Metal History Notes

  • Ernest Gimson and Alfred Bucknell Sconce, c. 1904-1906. National Gallery of Australia.

    See Online Catalogue Entry: https://artsearch.nga.gov.au/detail.cfm?irn=54533

    Details

    Creators: Ernest Gimson (designer) and Alfred Bucknell (maker)

    Date: c. 1904-1906

    Location: Sapperton, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom

    Medium: Brass

    Inscription: on verso, “WINMILL”

    Dimensions: 24.6 x 18.0 x 9.0 cm

    Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Accession Number 86.1812

    Essay

    Designed by Ernest Gimson and created in the workshop of metalsmith Alfred Bucknell around 1905, this sconce is, in many ways, a classic example of an English Arts and Crafts object, although Gimson did not necessarily engage with all the political ideals of the movement. The sconce was handmade from sheet brass, the oak leaf and acorn motif pierced, stamped and chased. The shelf was created by scoring and folding the sheet up, soldering the corners at the front and riveting tabs into place at the back, and the rings to secure the candles were finally soldered into position. There is little information available about the life of this particular sconce, though the inscription on the reverse, “WINMILL”, indicates that it was produced for Charles C. Winmill, a friend and regular customer of Gimson’s.[i] Sconces of the same design are also held by the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) (Figure 1) and the Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum.[ii]

    Figure 1: Ernest Gimson and Alfred Bucknell, Sconces, c. 1910. Source: “Candle Sconce,” V&A, Image Source: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O16947/candle-sconce-gimson-ernest-william. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    Ernest Gimson is principally known as a furniture designer and architect but he also created designs for metalwork, stone and wood carving, embroidery, book bindings and bookplates.[iii] He is one of six British designers who submitted an entry to the competition for the design of Canberra, Australia's capital city, in 1912, which he also displayed at the 1912 Arts and Crafts Exhibition in London.[iv] Like a number of Arts and Crafts designers, Gimson was drawn to practising traditional crafts himself, and learned how to make turned, rush-seated chairs from an old bodger, Philip Clissett, and to make moulded plasterwork for buildings and furniture.[v]

    Gimson was heavily influenced by William Morris. The two initially met in 1884, Gimson aged 19, when Morris delivered a lecture in Gimson’s home city, Leicester.[vi] Morris returned to visit Gimson in Leicester a number of times over the next two years and provided a letter of recommendation which enabled the young man to move to London to work in the office of Gothic Revival architect J. D. Sedding. Sedding had worked with Morris in the office of George Edmund Street in their younger days and his office was next door to the Morris and Co. showrooms in Oxford Street, London.[vii] According to Gimson’s brother, “while in London he joined several Societies and Committees with which Morris was actively associated, came continuously under his influence, learnt a great deal from him and was imbued with those ideas which governed the rest of his life.”[viii] At Sedding’s office he met Ernest Barnsley, then his brother Sidney. In 1890, with Sidney Barnsley and five other designers, Gimson formed Kenton and Co., a furniture company inspired by Morris’s company, but the business dissolved after two years owing to lack of capital.[ix]

    During his time in London, Gimson made regular trips over England and Europe sketching old buildings and he was gradually drawn to live in the English countryside.[x] In 1893 Gimson and the Barnsley brothers moved to the Cotswolds where they hoped to establish a craft community by developing a nucleus of workshops which other craftsmen would attach themselves to.[xi] They initially lived in close quarters and shared a workshop, Gimson working on chairs, plasterwork and architectural designs while the Barnsleys made furniture.[xii] From 1900, Gimson and Ernest Barnsley started a workshop and hired cabinetmakers from London and a foreman, Peter Waals.[xiii] In 1902 they moved the workshop to Daneway House, a 14th century manor in Sapperton, where they also set up a showroom.[xiv] In 1903, Gimson set up a metalsmithing workshop in Sapperton for Alfred Bucknell, the son of a village blacksmith.[xv] Bucknell’s workshop produced fittings for the Daneway House furniture, architectural fittings such as door furniture, and other items such as firedogs and our sconce. By 1904 Gimson turned exclusively to plasterwork and drawing designs for his craftsmen to execute and the partnership with Barnsley at Daneway House ended in 1905, but the workshop continued under Gimson until his death in 1919.[xvi]

    The NGA sconce is an exemplary object of English Arts and Crafts in that it reflects the movement both in its aesthetic elements and in the conditions of its manufacture. Aesthetically, it reflects three major principles of the movement: that the designer should look to nature for inspiration and to the past, especially historical English vernacular design, and that design should be honest in that it is true to its materials and construction.[xvii] Gimson advocated these principles in a letter to Ernest Barnsley, writing about plasterwork,

    "As regards design, the first necessity is that the worker must show in his work something of the pleasure that he takes in natural things. And the second necessity is that he must have knowledge of old work, not that he may reproduce it, but that he may learn from it how to express his ideas, and may learn from it also what the things are that are most worthy and capable of expression in the particular material he has in hand."[xviii]

    The motif of the oak and acorn reflects the concern with looking to nature for inspiration but perhaps, more specifically, to the English countryside. Daniels describes oak tree symbolism in England as having “the oldest, richest and most complex associations” and as being “quintessentially English.”[xix] Gimson must have been particularly taken with this motif because it appears in a number of his designs, including other sconces, prints, wood carving and a stone fireplace at Pinbury House. Other motifs common in his ornamental designs, such as roses, strawberries, carnations, pears, apples and squirrels, also seem specifically to refer to a sentimental vision of a traditional English countryside rather than a general concept of nature. The relationship between Gimson's and William Morris’s surface designs is clear; Morris similarly drew his inspiration from the English garden and hedgerow flowers.[xx]

    The simple two-dimensional nature of the design, which is characteristic of all of Gimson’s ornamental designs, also reflects the influence of both 17th-century design and Byzantine revival. Gimson was particularly influenced by 17th century English ornament.   Elizabethan rose motifs he sketched in Ditcheat Church in Somerset and a squirrel motif copied from a stone carving in Winchester Cathedral appear in a number of his later designs.[xxi] Significantly, a brass firedog Gimson sketched in 1889 in the Tudor manor Haddon Hall in Derbyshire is a direct inspiration for a pair of firedogs he designed for Bucknell to produce fifteen-odd years later.[xxii] All of his other metal objects of this type, including our sconce, are executed in the same manner, in sheet metal with the design chased and pierced, which suggests that the Haddon Hall firedog set in motion Gimson’s entire range of brass-work. Gimson was also influenced by the Byzantine style, which was an inspiration to many Arts and Crafts practitioners, including several of Gimson’s close friends.[xxiii] Morris praised Byzantine society, believing it to have experienced social unity and equality and that this was reflected in its art and architecture.[xxiv] On Byzantine art, Morris says that “its characteristics are simplicity of structure and outline of mass; amazing delicacy of ornament combined with abhorrence of vagueness: it is bright and clear in colour, pure in line, hating barrenness as much as vagueness; redundant, but not florid.”[xxv] A similar statement could describe Gimson’s ornamental designs: their clear, bold lines and forms and charming simplicity. Interestingly, Gimson's design for Canberra contains buildings with a distinct Byzantine revival influence.

    The brass material itself and the simple construction of the sconce also speak to Arts and Crafts aesthetics. Brass is a typical feature of Arts and Crafts metalwork. In jewellery and metalwork, smiths deliberately used less precious metals and stones, selected for their colour rather than their value.[xxvi] Apart from aesthetic concerns, the intention was that such work should be affordable for everyone.[xxvii] In the case of Gimson’s pieces, he may have used brass because it was the material of the Haddon Hall firedog which seems to have inspired him so much, but it was also the most suitable material for the technique. Brass has the right combination of ductility and strength that it can be pierced easily but still maintain its structural integrity. Gimson does not seem to have been attracted to copper as so many other Arts and Crafts metalwork designers were.[xxviii]

    The techniques used to manufacture the sconce are extremely simple: piercing, scoring and chasing are some of the most basic metalsmithing techniques. This contrasts strongly with much other Arts and Crafts metalwork, which often displays many of the more complex traditional metalsmithing techniques such as casting, raising, enamelling and repoussé, but the techniques suit Gimson’s design well, since the simplicity of the construction complements the strong lines and forms of his motifs. The choice of basic techniques might have been deliberate to some extent but the fact that Bucknell and his smiths were not formally trained is significant.[xxix] They probably made do with what they could work out through trial and error. The use of rivets, however, is certainly a typical Arts and Crafts metalwork technique, demonstrating honesty through exposed construction.

    The conditions under which the sconce was manufactured also strongly reflect English Arts and Crafts utopian idealism. In moving to the Cotswolds, Gimson and the Barnsleys seem to have put into practice an Arts and Crafts socialist vision of a fellowship of workers who had abandoned the oppressive, ugly and corrupt cities to live free in dignity, in harmony with nature and each other, enabling creativity to have free rein.[xxx] This was certainly the vision of C. R. Ashbee when he moved his Guild of Handicraft community of 150 from London to Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds in 1902.[xxxi] Gimson, however, is said to have held no strong political convictions; Comino says that politics seems to have played no role in his life.[vii] He and the Barnsleys nonetheless wanted to be able to draw on nature and vernacular architecture and crafts for inspiration.[viii] They became fully integrated into their new communities and, in line with Arts and Crafts idealism, sought to reinvigorate traditional English customs and crafts locally. They arranged community events such as dances and plays, engaged local craftsmen to produce their designs and arranged for local boys to be trained in traditional crafts.[xxxiv]

    A concern for the lot of the worker, of course, was central to English Arts and Crafts thought. The worker should take joy in his labour to produce beautiful objects.[xxxv] As Morris declared, art is “the expression by man of his pleasure in labour.”[xxxvi] Though Gimson may not have been a socialist, he certainly was concerned that his craftsmen should take pleasure in their labour, believing that the best pieces resulted when each man worked on a piece from beginning to end, which enabled him to take pride in is work.[xxxvii] The sconce, with its duplicates in other institutions, reflects this sentiment absolutely. A close comparison of the NGA sconce with those in the V&A (Figure 2) and in the Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum reveals a number of variations which reflect the different hands that created the pieces. On the NGA sconce, for example, the tabs which connect the sides of the low wall of the base are fixed in place with two pairs of rivets while the V&A sconces are fixed with two single rivets and the Wilson Cheltenham sconces have entirely separately-made bases, each of a different height, which were attached across the back with eleven rivets. There are differences in the character of the lines which decorate the motifs, too. The leaf veins on the NGA sconce and one of the Wilson Cheltenham sconces are quite linear, whereas those on the V&A sconces are slightly curved and more organic in appearance. These variations reflect the creative freedom that Gimson’s workers enjoyed, each imbuing their work with a hint of his individual character. This celebration of the spirit of the hand would have appealed to Arts and Crafts sensibilities.

    Nikolaus Pevsner described Gimson as “the greatest of the English artist-craftsmen.”[xxxviii] By revitalising local crafts and setting up local craftsmen, Gimson and the Barnsleys set in motion a Sapperton-originated craft tradition which persisted throughout the twentieth century and which, to some extent, continues to this day.[xxxix] More broadly, Gimson’s work continued to influence English furniture and his design principles were gradually incorporated into mainstream design.[xl] Gimson and the Barnsleys’ Cotswolds move also seems to have set an example for other Arts and Crafts practitioners to relocate to there, most notably Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft.[xli] As a result, the Cotswolds have been associated with the Arts and Crafts movement ever since. The NGA’s brass sconce is a key piece of modern design in that, through its design and manufacture, it encapsulates some of the principles central to the English Arts and Crafts Movement. Although Ernest Gimson did not ascribe absolutely to the political motivations of the movement, he quietly achieved some of its aspirations in his work and through how he lived his life.

    Christina Clarke

    Footnotes

    [i] Annette Carruthers, Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen: A Catalogue of Works by Ernest Gimson, Ernest and Sidney Barnsley, and Peter Waals, in the Collections of Leicestershire Museums (Leicester: Leicestershire Museums, Art Galleries, and Records Service, 1978), 11.

    [ii] “Candle Sconce,” Victoria and Albert Museum, https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O16947/candle-sconce-gimson-ernest-william, accessed August 10, 2017; “Object Number 1952.106,” Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, http://agmlib.cheltenham.gov.uk/Details/collect/7024, accessed August 10, 2017.

    [iii] Carruthers, Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen, 78.

    [iv] Mary Comino, Gimson and the Barnsleys: 'Wonderful Furniture of a Commonplace Kind' (London: Evans Bros., 1980), 148-150.; “Canberra Aerial View and Cross Sections,” Leicester Museums, http://gimson.leicester.gov.uk/virtual-museum/leicester-museums-ernest-gimson-collection/drawings-and-designs/canberra-aerial-view-and-cross-sections, accessed August 23, 2017.

    [v] Carruthers, Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen, 54, 68; Mary Greensted, The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1993), 13.

    [vi] Carruthers, Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen, 5.

    [vii] Sydney A. Gimson, “Random Recollections of the Leicester Secular Society,” Part I March 1932, Leicestershire Record Office Ref. 10 D 68/18, quoted in ibid.; Rosalind P. Blakesley, The Arts and Crafts Movement (London: Phaidon, 2006), 29-30.

    [viii] Sydney A. Gimson, “Random Recollections of the Leicester Secular Society,” Part I March 1932, Leicestershire Record Office Ref. 10 D 68/18, quoted in Carruthers, Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen, 5.

    [ix] Kenton and Co., “Kenton and Co., Limited” [company circular], 1891, in Mary Greensted, ed. An Anthology of the Arts and Crafts Movement: Writings by Ashbee, Lethaby, Gimson and Their Contemporaries (Aldershot; Burlington: Lund Humphries, 2005), 32-33; Carruthers, Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen, 6.

    [x] Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen, 7; Greensted, The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds, 22.

    [xi] Letter from Sidney Barnsley to Philip Webb, 30 June 1901, quoted in Comino, Gimson and the Barnsleys, 69.

    [xii] Carruthers, Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen, 6.

    [xiii] Ibid., 7.

    [xiv] Ibid., 7-9.

    [xv] Ibid., 72.

    [xvi] Ibid., 9, 12; Greensted, The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds, 32.

    [xvii] William Morris, “‘The Lesser Arts’ 1870,” in Charles Harrison, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger, eds., Art in Theory, 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 754-755; Blakesley, The Arts and Crafts Movement, 15-16, 22-23; Greensted, The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds, 2.

    [xviii] Letter from Ernest Gimson to Ernest Barnsley, 7th June 1890. Leicestershire Record Office, Ref. DE 1763/9, quoted in Carruthers, Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen, 68-69.

    [xix] Stephen Daniels, "The Political Iconography of Woodland in Later Georgian England," in The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design, and Use of Past Environments, ed. Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels (Cambridge; New York Cambridge University Press, 1988), 48.

    [xx] Alan Crawford, "United Kingdom: Origins and First Flowering," in The Arts & Crafts Movement in Europe and America: Design for the Modern World, ed. Wendy Kaplan and Alan Crawford (Los Angeles; New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Thames and Hudson, 2004), 23.

    [xxi] Comino, Gimson and the Barnsleys, 31, 34.

    [xxii] Ibid., 113.

    [xxiii] Ibid., 8-9; J. B Bullen, Byzantium Rediscovered (London; New York: Phaidon, 2003), 164-173.

    [xxiv] Byzantium Rediscovered, 165.

    [xxv] William Morris, "Gothic Architecture," William Morris Archive, http://morrisedition.lib.uiowa.edu/gothicarchitecturetext.html, accessed August 10, 2017.

    [xxvi] Elyse Zorn Karlin, Jewelry and Metalwork in the Arts and Crafts Tradition (Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1993), 29-30, 34.

    [xxvii] Ibid., 31, 34.

    [xxviii] Ibid., 34.

    [xxix] William R. Lethaby, Alfred H. Powell, and Fred L. Griggs, Ernest Gimson: His Life and Work (Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare Head Press, 1924; New York: Garland, 1978), 44.

    [xxx] Fiona MacCarthy, The Simple Life: C. R. Ashbee in the Cotswolds (London: Lund Humphries, 1981), 9-10.

    [xxxi] Ibid., 15; Annette Carruthers, "The Guild of Handicraft at Chipping Campden," in The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds, ed. Mary Greensted (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1993), 44-46.

    [xxxii] Comino, Gimson and the Barnsleys, 32.

    [xxxiii] Greensted, The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds, 22.

    [xxxiv] Comino, Gimson and the Barnsleys, 77-79, 112-115.

    [xxxv] Lionel Lambourne, Utopian Craftsmen: The Arts and Crafts Movement from the Cotswolds to Chicago (London: Astragal Books, 1980), 6; Alan Crawford, "Ideas and Objects: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain," Design Issues 13 (1997): 17-18.

    [xxxvi] William Morris, "Art of the People (1879)," in William Morris on Art and Socialism, ed. Norman Kelvin (Mineola: Dover, 1999), 29.

    [xxxvii] Carruthers, Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen, 10.

    [xxxviii] Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius, 2nd ed. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1949), 89.

    [xxxix] Comino, Gimson and the Barnsleys, 190-212.; “Contemporary Craftsman,” Leicester Museums, http://gimson.leicester.gov.uk/virtual-museum/contemporary-craftsman, accessed August 13, 2017.

    [xl] Ibid., 211-212; Lambourne, Utopian Craftsmen: The Arts and Crafts Movement from the Cotswolds to Chicago, 187.

    [xli] Crawford, "United Kingdom: Origins and First Flowering," 45.

    Bibliography

     Bell, Robert. “Sconce.” National Gallery of Australia. https://artsearch.nga.gov.au/detail.cfm?irn=54533. Accessed August 9, 2017.

    Blakesley, Rosalind P. The Arts and Crafts Movement. London: Phaidon, 2006.

    “Brass Firedogs by Gimson.” Leicester Museums. http://gimson.leicester.gov.uk/virtual-museum/leicester-museums-ernest-gimson-collection/metalwork/brass-firedogs-by-gimson. Accessed August 13, 2017.

    Bullen, J. B. Byzantium Rediscovered. London: Phaidon, 2003.

    “Canberra Aerial View and Cross Sections.” Leicester Museums. http://gimson.leicester.gov.uk/virtual-museum/leicester-museums-ernest-gimson-collection/drawings-and-designs/canberra-aerial-view-and-cross-sections. Accessed August 23, 2017.

    “Candle Sconce.” Victoria and Albert Museum. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O16947/candle-sconce-gimson-ernest-william. Accessed August 10, 2017.

    Carruthers, Annette. Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen: A Catalogue of Works by Ernest Gimson, Ernest and Sidney Barnsley, and Peter Waals, in the Collections of Leicestershire Museums. Leicester: Leicestershire Museums, Art Galleries, and Records Service, 1978.

    Carruthers, Annette. "The Guild of Handicraft at Chipping Campden." In The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds, edited by Mary Greensted, 44-58. Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1993.

    Comino, Mary. Gimson and the Barnsleys: 'Wonderful Furniture of a Commonplace Kind'. London: Evans Bros., 1980.

    “Contemporary Craftsman.” Leicester Museums. http://gimson.leicester.gov.uk/virtual-museum/contemporary-craftsman. Accessed August 13, 2017.

    Crawford, Alan. "Ideas and Objects: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain." Design Issues 13 (1997): 15-26.

    Crawford, Alan. "United Kingdom: Origins and First Flowering." In The Arts & Crafts Movement in Europe and America: Design for the Modern World, edited by Wendy Kaplan and Alan Crawford, 20-67. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2004.

    Daniels, Stephen. "The Political Iconography of Woodland in Later Georgian England." In The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design, and Use of Past Environments, edited by Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels, 43-82. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    Greensted, Mary, ed. An Anthology of the Arts and Crafts Movement: Writings by Ashbee, Lethaby, Gimson and Their Contemporaries. Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2005.

    Greensted, Mary. The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Cotswolds. Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1993.

    Karlin, Elyse Zorn. Jewelry and Metalwork in the Arts and Crafts Tradition. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 1993.

    Lambourne, Lionel. Utopian Craftsmen: The Arts and Crafts Movement from the Cotswolds to Chicago. London: Astragal Books, 1980.

    Lethaby, William R., Alfred H. Powell, and Fred L. Griggs. Ernest Gimson: His Life and Work. New York: Garland, 1978. First published in 1924 by Shakespeare Head Press.

    MacCarthy, Fiona. The Simple Life: C. R. Ashbee in the Cotswolds. London: Lund Humphries, 1981.

    Morris, William. "Art of the People (1879)." In William Morris on Art and Socialism, edited by Norman Kelvin, 19-34. Mineola: Dover, 1999.

    Morris, William. "Gothic Architecture: A Lecture for the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.” William Morris Archive. http://morrisedition.lib.uiowa.edu/gothicarchitecturetext.html. Accessed August 10, 2017. First published in 1893 by Kelmscott Press.

    Morris, William. “‘The Lesser Arts’ 1870.” In Art in Theory, 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison, Paul Wood and Jason Gaiger, 750-757. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

    “Object Number 1952.106.” Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. Accessed August 10, 2017.

    Pevsner, Nikolaus. Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius. 2nd ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1949.

© Christina Clarke 2018