Only a few photographs of Gimson have survived. One shows him with his friend W.R. Butler photographed in York in 1888.
Both men were on a sketching tour of northern England having just completed their architectural training. In a letter to his sister Margaret, known as Maggie, the 24-year old Gimson wrote:
‘I hope you admire the hat and waistcoat in the photo I send you. The waistcoat is blue with spots; the hat (worn by Butler) is light brown lined with green. It has caused immense sensation in every town we have been to.’
Norman Jewson, who first met Gimson in the summer of 1907, subsequently described his first impressions:
‘He was a tall, well-built man with a slight stoop, a large rather heavy face, except when he smiled, a brown moustache and wide-open contemplative eyes. His expression was that of a man entirely at peace with himself and all the world. His tweed suit hung loosely over a soft shirt and collar, with a silk tie threaded through a ring. Being summer he wore a panama hat instead of his usual cloth cap, but in all seasons he wore heavy hobnailed boots made for him by a cobbler in Chalford.’
What sort of person was he?
As a boy he loved being outdoors, playing in the countryside around Leicester. He would go to Belgrave and Bradgate Parks and the Charnwood Forest and fill notebooks with details of the plants and wildlife. According to his sister Maggie he spent his pocket money in Leicester market, buying owls and jackdaws sold as pets and setting them free. A youthful notebook included several drafts of an angry letter to the Leicester Post in 1882 in response to an earlier request in its pages for specimens of birds and animals for the local museum. Gimson accepted the need for examples for scientific study and general interest but protested against the collection of duplicate specimens.
He had strong convictions throughout his life. These led him to cut short his articles to Isaac Barradale early in 1884 and to break off the partnership with Ernest Barnsley in about 1903. It was probably the volume of his correspondence as a young student which drove William Morris to write to his daughter, May, in 1885:
‘Thank you for sending on Gimson’s letter: though I will say this of him:
There is a young person named Gimson
I could wish that he never had limbs on
For then, do you see
His writing to me
Would have been a tough matter to Gimson.’
As the same time his strength of character and vision enabled him to achieve a great deal both as a designer and as an employer of craftsmen.
He was a great walker all his life. Maggie Gimson remembered walking with him from Leicester to Sapperton in Gloucestershire in about 1900. It took them four or five days covering about 20 miles a day. The distance along the Fosse Way is about 75 miles.
Gimson enjoyed theatre and music particularly the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. He had a good singing voice and was regularly involved in amateur dramatics. He obviously impressed William Morris when they met in Leicester in 1884 and he quickly became part of the circle of younger men round Morris when he moved to London in 1886. According to the silversmith and jeweller, John Paul Cooper, the two men became friends one evening spent discussing and quoting poetry. He recalled that Gimson was, ‘great at telling amusing tales of his friends but it was kindly done.’ 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. They met regularly every Thursday evening and after the committee meetings adjourned to Gatti’s, an eating house in Charing Cross Road for tea and conversation.
Emery Walker, the printer and associate of William Morris, got to know Gimson in London in the late 1880s. Following the move to the Cotswolds in 1893, Walker was one of many London friends to visit Gimson and the Barnsleys for weekends and holidays. Dorothy Walker, his only child, was twenty-one on their first long holiday in the Cotswolds in the summer of 1899. She was charmed by Gimson. She described days trying out the chair making lathe in the workshop, drawing, playing croquet and walks and picnics and evenings spent playing games or listening to his creepy ghost stories and songs. Here are some of the entries from her diary:
Sunday, August 27th:
Mr Gimson gave us tea in The Nuns' Walk, and the Barnsleys and he came to supper. Very jolly evening. Enjoyed it very much. Mr G. ridiculous. He was very funny and teasing.
Wednesday, August 30th:
Made cakes. After dinner, thunderstorm. I swept the barn. At 4 all Pinbury assembled for tea, after which we had lovely games of all kinds. I liked 'Adverbs' best, I think, but what was finest was Mr Gimson's reciting of Lord Dunsany - his stammer. Then home to supper and bed.
Saturday, September 2nd:
Rode to meet Miss Starr and drove back in wagonette. Very busy getting ready for the Supper in the barn. So exciting! It was lovely. We played 'Blind Man's Bluff' and 'Lodgings to Let'. Simply lovely. Mr Gimson sang several songs, especially 'Coming down from Bangor'.
Friday, September 8th:
Went to draw Mr Gimson's cottage. He asked me in to tea and showed me some of the drawings he did when he was 21, and was so encouraging and kind to me.
Friends and colleagues such as Alfred Powell and Fred Griggs commented on his warmth, sincerity and ability to notice and enjoy the good in everything.
As he grew older Gimson became more and more uncomfortable in big cities. After his death, the architect and engraver Fred Griggs remembered how once:
‘…when we had a long wait in Manchester, we spent the time over a tea-table in a corner (to which he had hurriedly dragged me, as if we were pursued) and surprised the waitress by shyly asking if we could be given ‘something made in the country.’
His last visit to London was a short one, during the illness that proved fatal. We had taken him up to see a specialist from whom a hopeful verdict would have meant a longer stay and an operation; when we had to return the same afternoon to Paddington, he alone could smile – because he was not to stay in London, but could return to the country and his home for the last few days.’
Gimson was a diffident person. Although he believed passionately that what he was doing was worthwhile and important, he wasn’t good at or even particularly interested in promoting his work. He hoped that he would be able to provide continuous employment for his craftsmen and that his approach to architecture and design would be recognised and would provide a way forward for society.
What was Gimson’s philosophy of life?
Norman Jewson described Gimson’s beliefs and attitudes, writing:
‘On big issues – religion and politics – he preferred to keep his opinions to himself although he was an agnostic and a liberal. He thought everyone should decide for themselves. Tolerant of other people’s ways of life, his own habits were carefully regulated, and not without a certain austerity.‘
As an architectural student in London in the 1880s, Gimson’s circle included many socialists including William Morris and his friend Philip Webb and fellow-students William Lethaby and W R Butler. In February 1888 he wrote to his friend Ernest Barnsley:
‘On Friday we had the delight of listening to Morris on art at the Art Workers’ Guild. Lethaby and Schultz and Butler were in their element applauding his socialism to the echo. ‘It’s a d----d wicked world’.
Gimson however was not a socialist. He called himself an individualist, inspired by the nineteenth-century writer and philosopher Herbert Spencer whose work was influential in France and the United States as well as in Britain.
Spencer (1820-1903) came from an unconventional family of Methodists in Derby and, as a young man, worked as a writer and sub-editor for the financial weekly paper The Economist. He was part of a radical circle which included the writers Thomas Carlyle and George Eliot and the scientist T H Huxley. Spencer published his first book in 1851 Social Statistics, or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness and from 1853 a small legacy from his uncle enabled him to concentrate on his writing. His major work was the nine-volume A System of Synthetic Philosophy (1862-93) which covered biology, sociology, ethics and politics. It was Spencer who first coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ which was picked up by Charles Darwin in later editions of the Origin of Species.
Spencer was an agnostic and criticised religious practice and doctrine. He argued that humans can neither acquire knowledge about a divine being nor test beliefs in such a being. At the same time he also stated that fundamental religious beliefs cannot be proved false. He believed that there should be as few artificial restrictions as possible over human beings and that freedom promoted human happiness. Progress depended on the development of individuals; society could only change with the change and development of individual members. Individual rights, such as free speech, universal suffrage, equal rights of women, were essential to social progress.
Radical circles in Leicester were enthusiastic about Spencer’s philosophy. Auberon Herbert, a disciple of Spencer’s, visited Leicester regularly and spoke at the Secular Society. Gimson wrote to his brother, Sydney, after one such lecture:
‘I knew you would be delighted with Auberon Herbert. As you say there is no logical halting place between his individualism and Communism. I think there can be no doubt that the most perfect state of social union is that in which everyone does the right thing willingly, and if that is granted what alternative is there but to work for that state – that is of course provided that they see some chances of approaching it. Ruskin and Morris grumble because now we manufacture everything but men and women. How can you manufacture them better than under a system of Individualism? … The debates at the office have all been on Individualism lately and it is remarkable, the progress it is making. At first I was the only one who was not a Ruskin Socialist now I have the majority with me. It is only a matter of time to make them all Atheists as well. But I don’t discuss that subject unless specially appealed to.‘
Herbert also started a newspaper locally, The Leicester Reasoner, for which Gimson was asked to design a masthead. In the course of the project he wrote to his brother, Sydney:
‘In reading Ruskin the other day I came across this motto: ‘Every man a law to himself’ that would be a good one don’t you think? It shows the distinction between liberty and licence that should be made clear.’
Dorothy Walker recalled one evening in 1899 when her mother, a committed Christian, got into a heated discussion with Gimson about religion and the possibility of an everlasting life.
‘I certainly take Mr Gimson's view, at least as much as I have ever thought of it. That it would be fearful to imagine in a world to come an everlasting time that would go on for ever. It appals me quite.’