The English Tradition and Craft Work

Gimson's designs were rooted in his early enthusiasm for seventeenth and early eighteenth century work.

A walnut cabinet showing octagonal panels

A walnut cabinet showing octagonal panels

Detail of inlaid stringing in contrasting woods

Detail of inlaid stringing in contrasting woods

Plasterwork detail on the White House in Leicester

Plasterwork detail on the White House in Leicester

Most of his furniture designs were based on a traditional frame-and-panel construction. The surfaces were sometimes left completely plain giving the furniture a very modernist look with a four-square outline and flat planes. A rich surface texture was often provided by the wood itself – quartered oak, walnut, Cuban mahogany, and burred veneers – often in combination with the metal handles to Gimson’s design. Other pieces were designed to emphasise cabinet making skills with single or double fielded panels. By about 1910 the use of an octagonal fielded panel within a square one became a feature of Cotswold furniture by Gimson and Sidney Barnsley.

For finer furniture, he began using walnut, a native wood which was the mainstay of earlier cabinet work. Its susceptibility to woodworm and damage to trees following the savage winter of 1709 explained its unpopularity in the nineteenth century. By the end of the century walnut was readily available once again; the attractive grain and the rich colouring of the timber suited the simplicity of Gimson’s designs.

He included decorative details such as inlaid stringing in contrasting woods - usually holly and ebony - into some of his designs. This was a popular decorative motif on sixteenth-century English and Dutch chests picked up by a number of Arts and Crafts designers. It was traditionally used about 15mm wide inlaid into the edges of the furniture. Gimson refined the width down to between 5 to 7mm and inlaid it a similar distance from the edges providing a more elegant and refined emphasis to the simple lines of his furniture.

Because plaster was inherently a soft and malleable material, he believed that there should be no hard edges or deep undercutting in his designs and instead concentrated on fine modelling and soft shadow effects. He looked to old plasterwork in medieval and sixteenth-century houses for inspiration rather than the three-dimensional work used in Victorian building.

The Influence of Craftwork

As an architectural student, Gimson had spent holidays travelling around the English countryside. He sketched fine churches and country houses but also traditional barns, metalwork fittings and country furniture in some of the inns or guest houses where he stayed. He collected old and new domestic craft items. Contemporary photographs of his cottage at Pinbury include pottery pitchers and bowls as well as traditional seventeenth- and eighteenth-century metalwork such as candle sconces which inspired his own designs. He observed traditional craftsmen such as stone masons, wheelwrights and thatchers at work. In 1890, he learnt how to use a pole lathe to turn ash, elm and yew timbers into rush-seated ladder back chairs. There was a constant demand for this type of country furniture.

Detail of gouged decoration along the edge of a dressing table

Detail of gouged decoration along the edge of a dressing table

Chamfering detail on the edge of a mirror frame

Chamfering detail on the edge of a mirror frame

Dovetail joints shown on the edge of a drawer

Dovetail joints shown on the edge of a drawer

Gimson used woodworking techniques such as chamfering – the precise cuts made with a two-handled draw knife by wheelwrights to reduce the weight of the timber without affecting the strength – to give a taut, elegant line and to add visual interest to his designs. It was used on a variety of furniture including plate racks, dressers and the underframing of tables and had the added advantage of softening sharp edges and anticipating wear and tear. 

Chests, cabinets and sideboards based on a frame-and-panel construction were put together using beautifully cut dovetails and pinned joints. The open construction work, with details such as joints left exposed, was a reflection of the Arts and Crafts idea of honesty.

Gimson's insistence on the use of good quality materials selected with care combined with high standards of workmanship set a standard for Arts and Crafts furniture and indeed for craft furniture up to the present day. His work was particularly influential in central Europe, Scandinavia and America. His continued appeal is based on the outstanding quality of materials and workmanship, the carefully considered fitness for purpose, and the emphasis on proportion and pattern in his designs. The timelessness of his work is a result of his approach, best described in his own words:

‘I never feel myself apart from our own time by harking back to the past, to be complete we must live in all the tenses – past, future as well as present’.

Embroidery

Throughout the nineteenth century embroidery in Britain was dominated by a single technique, cross- or tent-stitch in wool on canvas. The original source for canvases and wool for this type of embroidery had been Germany and it became known as Berlin woolwork. Patterns were readily available and designs could be reproduced with minimum skill.

In the 1850s, when he was in his early twenties, William Morris began designing embroideries inspired by medieval examples. His dense flowing designs contained trees, flowers and figures as well as simple repeating patterns. Such designs were produced commercially by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company (later Morris and Company) from the late 1860s. When Gimson moved to London in 1886 he regularly visited the firm’s shop, next door to Sedding’s office at 227 Oxford Street. He described the shop to his elder brother, Sydney, recently married and setting up home in Leicester, as

‘a treasure house for anyone furnishing. [Morris] is now making two pieces of tapestry designed by himself and his friend B. Jones only £250 each. Try and persuade a rich friend to buy them.’

Gimson saw and admired some of the firm’s finest embroideries and bought lengths of printed fabric. His friend William Lethaby recalled their student travels:

‘on going to his lodgings I found he had brought with him large pieces of Morris chintz as an easy way of “having something to look at” in his sitting room.’

His half-sister Sarah Gimson worked an embroidery from a kit sold by Morris and Company and in 1890 Gimson was given the job of making a frame in the form of a fire screen to hold it. At the same time he was beginning to design embroideries himself. He wrote to Sarah:

‘I have not done Maggie’s design yet. I began one in cross-stitch but the mere drawing of the diagram would be a fortnight’s work so that I must give it up. I will do one for outline stitch with a little filling in here and there.’

Gimson designed embroidery

Gimson designed embroidery

White-on-white embroidery detail

White-on-white embroidery detail

Margaret Gimson

Margaret Gimson

Arts and Crafts embroidery, then known as art needlework, were characterised by the use of limited number of strong motifs with well-emphasised lines. Designers and needleworkers were encouraged to study fine old examples in churches and museums. Gimson collected photographs of Elizabethan, Persian and Indian embroideries from the South Kensington Museum and sketched details of embroidered and woven textiles on his travels in Italy and France. These served as inspiration for his designs together with his drawings from nature. He often chose traditional English flowers such as cowslips, pinks, dog roses, honeysuckle and sweet pea. During the 1890s and 1900s Gimson produced embroidery designs that were worked by his sisters Maggie and Sarah, by Phyllis and Nellie Lovibond, the sisters-in-law of Sydney Gimson, and by Evelyn Bankart, the wife of George Bankart. He liked the restraint of white-on-white embroidery for domestic work and often used this combination for tablecloths, table runners and table linen.

After about 1905 Gimson’s increasing reputation as a designer of furniture and metalwork, the day-to-day pressures of employing craftsmen and running workshops, the increasing commitments of his female relatives and friends (making them less available to embroider his designs), and possibly his wife’s growing interest in the craft of weaving, led to his virtual abandonment of embroidery design. His contribution alongside those of other Arts and Crafts designers, pioneered an reappraisal of embroidery which continues to influence and inform contemporary work.

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Gimson as a Maker