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Ernest Gimson Furniture & Biography

1863 - 1919

Among twentieth-century craftsmen who were determined to do honest work, free from fakery and the worship of the "antique", perhaps the greatest of them was Ernest Gimson, a designer closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement.

Gimson Ladderback Chair
Gimson Ladderback Chair, 1900.
Ash, turned on a pole-lathe, with splats of riven ash; replacement rush seat.
Philip Clissett, a traditional chair bodger from the village of Bosbury, Herefordshire, sold some of his chairs to the Art Workers Guild in London in 1888. There, they influenced leading Arts and Crafts architects and designers. In 1890 he taught Gimson how to make ladder-back chairs.

Biography

Born in Leicester, in 1864, Ernest Gimson was articled to an architect early in the eighties, and met William Morris, and the influence of that master reformer and Gimson's desire to see "a right beginning made in establishing good handicrafts and building in English country" gave to modern craftsmanship a vitality and vivid beauty that comes as unsuspected treasure trove to those who seek out contemporary work.

In 1881 he began training with a Leicester architect, Isaac Barradale. In 1886, on completion of his training and with the recommendation of William Morris, he was recruited to the office of the architect J.D. Sedding. There that he met Ernest Barnsley (1863-1926). In 1895 he set up a furniture workshop in the Cotswolds with Barnsley and the latter's brother Sidney (1865-1926).

Furniture

In furniture making Ernest Gimson continued the great seventeenth-century traditions, and his models possessed all the simple dignity that the complex modes and mannerisms of the eighteenth century had effectually obscured. His work suggests the path designers of two and a half centuries ago might have followed if their ideas had not been controlled by the demands of courts, clubs, smart sets and all the glittering artificiality of fashionable, usually French, taste.

Gimson Furniture
Gimson Furniture.

Whatever aspect of his work we examine we find that ornamental considerations are always secondary. The article, whatever it may be, is planned to do a certain thing well, and its function dominates its making. Unlike the French furniture and much of the English work of the eighteenth century it is quite free from ornate suggestions of luxury.

Gimson's typically Arts and Crafts attitude towards his work involved using local woods. He often highlighted their colour and natural markings by incorporating them prominently into the design, and exposing technical features such as pins and dovetail joints. From about 1902 he began to design a series of sconces, firedogs (decorated iron bars for supporting logs and coal in a fireplace), hinges, etc., in iron or brass which were vaguely reminiscent of a 17th-century style.

Elm and Rush Seat Chair
Elm and Rush Seat Chair, late 19th century.

In writing of the most extravagantly elaborate phase of French furniture design Lisle March Phillipps, in "The Works of Man", points out that:

Luxury ... is the master motive. It dominates, for one thing, the labour that serves it. There is never any mistaking for a moment the kind of excellence in workmanship which springs from the free use of a natural gift and which belongs to all expert craftsmanship. It has a flexibility, what musicians call a sense of touch, which stamps it at once. The excellence here displayed is not of that kind. It is a forced excellence; an excellence not exerting itself freely, but constrained, whether it will or no, to celebrate the supremacy of luxury. Rarely, save among Orientals, do we find the toil of the workman lavished in a spirit so patiently servile.

In all Gimson's work, in contrast to the above, is that subtle sense of touch apparent. It is clearly the work of a master craftsman, easy, flexible and fundamentally opposed to the servile pandering to any of the aggressive standards of luxury or those fly by night fashions and "styles" that impress themselves upon some designers.

In the honesty and perfection of its workmanship it reflects the ideals of the man responsible for it, and Gimson furniture can achieve richness of effect without the florid gilding and carving of a forgotten and dead-to-us age; rococo expressions can be quite unsuited to the conditions and houses of today; and, like the best of the seventeenth-century Puritan furniture, modern work such as Gimson's can be very simple without being crude.

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