As a young architect in Sedding’s office and as an active member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, Gimson was encouraged to get hands-on experience of different building crafts.
Sedding himself had produced designs for plasterwork while he was working in Bristol in the 1860s and in the 1880s Gimson visited Haddon and Hardwick Halls in Derbyshire as well as other Elizabethan and Jacobean buildings to sketch the fine sixteenth-century plasterwork.
He began to try his hand at modelling in plaster early in 1890 through an arrangement with a London firm of plasterworkers, Messrs Whitcombe and Priestly. He would go out to work on their orders for plasterwork but also pay them for the experience, for a working space and materials to create his own designs. The firm had links to the Arts & Crafts Movement. One of the partners, Joseph Whitcombe, was credited with the execution of plaster friezes designed by Philip Webb, Mervyn Macartney and Reginald Blomfield shown in the first Arts and Crafts Exhibition in 1888.
Most Victorian plasterwork was produced in two stages by different craftsmen. To begin with a modeller produced a positive version of the design by modelling in clay or carving in wood. Another craftsman then made a mould from this original either in gelatine or plaster of Paris and the final cast was produced.
Whitcombe was not used to professional men – architects and designers – wanting to cast and model their own plaster designs. He was puzzled by Gimson’s enthusiasm for this wet and dirty material. By June 1890 Gimson was becoming proficient, describing his routine to his friend, W R Butler:
‘I spend 4 or 5 hours a day working in a little plasterer’s shed modelling friezes and ribbed ceilings. I get on capitally and shall soon be able to undertake work on my own account.’
He exhibited a plaster frieze at the third Arts and Crafts Exhibition in London in October that year.
Other friends and colleagues were also working in plaster. Henry Wilson, who took over Sedding’s architectural practice after his death in 1891, received a number of commissions from the Duke of Portland in the 1890s. Plasterwork featured prominently at one commission at Welbeck Abbey in Worksop, Nottinghamshire. The work was carried out by John Paul Cooper. Cooper began to experiment with gesso, a mixture of plaster and glue. He made wooden boxes decorated with low-relief decoration in gesso which was then painted and gilded. He showed one such box in the 1893 Arts and Crafts Exhibition. Another Leicester man, George Bankart who had trained as an architect with Gimson in Isaac Barradale’s office, also moved to London and took up plasterwork.
Gimson’s approach to plasterwork
Gimson was asked to contribute to Plain Handicrafts, a collection of essays by artists and designers to describe principles of design and methods of workmanship on different crafts. The book was edited by the designer A. H. Mackmurdo and published in 1892. It is Gimson’s only published account of his work practices.
Gimson wrote an essay on plasterwork. He described the materials and techniques used to produce historic work, such as the elaborate Italianate friezes at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, and the coarser stamped or cast English work popular in the seventeenth century. He criticised the split between the modelling and casting in contemporary work which created too much mechanical labour as well as the fashion for sharp lines and curves and undercutting. He preferred, ‘dull lines, gentle curved and little variety of relief’. For Gimson plaster was a soft, malleable material and its treatment should reflect this. He advocated going to nature as inspiration for designs although ‘it will be impossible for the plaster-worker to get anything more than a suggestion of nature into his work’. He summed up his principles, writing:
‘These, then, are the chief things that the plaster-worker should bear in mind in his designing: (1) That he must go to nature for his ideas, and to old work to learn how to express them; (2) that the expression must be decorative – that is , harmonious in arrangement, and suitable to the position in which it is to be seen; (3) that it must be expressive of the qualities of plaster, and not imitative of textures and effects natural to some other material.’
This approach was evident in Gimson’s designs.
Gimson’s Designs in Plaster
Gimson’s first commission for plasterwork came via his friend William Lethaby who was building a house, Avon Tyrrell, near Christchurch, Hampshire for Lord Manners. Gimson spent most of the summer of 1892 decorating the main rooms of the house with plasterwork. Some of the work consisted of simple repeating patterns of flowers on the friezes and beams; other rooms were treated more elaborately. The ceiling of the drawing room was divided into squares by raised ribs, each containing a naturalistic motif modelled on site. In his book on plasterwork Bankart subsequently described the process of working in situ as being, '...full of interest and delight, in addition to being a fairly rapid means of execution, and of quite reasonable cost.'
Numerous commissions followed including work for Lord Bathurst at Pinbury Park, Gloucestershire, for a house, Borden Wood, near Liphook, Devon, for the Council Chamber at Bradford, and for the house in Addison Road, Kensington, London designed by Halsey Ricardo for Sir Ernest Debenham. Both the houses in Leicester designed by Gimson include examples of his plasterwork.
Plasterworking in the Cotswolds
The photograph of the shared workshop at Pinbury, Gloucestershire shows numerous examples of plaster friezes stacked against the wall. These were all designed and made by Gimson. He sometimes modelled designs in clay and Bankart described the process by which some repeating designs were built up in situ:
‘Leaves etc. were modelled in 3 or 4 convenient sizes and cast in quantities, pattern roughly drawn out on the surface with a piece of chalk or charcoal tied on the end of a long stick. Leaves etc. stuck up with plaster of Paris and lime putty and stem work afterwards modelled in between with small metal tools.’
After 1902 Gimson had an open shed below his drawing office in Sapperton where he would spend the occasional afternoon working at his plaster designs. He enjoyed spending time doing practical work as a change from the drawing board. Both Norman Jewson, his architectural assistant, and Gimson’s wife Emily assisted him in the work. Jewson became proficient at the craft and carried on the plasterworking tradition through the 20th century.