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Chairmaking: learning the craft

Ladderback chair by Clissett
Ladderback chair by Clissett
Sometime in 1890 Gimson spent a few weeks with Philip Clissett, a chairmaker in the village of Bosbury, Herefordshire. Clissett, who was described by Alfred Powell as resembling, ‘what the old aristocratic poor used to be’, has become synonymous with country chairmaking in the late nineteenth century because of his fortuitous connection with the Arts and Crafts Movement. He was one of a number of makers working in the West Midlands during this period including John Kerry and William Cole. They made chairs using local green wood, mainly ash and elm, for the local market. Their typical wares were low backed chairs with wooden seats. Clissett however was ‘discovered’ by the Arts and Crafts architect, James MacLaren, working nearby in Ledbury in the 1880s. Clissett was commissioned to make ladderback chairs to a traditional design adapted by MacLaren and examples were bought for the meeting hall of the Art Workers’ Guild. In 1906 these chairs were being sold for 8s 6d (about 40p), with the low-backed version selling for 7s 6d. Clissett’s chairs were sold at Heal’s in Tottenham Court Road, London in the early years of the twentieth century.
Gimson would have seen these chairs at Guild meetings and decided learn the basics of the craft. He spent a few weeks with Clissett, making himself a pole lathe and trying his hand at chair making. He also included Clissett’s chairs in the Kenton and Company exhibitions in 1891.
The ladderback chairs that Gimson made himself were understandably more crude than those made by Clissett. They had a straight rather than a curved back and the shaping of the arms was rougher. However Gimson’s chairs which can be seen in the photograph of the workshop at Pinbury were more self-consciously artistic especially in the way that the slats become deeper as they go up the back. Gimson also entered a rush-seated rocking chair in the 1893 Arts and Crafts exhibition illustrated in the November issue of The Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher. It had five straight slats down the back with two pairs of turned supports between each slat. This exhibit was the best seller in the show that year. 15 chairs were sold at a price of £1 10s each. Gimson went on making chairs himself at Pinbury until about 1902.