Ernest Gimson: Past, Present & Future

Annette Carruthers, Mary Greensted and Barley Roscoe discuss the life and legacy of Ernest Gimson on the 100th anniversary of his death …

Ernest Gimson, who died on the 12th of August 1919, was described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the greatest of the English artist-craftsmen’. Gimson made significant contributions as an architect, a maker of plasterwork and turned chairs, and as a designer of embroideries and metalwork, but is probably best known today for his furniture. So how do you mark the centenary of one of Britain’s greatest Arts & Crafts designers?

In addition to the publication of our detailed and stunningly illustrated book, Ernest Gimson: Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect, a number of events are taking place country-wide over the next twelve months, looking back at Gimson’s illustrious career, but also forward to the work of contemporary makers inspired by his work and ideals. As Gimson himself wrote, ‘I never feel myself apart from our own times by harking back to the past, to be complete we must live in all the tenses – past, future, as well as present’.

Ernest Gimson at Marchmont House

The first event, a Gimson celebration held at Marchmont House in May 2019, was a perfect example of how to go about this. It focused on the art, craft, and business of furniture design, bringing together academics, curators, dealers, designers, makers, and many passionate enthusiasts from all over Britain. Gimson’s life and the wider Arts & Crafts furniture context were the topics of the morning, while the afternoon was devoted to contemporary woodworkers, including Adrian McCurdy. McCurdy makes cleft oak furniture and decorative carved panels nearby Marchmont House in Jedburgh, and is very much part of the living Arts & Crafts tradition.

Detail of the recently completed table in elm by Nicholas Hobbs.

Nicholas Hobbs also introduced attendees to his work, culminating in the impressive pieces he designed and made for St Hugh’s Chapel at Lincoln Cathedral in 2017 – furniture that is full of meaning yet intensely practical.

Lawrence Neal

Another highlight at Marchmont House was the personal and moving short film The Chairmaker: Lawrence Neal by Falcon Productions for Marchmont Farms Ltd. The last in line from Gimson’s chair-making enterprise, Neal is now being supported to train two apprentices who will carry on the craft in new workshops at Marchmont. Some of Lawrence Neal’s chairs, and those of his father Neville Neal, are in regular use at Bedales School in Hampshire, and a new addendum to the film was shown for the first time – a series of interviews with current and ex-students who treasure their formative experiences studying in the school’s Gimson-designed library.

Ernest Gimson and the Legacy of Sustainability

The pre-eminent British designer and maker John Makepeace OBE is a pioneer in the field of sustainability. In 1982 his purchase of Hooke Park, a 350-acre woodland near Parnham College in Dorset, enabled a succession of young makers to research and develop intelligent forestry and the use of native timbers in furniture and buildings. In his foreword to our new book, Makepeace describes how the inspiration of reading the 1924 Ernest Gimson memorial volume as a young teenager led him to spending a summer in the workshop of Edward Gardiner, alongside Neville Neal, and a lifetime of involvement in furniture design and woodworking.

A prototype interior built at Hooke Parke, Dorset. Copyright John Makepeace.

Gimson’s main concern was the provision of useful and rewarding work for his craftsmen, using local materials and traditions of making. At Marchmont House, we saw how contemporary handwork can still provide a worthwhile and rewarding occupation. Nicholas Hobbs’ thoughts on the day offer a fitting conclusion:

‘Just fifty years after the death of Ernest Gimson, man steps onto the Moon. A sample of the moon rock collected on that mission made its way to the labs at Sheffield University, and into the hands of a PhD student who was able to use a new technique he had developed to date the moon rock faster than the team of NASA scientists. As a result, he is now a renowned academic who has been, and continues to be, awarded many accolades for this single piece of work. One was in the form of a monetary prize with which he commissioned a dining table from me.

Each generation creates wealth by the advancement of technology and a part of this wealth, via enlightened individuals, is then used to support the crafts of the age. Ernest Gimson received support from members of his family in the engineering business. I have received support as a result of the first Moon landing, and the apprentices of Lawrence Neal are supported by Hugo Burge with the proceeds derived from digital technology.’

Thus, the work of Gimson lives on; past, future, as well as present.

Learn more about the authors

Annette Carruthers worked as a curator with the Gimson collections at Leicestershire and Cheltenham Museums. Mary Greensted has been curator and deputy director at Cheltenham Museum. Barley Roscoe is a freelance curator and writer and formerly director of the Holburne Museum and Crafts Study Centre in Bath.

Find out more about their new book, Ernest Gimson: Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect, here.

Celebrate Gimson

More events are planned to celebrate the centenary of the death of Ernest Gimson. These include:

An Ernest Gimson Study Day at the New Walk Museum in Leicester (Saturday 2nd November).

Ernest Gimson: Observation, Imagination and Making exhibition at The Wilson, Cheltenham (23rd November 2019 – 23rd February 2020).

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