Ernest Gimson moved to London from Leicester early in 1886. By March he was settled in lodgings in Lady Margaret’s Road, Kentish Town and working in the office of John Sedding.
The office was in Oxford Street next door to the showrooms of Morris and Company which Gimson described as ‘a treasure house for anyone furnishing’. He lived on a tight budget and in order to buy books he developed, ‘a plan of saving 12s [12 shillings/60p] per week by dispensing with buses and trains and dining off buns’. Among the books was reading at this time was ‘The Earthly Paradise’, William Morris’s prose romance first published in 1868.
In London he made contact with Clara Collet, his friend from Leicester who had moved back to London the previous year. Gimson would play billiards whilst with the Collet family and also accompanied them to political meetings. In September 1887 he was living in digs in Notting Hill and he stayed in that area until the beginning of 1891 when he moved to rooms in Raymond Buildings, Gray’s Inn. Gimson shared these rooms with Sidney Barnsley and their mentor, the architect Philip Webb, lived in the same building. Alfred Powell recalled that:
‘…it was wonderful in old smoky London to find yourself in those fresh, clean rooms, furnished with good oak furniture and a trestle table that at seasonable hours surrendered its drawing boards to a good English meal, in which figured, if I remember right, at least on guest nights, a great stone jar of the best ale.’
The Architectural Office of John D Sedding
John Dando Sedding made his reputation as a church architect, working on both new buildings and restorations. He moved to London from Bristol in 1876 and set up offices on the upper floors of 447 Oxford Street. When Gimson joined his office ten years later, Sedding was working on the Church of the Holy Redeemer in Clerkenwell, London, one of the first churches in the capital to be built in the classical style since the time of Sir Christopher Wren.
Sedding encouraged his students to study old buildings, to work with traditional craftsmen and to draw from nature. He took a fatherly interest in his pupils and assistants.
Many of the young radical students who formed the driving force of the Arts & Crafts Movement came from his office and that of Richard Norman Shaw. Gimson worked with Henry Wilson, Walter Butler, Alfred Powell, Arthur Grove and Ernest Barnsley in Sedding’s office. Ernest Barnsley had moved to London from Birmingham early in 1885. Later that year his younger brother Sidney started training with Shaw and the two men provided a close and important link between the two offices. Gimson became particularly close to the Barnsleys, to Butler and Powell, and to W. R. Lethaby who was Shaw’s chief clerk.
Gimson’s letters reflect the close knit and rather chaotic character of Sedding’s office. One of his first jobs was to survey the site for the new church at Clerkenwell. As there was no tape measure in the office he had to borrow one from another architect. There was a certain amount of fun and games as well as discussions on politics, literature and design alongside long hours at a drawing board.
The two architectural offices of Sedding and Richard Norman Shaw were considered the best and most radical in London in the 1880s. The friendships that were made through the offices were tremendously influential on the course of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Gimson’s close friends in London included two brothers from Birmingham, Ernest and Sidney Barnsley. They were the youngest sons of Edward William Barnsley whose father John had established the successful building firm, John Barnsley and Sons, responsible for many of the prominent new buildings in the city in the second half of the nineteenth century. They both chose to train as architects and after attending classes at Birmingham School of Art they moved to London in 1885. Ernest joined Sedding’s office and Sidney that of Shaw; the two men formed a link between the two offices.
The brothers were different characters, Ernest Barnsley, older by two years, was also taller and a more confident out-going character. Sidney Barnsley was of slighter build. His innate shyness and reserve may have been increased by the deaths of both parents before his sixteenth birthday. In 1887 Ernest Barnsley returned to Birmingham, married Alice Townsley and set up an architectural practice in the city. Sidney Barnsley won a scholarship to study Byzantine architecture in Greece with Robert Weir Schultz another ex-student from Shaw’s office. They spent nearly two years travelling from the spring of 1888.
William Lethaby from Barnstaple worked in Shaw’s office for ten years from 1878 ending up as chief clerk. He took Gimson to meetings of the Art Workers’ Guild and in return was introduced to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings by Gimson in 1891. The two men planned to set up a craft workshop together with Detmar Blow.
Blow grew up in Croydon, attended the South Kensington School of Art and was articled to a London architectural firm from about 1885. He also had some links with Sedding’s office in 1889 and became a close friend of both Lethaby and Gimson. He was seen very much as a precocious talent and was awarded the Architectural Association Travelling Scholarship in 1888. It was while he was in France that he met John Ruskin and ended up travelling with the eminent writer and artist for six months.
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings
After his move to London in 1886 Gimson quickly became part of the circle of younger men round Morris. In 1889 Morris proposed his election to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and Gimson became a member of the committee alongside Philip Webb, Sidney Cockerell, Emery Walker and Morris himself.
The Society was founded in 1877 by William Morris and his close friend the architect Philip Webb. There was a growing concern in the mid nineteenth century about the over-enthusiastic restoration work carried out on medieval buildings. Churches were particularly vulnerable. While staying at Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire during the summer of 1876, Morris was shocked to discover the extent of restoration work being carried out on Burford Church. A threat to Tewkesbury Abbey the following year spurred him on to found the society. It was affectionately known as Anti-scrape because that was what it did – it tried to regulate architects and builders from scraping away at accumulated layers of alterations etc. to produce a sanitised version of historic buildings.
Philip Webb was the most experienced architect involved in the society. He made sure that the younger generation of architects involved in the society had a real understanding of the way medieval buildings were put together. He encouraged them to get physically involved in stone carving, carpentry and other building crafts. In 1891 Gimson introduced Lethaby to the society. Lethaby described it as:
‘a remarkable teaching body. Dealing as it did with the common facts of traditional buildings in scores and hundreds of examples, it became under the technical guidance of Philip Webb…the real school of practical building, architecture with all the whims which we usually call ‘design’ left out.’
The committee met regularly every Thursday, discussed cases for two hours then crossed the Strand to an Italian eating house, Gatti’s for tea. According to the diaries of Sidney Cockerell, he and Gimson attended over thirty of the weekly meetings in 1891. They visited sites and campaigned on behalf of the society. On one occasion Cockerell described how they left London on a Saturday morning in February ‘dark with fog like midnight’ to inspect a tithe barn at Burroughbury, near Peterborough.
Gimson continued to undertake projects for the Society throughout his working life. He co-operated with the architect William Weir who gradually took over responsibility for the Society’s practical work from Philip Webb from 1900. Weir worked with his own team of builders and craftsmen but often approached Gimson for assistance where wood working was involved. Projects included the repair in English oak to the stone tracery of a window at Whaplode church, Lincolnshire, interior fittings at Staverton church, Northamptonshire and Ranworth church, Norfolk.
Gimson made his first trip abroad in 1887. He travelled to Italy with Ernest Barnsley in January to study architecture having prepared by reading John Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture and other travel books and by learning some basic Italian phrases. Some of the highlights of their trip were Genoa ‘the great walls along the shore and the seven forts crowning the hill add a great deal to its beauty’; Perugia ‘It is by far the loveliest place we have seen yet. It is built on the top of a high hill, like Siena, and can boast of streets as narrow and as steep, and of people more picturesque’; Florence ‘We had breakfast at eight and then spent the time till lunch in gazing at Giotto’s tower from every point of view in tense excitement at its loveliness and in dreaming in the Baptistry in an ecstasy of delight’. They enjoyed Venice but deplored the efforts of restorers:
‘St Mark’s is one of the few things that it is almost impossible to overpraise but the restorers are at work, scraping, cleaning and renewing and making it as much like a restaurant as possible.’
Gimson sketched buildings, produced measured drawings of details such as Pisano’s fountain at Perugia and a bronze candlestick in a church at Genoa, and copied patterns from metalwork, textiles, inlaid marble and stonework. They enjoyed most of what Gimson described as ‘the inconveniences and vulgarities’ of Italian life including sharing a bottle of local wine with the monks at St Peter’s, Perugia. By late June the two men were returning home through France stopping at Rheims, Amiens, Rouen, Chartres, and Bayeux among other places on the way and arriving back in London in August 1887.