Ernest William Gimson (1864 – 1919) was an architect and Arts and Crafts furniture designer who founded the movement known as the Cotswold School. Although he built a number of country houses, his true skill lay in his antique marquetry furniture , chests and ironwork. Gimson’s Arts and Crafts furniture utilises many cross-cultural references, with elegant lines and simple, but effective ornamentation.
Born in Leicester, Gimson initially trained with the architect Isaac Barradale. In the 1880s he met William Morris, who recommended him to the London architect John Dando Sedding. Here, Gimson developed an interest in natural craft techniques, working alongside Ernest Barnsley while learning traditional furniture skills and plasterwork.
In the 1890s Gimson formed a furniture company with Sidney Barnsley and others, eventually moving to the Cotswolds. In 1900 he set up a furniture workshop in Cirencester. Later he moved to Sapperton, where he designed furniture until his death. His large team of craftsmen, led by cabinet-maker Peter van der Waals, later relocated to new premises in Chalford.
Gimson’s Arts & Crafts Furniture was as diverse as it was inspired. Made with woods like oak and cherry, derived from local sources, he left technical features such as dovetail joints and dowels exposed to reveal the craftsmanship. Later he used metalwork to embellish his antique chests and cabinets. He also made use of agricultural styles, such as chamfered hayrake stretchers and open-work wagon rails.
Gimson’s church commissions were ornate, his designs often inspired by Gujarati, Venetian or Byzantine styles. His antique chests and caskets were furnished with mother-of-pearl or silver, his antique marquetry furniture decorated with leaves and flowers.
When asked to design furniture for “grander” homes he often returned to the craftsmanship of the 17th century French palaces, but ornamentation was always secondary to design. Macassar ebony and holly stringing, figured Birdlip oak and English walnut detailing, simple gougework, forged ironwork, multi fielded panels and bowed, curved and canted lines gave his antique cabinets elegance, beauty and function. Today, Gimson’s antique chests and cabinets can be seen at venues like the Leicester Museum and Owlpen Manor.
Ernest Gimson was one of the most inspiring and influential designers of his age. His friend, the architect, writer and educationalist, W R Lethaby described his furniture as, ‘one kind of ‘perfect’, that is it was useful and right, pleasantly shaped and finished, good enough but not too good for ordinary use’. His approach to design was straightforward – Gimson believed that design was not something added on. It should come out of the careful use of proportion and construction, choice and knowledge of materials, tools and techniques.
He began designing furniture and patterns for embroidery as a young man. While a student at Leicester School of Art in 1885 he was awarded a silver medal in the National Competition for a set of drawings of furniture. These drawings have not survived. Somewhat surprisingly in view of the award they were described in the National Competition Reports 1885-96 as being, ‘based on an illogical, fantastical, unfruitful and embarrassing style.’