Gimson took great inspiration from nature as many other Arts & Crafts designers but he was also influenced by Byzantine and Islamic art in some of his work.
Drawing from Nature
Gimson was brought up in the city of Leicester but he spent some of his happiest days exploring the surrounding countryside. He was not a healthy child and, as in many Victorian families, a number of his brothers and sisters had died young. Fresh air and outdoor pursuits were considered beneficial and whenever possible holidays and weekends were spent in the countryside. The one surviving childhood notebook is full of precisely observed descriptions of birds and animals, and plants and flowers. In June 1877, when Gimson was thirteen, he wrote to his elder brother, Sydney, from Quorndon, a village about 10 miles north of Leicester on the edge of the Charnwood Forest, where the younger members of the family were staying with their mother. He described the joys of walking through streams, sheltering from rain under hedges and watching pheasants and doves in the natural habitat.
Throughout his life he enjoyed walking in the country. He would carefully observe plants and flowers, draw from nature and then adapt his drawings into designs for a variety of media.
Gimson’s designs for plasterwork or embroidery are characterised by rhythmic repeating patterns and flowing lines. His patterns for inlays on furniture capture the essence of the flower or plant but are much less fluid. For metalwork such as candle sconces or firedogs, his designs had to be simplified, with hard-edged cut-out shapes and chased or stamped lines. He was very clear that the process of design started with looking at a plant or flower and drawing it but then adapting the drawing to a design that suited the medium. This was the way many Arts and Crafts designers worked following the example of William Morris.
The artist and writer, John Ruskin, highlighted the Byzantine influence on Italian art and architecture in ‘The Stones of Venice’, published in three volumes between 1851 and ‘53. As an architectural student, Gimson followed in Ruskin’s footsteps, travelling to Venice, Ravenna and other Italian sites. There he sketched many details such as an inlaid marble pavement in the Cathedral in Siena, a carved stone cross in Torcello, and raised velvet fabric in Florence. He also visited museums in London particularly the Victoria and Albert Museum (then known as the South Kensington Museum) where he studied different collections and bought photographs of Byzantine and Islamic textiles, and inlaid cabinets and boxes from the Indian sub-continent.
This source material inspired distinctive designs for furniture with geometric inlays in mother of pearl, bleached bone, silver or contrasting woods. This style was particularly appropriate for cabinets, small boxes, candlesticks and church fittings. Although he tended to use locally available timbers particularly oak, walnut, beech and chestnut, he also bought in more exotic woods such as mahogany and Macassar ebony. This type of ebony was selected for its bold contrasting figure and was particularly suitable for inlaid work because it was easier to cut than other hard woods.
This decorative work was often used on cabinets with combinations of drawers, pigeon holes or cupboards. This type of furniture was inspired by the Spanish and Portuguese vargueno popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Gimson would have seen and admired examples in the South Kensington Museum.
Designs based on plants and flowers were central to Islamic art. Some of the finest work was found on Persian and Turkish pottery, and on Indian embroideries and inlaid furniture. Gimson’s designs for plasterwork and embroidery were inspired partly by the patterns he saw on such pieces. The flowing rhythmic effect was sometimes increased by the use of overlapping roundels and other shapes containing simple flower-based designs.