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Barnsley, Sidney (1865-1926)

Barnsley, Sidney

London & Gloucestershire; cabinet maker (b.1865-d.1926)

Born in Birmingham, Barnsley was a son of the head of a prosperous building firm and principal contractor of the local architect, J. H. Chamberlain. His eldest brother was Ernest Barnsley, architect/designer and founder member, with Sidney and Ernest Gimson, of the ‘Cotswold School’ of furniture making. Sidney Barnsley studied at the Birmingham School of Art before departing with Ernest for London and the Royal Academy Schools department of architecture in 1885. In 1886 Sidney entered Norman Shaw’s office while Ernest went to J. D. Sedding’s office, and through Ernest, Sidney met Ernest Gimson, with whom he made a lifelong friendship. Sidney left the architectural practice in 1888 and in the spring of that year he and fellow-student, Robert Weir Schultz, set off on an architectural tour of Greece. They returned briefly in 1889 but were offered a scholarship by the British School at Athens to continue their architectural researches in Greece, and it was this work which led to Sidney’s first architectural commission on his return to England at the end 1890; the design of the parish church at Lower Kingswood, Surrey. Sidney Barnsley & Ernest Gimson shared rooms in Raymond Buildings, Gray’s Inn, London in the early 1890s and both became members of the furniture making firm Kenton & Co. in 1892. Some items by Barnsley bore his stamp only so presumably he was taking the opportunity to develop his woodworking skills himself rather than promoting Kenton & Co. Barnsley possibly exhibited a mirror in the Kenton & Co. December 1891 exhibition at Barnard’s Inn and Reginald Blomfield recorded in his 1932 memoirs ‘a mirror frame, rather Persian in design, inlaid with mother of pearl designed by Sidney Barnsley and much admired by Leighton’ of around this date. In the Arts & Crafts Exhibition 1899 he showed a mirror of ebony and pearl inlay, one or both of these could have been the one photographed in the drawing room at the White House, Leicester in 1896-7 (illus. Carruthers, Greensted, Roscoe(2019), p. 145). On the dissolution of Kenton & Co. in 1892, the members split the stock with Barnsley choosing two of Lethaby’s oak chests, Gimson’s oak dresser and a walnut wardrobe. W. R. Lethaby took Barnsley’s gate-legged table. 

Barnsley then spent a year studying remote churches in Greece before, in 1893, the two Barnsley brothers and Ernest Gimson set up a workshop and home first in Ewen and then at Pinbury House , near Cirencester (the latter leased from Lord Bathurst at £75 per annum). In 1895 Sidney married Lucy Morley, a relative of Gimson’s, who had arrived in Sapperton to take charge of the men’s housekeeping. Sidney’s son, Edward, recalled a memory of his mother from this period: ‘She would make the cakes for the mid-morning break, and the drinks, and taking them in find SHB (Sidney) hard at work at the bench, the other two (Ernest Barnsley & Gimson) standing by, often hands in pockets, whistling Gilbert and Sullivan’. Sidney selected the timber and generally made all his furniture himself and many of the designs drew inspiration from his friend, William Morris. There are few records of his production but Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum has a collection of his drawings. An oak gateleg table, now at the Leicester City Art Gallery & Museum (cat. no. 156 1974), was made by him in 1895; this table’s two gateleg supports on each side fold into the curved central section of the underframe and Barnsley continued to make variations of this design in different woods for many years. This particular table was exhibited at the Arts & Crafts Exhibition in London in 1896 (no.41) and two were sold at the show for £5. According to Edward Barnsley, this was his father’s first professional sale. The table belonged to C. H. St John Hornby, and was likely to have been bought direct from the 1896 Exhibition. The Hornby family remained good clients of Barnsley, also purchasing library furniture for Shelley House, Chelsea Embankment, including a revolving bookcase c. 1909 (illus. Comino(1980) p. 174). Barnsley enthusiastically took to the craft of furniture designing and making furniture, acquiring new skills from watching and talking to Richard Harrison, who supplied much of the workshops’ timber. Comino(1980) commented that ‘It was Sidney Barnsley, in particular, who extended this knowledge through his dedicated experimentation in the field of furniture design at Pinbury, laying the foundations, both technically and stylistically, for the later work of all three men’ and Paul Thompson in his book on William Morris commented: ‘... Sidney Barnsley was the only important furniture designer [of the Arts & Crafts movement] who executed all his own work’. The furniture maker Mike McGrath commented in 2003 that Barnsley’s woodworking ‘rapidly evolved from primitive six-plank forms to chests with curved tops and lids.  Within three years he had perfectly synthesised his design and craft skills to exhibit an oak chest at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition of 1896’. This oak coffer was ‘selected by good judges as the best piece of simple joinery shown in the Exhibition’. Orders came in and the original exhibition piece is now at Rodmarton Manor, Gloucestershire. The two ends of this chest can be seen in the centre of a photograph of the Pinbury workshop (illus. Comino(1980), p. 82). It was also commented upon by the Cabinet Makers and Art Furnisher, November 1896; ‘There is no pretence about this article. Mr Sidney H Barnsley, the exhibitor, is so determined to secure attention to his excellent dovetails that if you happen to sit on them you feel them. It is a capital and clever piece of work, but I venture to think that the lines of the old Italian chests offer more kindly and pleasing models for such an article then the lines of the coachbuilder. If this were put on wheels it would make a perfect covered truck, and in saying this I am not depreciating the excellence of the idea of the workmanship. Indeed it is one of the best pieces of construction in the Gallery’. However, a sideboard designed and made by Barnsley in 1899 was condemned by The Builder, October 1899: ‘The semi-circular plan is effective but the details are absolutely clumsy... this is not only not artistic work but not good craftsmanship’. Barnsley also collaborated with Gimson on an oak and inlaid box shown at the 1899 Arts and Crafts Exhibition. Many of Gimson’s early designs, made whilst still at Pinbury, were annotated by Barnsley. 

Sometime around 1900 the Barnsley brothers, Gimson and their families moved from Pinbury to land near Sapperton where they built separate cottages and were given Daneway House and its outbuildings rent free for the 11 years still outstanding on their lease at Pinbury, which was then used as a summer house by the Bathurst family. Sidney had his own workshop and writing to Philip Webb in July 1902 he explained that ‘My brother & Gimson have already started workshops at Daneway having 4 or 5 Cabinetmakers so far – with the hopes of Chair makers & modellers &c in the near future. I am remaining an outsider from this movement – still going on making furniture by myself and handing over to them any orders I cannot undertake – and orders seem to come in too quickly now as we are getting more-known’. However, the partnership between Ernest Barnsley and Gimson did not last, and with difficulties between the three families even Sidney and Gimson, who remained close friends, could only meet on neutral territory outside their homes thereafter. Notes on Gimson’s furniture designs in Barnsley’s handwriting indicated that they continued to consult each other about design during the post-Pinbury time. Ernest Gimson’s brother, Sydney, was a great admirer of not only his own brother’s work but also the Barnsley brothers and c.1898-99 he commissioned an oak dresser and dining table and chairs from Sidney Barnsley for his new home, Stoneywell (illus. Roscoe (2014), pp. 354 & 359). This furniture and other early pieces including the oak coffer with painted decoration by Alfred and Louise Powell and a heavy cabinet are illus. Comino(1980) pp. 172-4). Under an entry in Sydney Gimson’s notebook in June 1900 were a double bed and a gate-legged table with decorative stretchers costing £6 10s and £5 10s respectively also for Stoneywell. The latter was one of the gate legged tables originally displayed at the 1896 Arts and Crafts Exhibition. Sydney Gimson also commissioned a walnut chest of drawers made by Sidney Barnsley as a gift to his son, Basil, for his twenty-first birthday in 1908 and five years later on Basil’s marriage he acquired a wide double bed with headboard (cost £9 10s) and a dresser both made by Sidney Barnsley (the latter as a gift from his Aunt Nellie, Ellen Lovibond). These three pieces of Basil’s all were moved to Stoneywell in 1947 when Basil and Muriel moved there (dresser illus. Roscoe (2014), p. 359). About 1903 Barnsley made two large dining tables with tops of solid oak and a carved dresser for the 4th Marquess of Bute at Mochrum, a commission also being worked on by Gimson and Robert Weir Schultz. The dining tables were made of oak planks three inches thick and each 12 ft long and Barnsley wrote wearily to Philip Webb that ‘they have given me a fair dressing down and by night time I have felt fair tired out’.  A photograph of the dining room at the Old Place, Mochrum with one of the tables is illus. Carruthers (2013), p. 300.

The difference between Sidney Barnsley and Ernest Gimson was that the former liked to control his own work and so only produced a limited number of pieces compared with Gimson, who took the workshop route employing craftsmen. Reportedly a retiring, austere man of great integrity, Sidney thought it wrong to delegate the more menial tasks of cabinet making to others. At the Arts & Crafts Exhibition in 1903 Sidney exhibited roughly the same amount of work, all executed by his own hand, as did his brother and Gimson. Sidney’s exhibits included an oak sideboard, with chamfered plate rack, which had its drawer runners expressed externally as ribs on the side of the carcass and an oak writing cabinet made for his wife, with very simple square panels on the fall-front and sides (illus. Comino (1980), p. 108). Also in the 1903 Arts & Crafts Exhibition he exhibited a small cabinet in English walnut with sophisticated double-fielded panelling and an ebony mirror frame and mother of pearl box, both of which had previously been acquired by Robert Weir Schultz. Subsequently Barnsley supplied furniture for the Schultz’s family home in Hartley Wintney, Hampshire. In 1904 he made a cabinet of drawers in cedar of Lebanon with macassar ebony cupboard on an ebonised oak stand (illus. Comino (1980), p. 156). He also made a number of oak tables for Rodmarton Manor; the tops being three planks joined by wedged double dovetails going through its depth so acting as decorative and functional purposes. In 1905 Barnsley exhibited a fine oak dresser at the Cheap Cottages competition in Letchworth and in 1910 he made a much admired oak cabinet on a stand with inlaid stringing and metal drop handles for the architect and etcher, F. L. M. Griggs (illus. Comino (1980), p. 152). Apparently Sidney twice attempted to employ an assistant to ease the pressure of work and although these attempts were unsuccessful one of his assistants, Fred Foster, later worked for Peter Waals at Chalford and Malcolm Powell, Alfred Powell’s brother, spent a year working on his own designs in Sidney Barnsley’s workshop before setting up as a furniture maker on his own account in Reading. About 1913 Sidney made furniture for Easton Hall, Lincolnshire for the Cholmeleys, as did Gimson. He also contributed furniture to a room laid out by Louise Powell at the 1916 Arts & Crafts Exhibition. After Gimson’s death in 1919 Sidney finished off various of his commissions, including the Memorial Library at Bedales School, Petersfield, and carried out a few architectural commissions of his own in the 1920s while at the same time making furniture. The only examples of Barnsley’s chair work, rather than cabinet work, was at this Library where he designed 11 of the armchairs which were made  by Walter Berry, assistant in Geoffrey Lupton’s Froxfield workshop. Although a Barnsley design they closely resembled a design by Gimson. Towards the end of 1922, Ambrose Heal commissioned Sidney Barnsley to make an oak dresser to complement his existing dining table and chairs at the Heal’s family home, Baylins Farm, Buckinghamshire. After discussions regarding the design, it was made and delivered at the beginning of April 1923. Barnsley also provided the design for a bedstead, made in solid oak, for Sir Emery Walker by Heal’s and now at the V&A (W.4-2014).

Sidney Barnsley died suddenly at Sapperton on 25 September 1926. Examples of Barnsley’s work are at Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery, including an English oak sideboard ensuite with a dining table made by Barnsley in 1924 and an English oak cabinet/low dresser (both illus. Carruthers & Greensted (1994), p. 103). Owlpen Manor, which Barnsley had so vehemently fought to save from ruin in the early 1920s and was subsequently restored by Norman Jewson, now houses a collection of Barnsley’s furniture. Over 300 drawings by Sidney Barnsley survive, many donated or sold to Cheltenham Museum & Art Gallery by Edward Barnsley, including a few from Gimson’s widow’s estate by Barnsley or by both him and Gimson. There are also personal papers of Grace and Sidney’s at the Museum in their archives.

Sidney Barnsley’s son, Edward, continued in the family tradition of furniture making and many of his memories of his father and growing up in Pinbury and Sapperton are recorded in the publications listed below. Sidney’s daughter, Grace, attended Birmingham School of Art in 1914 after which she trained as a decorator of pottery with her father’s friends, Alfred & Louise Powell, and pursued a career in this field.  She married Oscar Davies. 

Sources: Comino, Gimson and the Barnsleys ‘Wonderful furniture of a commplace kind’ (1980); Lambourne, Utopian Craftsmen, (1980); Gere & Whiteway, Nineteenth-Century Design.  From Pugin to Mackintosh (1993); Carruthers & Greensted, Good Citizen’s Furniture (1994); Collard, ‘Kenton & Co’, The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850 – the Present (1996); Greensted and Wilson, Originality and Initiative. The Arts and Crafts archives at Cheltenham (2003); Carruthers, The Arts and Crafts Movement in Scotland (2013); Heal, Sir Ambrose Heal and the Heal Cabinet Factory 1897-1939 (2014); Roscoe, ‘Stoneywell and the Gimsons – Furniture and Family History’, Furniture History (2014); Carruthers, Greensted, Roscoe, Ernest Gimson. Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect (2019).