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Home | Articles | Informed Collecting: Cotswold School, Arts + Crafts

By John Levitties

By 1890, the Arts and Crafts Movement in England was already in its second generation. Where the 1860s saw the movement’s founding in London artist’s studios and architectural offices, the 1880s witnessed its flowering in the Art Worker’s Guild and the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society formed by the disciples of William Morris and his circle, the originators of the movement who espoused craftsmanship over mass production and who proposed the equivalency of the fine and decorative arts. At the same time, however, the popularity of the style had begun to grow, and a wide range of Arts and Crafts-inspired furniture and decorative arts were being manufactured in ways that were less directly associated with the movement’s philosophical underpinnings.

In 1891, young architects Ernest Gimson and brothers Sidney and Ernest Barnsley, trained in the best London firms yet close adherents of the movement’s founding ideals, grew disaffected with their milieu; they determined to move to the Cotswolds, the hilly sheep-farming country west of London, to pursue vernacular traditions in handmade furniture. This group, who would become known as the founding fathers of a distinct 'Cotswolds School,' combined a particularly pure strain of the Arts and Crafts ideal with their own unique decorative tradition, one based on the use of traditional tools and techniques and embracing a decorative aesthetic derived as much from those methods as from their emphasis on utility. The trio quickly attracted a circle of designers and craftsmen who came to work or to learn. Additional workshops were formed, ranging from the ideal of the lone designer/craftsman to larger shops that became dominant forces in small, economically depressed Cotswolds villages.

Architect and designer Philip Webb, one of the originators of the Arts and Crafts in England, called the community established by Gimson and the Barnsleys 'a sort of vision of a new Jerusalem,' and believed if there was a future for English arts and crafts it lay with the Cotswolds School, where second- and third-generation craftsmen remained closely allied with the philosophies of the founding movement, yet each craftsman’s work was unique. To this day there remain functioning crafts workshops in the Cotswolds and further afield, working within the Cotswolds School tradition.

UNDER $10,000
Clisset chair, designed by Ernest Gimson (1864–1919), executed by Edward Gardiner (1880–1958), ca. 1905. Ash with rust seat.

Ernest Gimson learned chair making by apprenticing himself to Philip Clisset, a rural maker of simple turned chairs in a West Midland’s vernacular whose work was 'discovered' by a member of the Art Workers Guild in 1888. Although insistence on familiarity with technique as well as medium was a hallmark of Gimson’s work as a designer, few chairs made by him are extant, perhaps owing to his lack of facility with craft. In 1903, Gimson outsourced the manufacture of his chairs to Edward Gardiner, the son of a local lumber merchant who operated a small shop producing traditional chairs to Gimson’s and later, other Cotswolds School designers’, specifications. When Gardiner died in 1959, a former apprentice named Neville Neal continued making the simple ladder backed, rush-seated chairs, a tradition continued by Neal’s son today, using much of the same equipment and techniques as Edward Gardiner one hundred years ago.

With a century of production and a wide tradition in English chair making, establishing the age and maker of a chair can be difficult. The tradition of marking chairs with a blind-stamp on the rear leg below the seat, while not entirely consistent, can be definitive, and extant catalogues from the Gardiner and Neal workshops prove useful. Although somewhat more difficult, age can often be inferred from patina, and since these still relatively inexpensive chairs are valued as much for their aesthetic merit as for their historic significance, a desirable surface will generally reflect some measure of age and use.

Drop-leaf table, Arthur Romney Green (1872–1945), ca. 1920. Oak.

Arthur Romney Green’s interest in furniture making probably developed around his architect brother Curtis Green’s association with Ernest Gimson. Romney Green visited the Gimson shop in 1905 and, by 1907, had abandoned his first career as a mathematics instructor. Workshops in Haselmere, Surrey, and West London followed before he finally established himself with a fairly large shop in Christ Church, Hampshire, in or around 1920.

Both creatively and philosophically, Green owed a great debt to Ernest Gimson and Sidney Barnsley. In many respects, his work is closer to theirs than that of any other twentieth-century British craftsman, excepting, perhaps, Gimson’s assistant, Peter Waals. Like Gimson, Green maintained a staff to execute his designs, but he was a great admirer of Barnsley’s embodiment of the designer/craftsman ideal and the style that was a natural result of the familiarity derived from the execution of one’s own designs. The values of the Arts and Crafts movement were also much in evidence at Green’s shop; regular company meetings were held with open account books, and each Sunday night the group engaged in the sort of communal, educational activities that had been an integral part of life in the Guild of Handicraft twenty years earlier.

Perhaps as a function of his geographic remove from the other shops in Cotswolds, or simply because of his aesthetic disposition, Green developed a distinctive variant of the Cotswolds aesthetic with particularly bold chip-carving and long chamfers created with a spoke-shave or draw knife, the traditional tools of Cotswold farmers. They are here used to great effect, lightening the legs and table top, and compounding the unexpected and exhilarating qualities of the design; a most unusual solution to the problem of a drop-leaf table and another distinctive attribute of Green’s work. An example of this form is in the collection of the Wolfsonian–FIU.

Dresser, Gordon Russell (1892–1980) for Russell and Sons, ca. 1923. Oak with pine secondary and wrought iron hardware.


Gordon Russell operated the largest of the Cotswolds School ventures; an industrial firm, albeit in a communal arts and crafts tradition. An enormously successful enterprise, the firm developed around the designs and entrepreneurial spirit of Russell, whose family operated the Lygon Arms Hotel in Broadway, near Chipping Camden. Initially a small shop that supported the hotel’s ancillary antiques business, the firm grew rapidly on the strength of Russell’s proprietary designs which won accolades throughout the 1920s. By 1930, his brother R. D. had become the chief designer for the firm, and Gordon, recognizing the inherent merit in utilizing contemporary methods of manufacture, assumed the managerial role of Gordon Russell Ltd., which became one of the leading producers of modern design in Britain; his working life then came to be embodied by the attempt to reconcile the Arts and Crafts ideal of handcrafts with the utility of mass production. His stellar early work of the 1920s, however, which embraced the fundamental Arts and Crafts principles embodied in the Cotswold School aesthetic, offers some of the most cogent efforts of that group’s second generation.

Russell’s initial success was the result of his participation in a 1923 exhibition at the Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery, leading to a commission to design a model café that was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum the following year. Awarded two silver and one gold medals for furniture at the Paris Exhibition of 1925, interest in him by the arts press and the public continued to grow.

Russell described the café as a 'bit rustic and unfinished,' and it certainly represented the more self-consciously simple aspect of his oeuvre. However, he created several pieces for the Victoria and Albert installation that clearly defined his close adherence to the Cotswolds School, including this dresser which is the only known example of the form. The almost aggressively simple oak surface was designed to provide the grain of the doors and drawer fronts a leading decorative role, while the stiles and rails, set well proud of the doors and drawers, call attention to the construction of the case. Russell was a proponent of the use of local materials and the native oak was finished with wax so that it might be easy to maintain while promoting oxidation and a gradual development of color. The conscious effort to create an heirloom is manifest in this dresser, the desire to project 'honesty' — a hallmark of the Arts and Crafts — is evident. Even the use of handwrought hardware as pulls is intentional, as, without shellac, dirty hands might discolor the drawer and door surfaces in an unattractive fashion. A better statement of Russell’s work would be difficult to find, and the exhibition provenance of this piece, also illustrated in company pamphlets and in the 1924 Studio Yearbook of Decorative Art, underscores its historical import

Gun Cabinet, Ernest Gimson (1864–1919). ca. 1905. Oak with glazed doors and wrought iron hardware.


Unlike Sidney Barnsley, Ernest Gimson never fully embraced the identity of furniture maker. He made chairs in his early years in the country, as well as decorative plaster panels, but some measure of his lack of facility with these crafts and his polymath nature perhaps led him to design, rather than make, furniture. Gimson hired Dutch furniture maker Peter Waals to manage his workshop, which had as many as ten craftsmen executing designs in wood, with others employed in chair making and in the smithy.

There is no question that the products of the Gimson workshop were destined for a rarified market. Although some designs were produced in multiple: notably chairs and some decorative wares, and likely tables and certain case pieces as well, many were designed and produced for individual commission or exhibition. This gun cabinet is such a piece. The original signed drawing, housed in the Cheltenham Museum, identifies the client as a Mr. L. A. Hulle, Esq. and dates the design to 23 May, 1905. The doors of the upper case are fully rendered in the drawing, including a full size section of the muntin joint (the chip carved detail is shown in a small area, clearly intended to follow the outlines of the case as it does) and the feet are rendered as executed; however, the lower case is virtually void of detail and the top and bottom of the case, which protrude significantly in the final product, are shown flush with the sides. This lack of detail is not unusual for Gimson’s drawings and suggests some measure of collaboration with his staff, which the designer willingly stipulated.

Major pieces from the Gimson workshop are rare, and the design of this cabinet is a superb example of the Cotswolds School aesthetic. The material is a native oak, carefully selected for its figure in the panels and on the sides, which has been allowed to oxidize through its wax finish. The graduation in the sides of the case, from upper to lower, continues through the shaped sledge feet which project both from the front and from the sides of the lower case, suggesting a grounding and stability wherein the weight of the piece carries clearly to the floor, providing the user with a sense of confidence and comfort. This reassurance is also manifest in the revealed construction where the utilitarian details become decorative; the sides and door divider of the case, for example, are mortised through the top of the lower section. The chip carving, which has no function other than to ease edges and to emphasize the geometry of the design, is an old but elegant and very simple technique said to have been favored by Cotswolds farmers and adopted by the Cotswolds School craftsmen.


It was William Morris who, taken with the young Ernest Gimson, persuaded him to move to London. And it was Morris who procured him an apprenticeship with neo-gothicist J. D. Sedding, himself a student of the great Reformed Gothic architect George Edmund Street as Morris had been three decades earlier. In Sedding’s office Gimson met Ernest Barnsley, whose brother, Sidney, was articled to another enormously important London architect, Richard Norman Shaw. This group, along with their friends from those offices, men such as Mervin McCartney and W. R. Lethaby, were the bright young minds in arts and crafts architectural circles, active in the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, the Art Workers Guild and the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society.

In 1889, Mervin McCartney and another architect named Reginald Blomfield were on the selection committee for the Arts and Crafts Exhibition which had decided to reach out to the larger furniture manufacturers in an effort to broaden the number and type of exhibitors, but the manufacturers had little interest in designs that would not become popular for several years, nor in the society’s mandate that the craftsman responsible for the execution of a design be identified along with the designer. The rejection probably mattered little, as there were few manufactured products suitable for display at the Arts and Crafts exhibitions.

Prompted by this experience, as well as what must have been the tremendous difficulty in finding furniture appropriate to the buildings they were then designing, Blomfield and McCartney, along with W. R. Lethaby, Sidney Barnsley, and Ernest Gimson formed their own company to manufacture 'art' furniture. The firm, called Kenton and Co., was unique in that each designer worked with a particular craftsman responsible for the execution of one design at a time. There was no house style; the products of the firm ranged from the late Georgian inspired forms of Blomfield to the simple vernacular designs of Gimson. However, they were bound by their emphasis on the relation between the designer and craftsman and, following the stipulation of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society’s ideals, all of their products were stamped with both names. Kenton and Co. had an exhibition in December of 1891 at Barnard’s Inn, the headquarters of the Art Workers Guild, that generated the then considerable sum of £700 in receipts. Of this, however, very little was profit. A settee designed by Blomfield cost £50 to produce at a time in which the annual rent on William Morris’ London home was about £200, suggesting that the firm’s potential for growth was limited. Needing an infusion of capital, the group decided to disband and distributed the remaining furniture among its members.

Coffer, W.R. Lethaby (1857–1931) for Kenton and Co., ca. 1891. Oak inland with macassar ebony, walnut, et al. Courtesy of Paul Reeves.

When Gimson and Barnsley left to pursue design and handicraft in the Cotswolds, the others remained to practice architecture. Lethaby’s career was notable in that, having actively practiced architecture for a decade after the Kenton and Co. project, he turned to arts education; already recognized as the inspirational center of his circle of friends, he was a key figure in the founding of the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1896 and served as its principal until 1911. He also pioneered the position of Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art. Enormously influential as an architect/educator, he left a relatively small body of work; few buildings and even fewer furniture designs.

The furniture of Kenton and Co. is quite well documented. There is an excellent photographic record of the 1891 exhibition, the furniture has readily identifiable marks, and there has been some very good contemporary research by Mary Greenstead and Frances Collard. For all that, it remains rare. A Blomfield sideboard has surfaced along with a cane settee to his design, as well as a clamshell desk by Mervyn McCartney, and a chair and blanket chest by W. R. Lethaby. The latter, shown here, is an exceptionally well provenanced piece; it was one of two designed by Lethaby for the 1891 exhibition, identical in form, although one is inlaid with sailboats and one with sheep. With the closure of the firm and subsequent distribution of assets, ownership of the two blanket chests passed to Sidney Barnsley, along with two of Gimson’s designs, and thence to his brother Ernest. And with the death of Ernest’s widow in 1952, both pieces were sold at auction, the example inlaid with boats ending up in the great Cotswolds School collection at Rodmarton Manor, the example shown here changing hands twice before its most recent public offering.

Where certain examples of Kenton and Co. furniture, as noted, reflect the concurrent late-Georgian Revival, others are more inventive or reflect earlier traditions in English furniture history. This blanket chest presages the Cotswold designers’ interest in vernacular forms with simple, planar surfaces and, almost by definition, in revealed construction with its cogged dovetail joints exposed at the corners of the case. A lyrical design of lovely proportions, with charming and engaging decoration, it is an exceptionally important piece.

John Levitties is principal of John Alexander, Ltd., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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