities – furniture workshops, a smithy – could flourish. He found himself running workshops, managing numerous employees and apprentices, sorting out accommodation for single workers, and arranging for everyone’s work to be exhibited both in Gloucestershire and in London. He was pricing jobs, overseeing work, ensuring that high standards of craftsmanship were maintained, and balancing the requirements of designers, makers, and clients. And then there were houses to design, architectural competitions to enter, and projects for various churches and historic buildings.

Further light is shed on all this by a fascinating chapter on Gimson’s approach to design. This highlights they way he saw design as being integrated with every other concern of an architect – in other words, a design should emerge from a project’s construction and materials, and the tools and techniques used to produce it. This chapter also has illuminating things to say about Gimson’s love of drawing, his use of natural motifs and patterns, his interest in craftsmanship and building materials, and his Morris-like ideals of work. At the end of the chapter, the story of the chance survival of many of Gimson’s drawings. Daniel Herdman, Librarian Curator at Cheltenham, rescued them when they were on the point of being consigned to a bonfire. They remain a part of the outstanding Arts and Crafts collection in Cheltenham’s museum, The Wilson,* and are beautifully reproduced in the book, as are the many photographs of Gimson’s buildings and the objects he designed.

The second part of the book consists of a series of stunningly illustrated chapters on the various aspects of Gimson’s work – from plasterwork and metalwork to interior design and architecture. All are fascinating, but those on interiors and architecture will most interest readers of this blog. Nearly all his buildings use traditional materials and draw on vernacular architecture in their design. Yet the authors of this book show their unusual qualities too – innovative house plans, dramatic roof frameworks, meticulous workmanship, and occasionally unexpected choices of colour. The buildings range from small workers’ cottages to large middle-class homes to still larger houses, like Waterlane House, a Cotswold residence that Gimson enlarged seamlessly. Not everyone will know the striking hall and gorgeous library that Gimson designed for Bedales School – the latter a feast of interior woodwork. Fewer still will be familiar with the ambitious proposals he entered for the competition for a plan and design for the city of Canberra, all towers, domes, and Byzantine-looking arches. The proposed HQ for the Port of London Authority is also unknown to most non-specialists. Whether it is these grand schemes or little known cottages, Ernest Gimson does its subject a service by bringing them and their architect to wider notice.

Gimson himself was noticed by his contemporaries, by colleagues who carried on the tradition, like Peter Waals and Harry Davoll, and by members of groups like the SPAB, with which Gimson worked. W. R. Lethaby, architect, writer, and teacher, was one of those whose judgement continued to be respected when he described Gimson’s work approvingly as ‘building touched with emotion’. If time has been less kind to the ethos of craftsmanship that Gimson lived by and fostered, the buildings and craft objects remain – houses still lived in and loved, the Bedales library still in use, furniture and metalwork still cherished or admired in museums. The authors of Ernest Gimson deserve congratulation for making this legacy more widely known and more deeply understood.

* The Wilson is hosting a special exhibition, Ernest Gimson: Observation, Imagination and Making, until 25 February 2020.

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