Arts and Crafts classics at The Wilson

Please note: The following images are snapshots I took during my visit to The Wilson. They are used here with explicit permission, which required a lot of work and a fee, as described in a previous post. I respectfully request that you avoid gaily copying and using them for your own purposes.

The research for my book on English Arts and Crafts furniture (scheduled for publication by Popular Woodworking in May 2018) entailed a visit to England last winter. Aside from immersing myself anew in the architecture and scenery of the beautiful land that produced the Arts and Crafts movement, I needed to take measurements from a chair designed by C.F.A. Voysey in 1898.

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Be still, my heart.  An original two heart chair, as the form is known, designed by Voysey, though this example flagrantly flouts its designer’s prohibition against finishing with stain or polish.

While waiting for my appointment with the chair, I took myself on a tour of the museum’s other furniture offerings, which are many and awe-inspiring. I was especially interested in seeing details of how these classic pieces were made. Here are a few I documented.

1. A cupboard, as it’s called, designed by Ernest Barnsley and made at the Pinbury workshop shared with his brother Sidney and their friend Ernest Gimson, around 1899

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What happened here? Was the joint too tight? Did someone drop the cabinet?  Look at that charming gougework on the chamfers. I love the minor variations in the pattern.

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I was fascinated to see the knotty piece used for the cupboard’s plinth. Gorgeous figure, but how many of us would have gone ahead and used this piece of oak — at least before the current slab-driven embrace of knots, splits, and such?

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Dovetail details in the top

2. A hayrake table designed by Ernest Barnsley and believed to have been built in the workshops at Rodmarton Estate in the 1920s

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I was intrigued to see how the table top had lifted from its frame, despite being anchored by buttons. As you’ll see farther down the post, this table is made with hayrake stretchers top and bottom and has no apron — an amazing piece of construction.

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Shrinkage happens. On the other hand, ooohhh! that shallow-relief carving! Love it.

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The table’s underside. Be still, my heart, again. Hayrake construction at the top, as well as at the base. Note that the craftsman/men who made this piece did not feel obligated (or, as I imagine they, being English, would have put it, “obliged”) to finish the unseen parts of the underside as assiduously as those that would be seen. You can get as religious on this point as you like, but this treatment is consistent with my training and early indoctrination (not too strong a word), which took into account the constraints imposed by the cabinetmaker’s livelihood being 100% dependent on getting the work done and paid for.

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The hayrake base: intriguing joinery detail and chamfering

3. Swan chair designed by C.F.A. Voysey for Haydee Ward-Higgs

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Are you as amazed as I am to see that these short-grain swans’ heads have survived for a century?

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Seat joinery detail: ditto re. the short grain here.

4. Hayrake table in ebony and walnut designed by Ernest Gimson for Allen Tangye

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Joinery and chamfering detail: This sings.

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Stretcher joinery detail; see close-up below

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That top! I was particularly interested in the joinery of the edging, which appears to be designed with expansion and contraction of the main top in mind. Also note the century-old detail of butterfly keys and the presence of  knots. Not visible here is a large area of lively figure formed where a limb grew out of the tree’s trunk; it’s so lively (yes, I am using that as a euphemism) that many contemporary woodworkers might well have rejected it for use in a table top, especially one as formal as this.

5. Table designed by Ernest Barnsley for Rodmarton Manor between 1920 and 1925

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Love the rhythm of that chamfered stretcher. Interesting method of top attachment, though. The table has the lovely matte finish that Gimson and the Barnsleys preferred.

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Base detail

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Joinery detail

6. Voysey two heart chair

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Seat/front leg detail

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Striking silhouette

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Trick of the eye: Seen from behind, the cutout shape of the top back rail suggests a curve but in fact is straight.

The Wilson makes available rich resources at its website, which includes a searchable directory of many holdings. I’m grateful to the staff, especially Benedict Sayers, who arranged for me to measure this Voysey chair.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

20 responses to “Arts and Crafts classics at The Wilson

  1. Those photos and notes are much appreciated. Any idea of how they achieved the matte finish?

    • I don’t know the details of the finish on this particular table, but a similar finish can be obtained by using boiled linseed oil and topping it with wax. Beautiful, yes, but not resistant to damage by the kinds of stuff we usually put on our dining tables (wine, soy sauce, ketchup, butter, you get the picture). On the other hand, you can always use a protective cover and tablecloth while dining and enjoy this look when the table is not in use.

  2. That chair! I’ve seen many photos with captions that include the words “Arts and Crafts”, but this is the first to capture my attention and create a desire to dive deeper into the style.

    Did you create a story stick for the measurements? Is the design constructed of whole number ratios? Will I have to wait for the book to find out?

    • Yay! It’s wonderful to see such excitement. Much of the English A&C furniture is quite different from its US cousins. On the other hand, there’s a ton of diversity simply within the furniture we know as Arts and Crafts that was made in England. I took detailed measurements and traced the curved rails and back splat. There’s far more to say about “reproducing” this chair, however; I go into this in quite some detail in the book. The publisher and I don’t yet have plans to publish anything about this chair prior to the book’s publication, but stay tuned in case that should change. In the meantime, the cover feature of November’s Popular Woodworking details the building of another project I made for the book, a glorious 1903 sideboard made by the Harris Lebus manufacturing company.

      • This might be the sweet spot for me. I’m not interested in Louis XIV or Ball and Claw feet; but up until now, I’ve always thought Arts and Crafts furniture went too far in the other direction. After some cursory research, I believe that I have mostly encountered U.S. A&C pieces which more thoroughly embraced the “for us” philosophy that began the movement.

    • Adding to my first reply: I will be posting about the chair and other material relevant to the book on my Popular Woodworking blog, which comes out every Monday.

  3. Wow. Thanks for the preview, looking forward to the book. As one of my surgery professors used to say, TOBJFE. Better applied to Arts and Crafts furniture than well-healed surgical scars.

  4. -” who made this piece did not feel obligated (or, as I imagine they, being English, would have put it, “obliged”) to finish the unseen parts “.

    An English craftsman of those times would never use such hi-faulting language! They would have said:

    -“who made this piece did not feel they had to finish the unseen parts”

    Otherwise a fabulous article on my favourite time in English furniture making and I am glad it spread worldwide.

  5. The chair is beautiful and looks pretty simple as chairs go. Legs all look to be all 90 degrees to the seat. Woven seat appears to be attached to the leg and stretchers frame with screws. Not sure how comfortable it would be to sit in, but beautiful.

    • You’re spot on: It is simple to build, with all angles at 90 degrees. I expected this chair to be downright uncomfortable but have been shocked by just how pleasant it is to sit in. I think that part of the credit goes to the woven rush seat. Were it a solid wood seat, it would be awful. So: certainly not a chair for lounging around in but surprisingly agreeable.

  6. Wow. Some of the grain in those pieces must have been a real challenge to work. It is gorgeous and the talent to shape the wood used is more than impressive. Thanks so much for taking the time and spending the money to secure the right to share these.

    • The fee to use the photos I took during my visit in one blog post was not that big a deal. It’s really more a matter of asking people to respect the museum’s protocol. It’s a wonderful museum, quite a treasure trove.

  7. I really appreciate you sharing these photos, Nancy. Love these detailed shots. Wonderful how the chamfers on the underside of the Barnsley hayrake table all meet together to create a continuous flowing curved line around those triangular spaces (before the wood shrunk a bit here and there).

  8. These are treasures! Thanks for sharing, especially the satisfying (to me) use of knots and crotch grains in fine furniture – what is old is new again, apparently, as tastes change. I have always been intrigued by the assymetry of natural, pronounced patterns in wood where there is no attempt at bookmatching in the decorative sense. Your use of the word “alive” is appropriate to the sensation. Butterfly keys, pegs and through tenons make any piece a feast for the eye: construction as art! I also find matte finishes pleasing.

    • So glad you enjoyed this brief look at a few of the pieces. One of the fun things about doing this book was that Megan Fitzpatrick and Scott Francis at Popular Woodworking have allowed me to discuss the kinds of details that show up in the photos on this post. It has been and continues to be a blast, working on this project. There will be occasional posts related to this one in my Popular Woodworking blog, which appears on Mondays, over the coming months.

  9. Nancy, do you have a projected release date for this book? I’m kind of eager to see it 🙂

    • Publication is scheduled for May 2018. Between now and then I will be post related material occasionally on my blog at Popular Woodworking (published each Monday), so keep your eye out there. The first of those posts will be on October 2.

  10. Love this piece, great to see the product from all angles!

    Completely head over heals with the colour and the carvings, also really interesting to read what everyone else thinks!

    Keep up the good work!

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