Ernest Gimson set up a company with four of his peers. The firm’s objective was to supply furniture of good design and the best workmanship.
Setting up the Firm
The emphasis on practical involvement in building and craftwork from both Sedding’s office and the Anti-scrape circle fostered a desire among Gimson and his fellow-architects to escape what Lethaby described as, ‘the deathly dreariness of the respectable offices, with framed ‘perspectives’ on the walls and clerks slaving in the background’.
On 22 June 1890 Gimson wrote:
‘Lethaby, Blow and I are joining together in a little business. We are going to take a shop in Bloomsbury for the sale of furniture of our own design and make, besides other things such as plaster friezes, leadwork and needlework etc.
We are all to have bedrooms and offices in the same building and to share expenses.’
Initially the three young men had been looking for a cottage in the country to form the centre of a semi-permanent/weekend craft community. William Lethaby and Detmar Blow were architects like Gimson, fellow-members of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and friends. Lethaby trained in Barnstaple and worked in the Midlands before joining Norman Shaw’s office while Blow had connections with Sedding’s office and worked with Gimson at the plasterworkers, Whitcombe and Priestlys.
The scheme developed in October when two other more established architects joined the scheme. Reginald Blomfield had set up as architect in 1883. He and Mervyn Macartney had tried unsuccessfully to persuade furniture manufacturers to exhibit at the Third Arts and Crafts Exhibition in 1890 and saw the furniture shop scheme as a way to revitalize the industry. Blow dropped out and Sidney Barnsley, who was studying Byzantine architecture in Greece, was persuaded to join.
The firm took the name of Kenton and Company with premises in Brownlow Mews near Guildford Street, London. Kenton Street which provided the name of the firm was round the corner. It was registered as a company in February 1891 with capital of £3000 divided into 300 shares of £10. Four of the members, Barnsley, Blomfield, Gimson and Macartney each took 15 shares, Lethaby took 13 shares. Colonel Harold Malet, an artistic ex-military man, took 20 shares and the designer, Stephen Webb, who was a short-lived member of the firm, took 8 shares. Macartney was elected chairman with Barnsley as company secretary.
A prospectus was produced in about 1891. The firm’s object was to supply furniture of good design and the best workmanship. It emphasised that the members were architects. All the work was designed by them and made under their personal guidance. Each piece of furniture was made by one man and stamped with the initials of designer and maker.
The makers employed included William Hall, the foreman who also made furniture for Voysey. Another cabinet maker, Augustus H. Mason had made a cabinet for Gimson shown at 1890 Arts and Crafts exhibition. He later set up own workshop at Chiswick and made items for other Arts and Crafts designers such as John Paul Cooper. Other makers were G. Bellamy, A. Bowen, and J. Urand.
There was no house style among the designers of Kenton and Company. The furniture designed by Blomfield and Macartney were more traditional in their forms and construction reflecting their interest in eighteenth-century styles. Barnsley’s designs, including a series of inlaid mirror frames with domed tops, were influenced by his recent study of Byzantine art. Lethaby’s designs included variations on country furniture such as two chests, one inlaid with sheep, the other with sailing ships.
They held the first exhibition of their work in London in July 1891. Gimson missed the opening of the show on 28 July, preferring to continue his sketching tour in Somerset and Devon. He wrote:
'It is Kenton’s great show today at Barnard’s Inn. I ought really to be there handing the tea round and making a fool of myself. But luckily I am here instead and feel at liberty to enjoy myself.'
Gimson is known to have designed the following pieces for Kenton & Company:
- An inlaid mahogany cabinet now at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
This cabinet has a simple four-square outline emphasised by inlaid diagonal stringing in dark and light wood. Gimson has used the stringing as he saw it used on English and Dutch sixteenth-century chests, about 1cm wide and inlaid right on the edge of the furniture. He subsequently refined this motif down to a narrower band inlaid in from the edge of the furniture. The inlaid design is clumsier than his later work.
- A marquetry cabinet now at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
This is a very bold design combining a simple outline with rich surface decoration reminiscent of the inlaid Indian boxes which Gimson admired. The marquetry inlay in cherry, ebony and palm looks jazzy but was based on the fourteenth-century frescoes in Berkeley Church, Gloucestershire which Gimson had sketched
- Six mahogany chairs, examples are now at the following institutions: Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum; the Crafts Study Centre, Farnham and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
- A dresser in unpolished oak with a chamfered plate rack now in a private collection. This piece is similar to the country furniture designed by Lethaby. It was described in contemporary source:
'Mr Gimson’s sideboard in plain untreated wood goes admirably with the pewter plates displayed on it and the whole would be very suitable for an aesthetic kitchen. but for a dining room it is somewhat of an affectation of cottage style and the wood would get very dirty looking in time.'
- A walnut cabinet, present whereabouts unknown
This was probably a cabinet on a stand similar to the V&A cabinet. This was one of the pieces left unsold and divided up among the participants when the firm was disbanded. It was allotted to Lethaby who described it as, ‘left clean and unpolished but, but now mellow and glossy from use.’
Kenton and Company held the second exhibition of its work for a week in December 1891 in central London. Sales totalled £700 and it was a critical success. 15 years later in his book ‘Craftsmanship in Competitive Industry’ Ashbee described it as:
‘One of the most beautiful of modern exhibitions of furniture . . .where the pieces shown, many of them simple, straightforward & useful pieces, bore the names of Lethaby, Barnsley, Gimson and others with whom the Arts and Crafts movement is identified.’
The firm was wound up in June 1892. Finances were short and for the five young men involved, ‘the time had come to make a choice between the practice of architecture and the practice of designing and making furniture’.