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Barnsley, Sidney Howard (1865-1926)

Barnsley, Sidney Howard

London & Gloucestershire; furniture designer, furniture maker and architect (b.1865-d.1926)

Sidney Barnsley was an important and influential Arts and Crafts designer-maker who worked at the bench making furniture of his own design. In his book on William Morris, Paul Thompson noted that ‘The ultimate logic of Arts and Crafts theory that craftsmen should work on their own designs was scarcely recognised before the 1890s, partly because all the leaders of the movement were architects. Even then, Barnsley was the only important furniture designer who executed all his own work’. He developed many of the typical features of the Cotswold craft tradition including constructional details such as double dovetails or butterfly joints, lattice-work backs to dressers and hayrake stretchers to tables. He also set the standard for craftsmanship that became irrevocably linked to the group at Sapperton.

Sidney was born in Birmingham on 25 February 1865 into a family of builders. John Barnsley & Sons, the firm set up by his grandfather, had prospered with the expansion of the city. By the 1860s his father and uncle were employing more than 230 men on the construction of many important buildings including Yeovil Thomason’s Birmingham Council House. Barnsley was slightly built and the youngest in the family; he had three brothers and three sisters and even into adulthood was often known by his siblings as ‘Little B’. They were brought up as Wesleyans with a strong work ethic that remained with him all his life. His childhood was marred by his mother’s death when he was nine; his father died six years later. In many ways, however, his early years, with their regular familiarity with the workshops linked to the family business, mirrored the upbringing subsequently recommended by the architect John D. Sedding, who wrote that ‘a builder’s yard … is the very best and most wholesome place to learn general handicraft – all about form, texture, composition’. There must have been an extensive woodworking shop as the firm made the spectacular Everitt Cabinet designed by J. H. Chamberlain in 1880 and now in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (cat. no. 1892M41).

After their father’s death, the two elder brothers took over the family business while Sidney and his older brother Ernest were at liberty to make their own choice of career. They were financially secure as their grandfather had left his substantial fortune to be divided largely between his fourteen grandchildren. Architecture was an obvious choice for them and they took various classes at Birmingham School of Art, including Building Construction and Historic Ornament, before completing their training in London. Sidney followed his brother to London towards the end of 1885, studying in the Royal Academy’s architectural school for two years and, concurrently, entering the office of one of the leading architects of the day, Richard Norman Shaw, where William Richard Lethaby was the chief clerk. Sidney left Shaw’s office in 1888 and in the spring of that year set off on the first of two lengthy trips to Greece with fellow architect Robert Weir Schultz. They travelled widely, recording Byzantine monuments under the auspices of the British School at Athens, and their drawings, photographs and notebooks show their keen interest in architectural and woodworking techniques, materials and decorative details.

He returned to England in November 1890, took lodgings with Ernest Gimson in Raymond Buildings at Gray’s Inn and joined the newly-formed Kenton & Co. with Gimson, Lethaby, Reginald Blomfield and Mervyn Macartney as its active members. Their intention was for each man to design furniture to be made under their supervision by trade cabinet makers in their workshop in Brownlow Mews, Holborn. Barnsley took an active role in running the business, serving as Company Secretary.

He designed three mirror frames with Byzantine-inspired convex tops in walnut veneered with an unusual quarter-sawn burr oak. The veneers were cut and placed so that the grain formed a diamond-shaped pattern, a technique he had seen used in the treatment of marble veneers in Byzantine churches. One was left plain and is now at Cheltenham [inv. no. 2001.186] and two were inlaid with floral sprays in wood and mother of pearl (illus. Collard, (1996), p. 33). It was one of these frames that Blomfield recalled in his 1932 memoirs as ‘rather Persian in design, inlaid with mother-of-pearl’ and much admired by Lord Leighton. Unlike examples of Kenton & Co. furniture by the other four designers, none of Barnsley’s surviving pieces are marked apart from the mirror at Cheltenham (illus. Greensted and Wilson, (2003), p. 82) which is incised ‘KENTON Co. Ld S. H. B. 1891.’ Given that the stated aim of the firm was to give credit to the makers as well as the designers, it seems very possible that he had considerably more experience of practical woodworking than his colleagues and made the pieces himself. He also designed two tables featuring decorative herringbone inlay in light and dark wood, whose clean lines contrast with the more curvaceous designs of some of his colleagues. A gateleg table, subsequently acquired by Blomfield, appears in a photograph of the Kenton & Co. exhibition in Barnard’s Inn in December 1891 (illus. Comino, (1980), p. 55) while a long rectangular table in mahogany – again unmarked – is now in the collection of the William Morris Gallery, London [cat. no. G64].

Two exhibitions were held by Kenton & Co. in 1891 at the Art Workers’ Guild’s premises in Barnard’s Inn. The first in July was a low-key affair but a larger show in December was widely reviewed (The British Architect, The Builder, and Furniture and Decoration). By the start of 1892, however, Kenton & Co. needed additional capital that was not forthcoming and the firm was wound up in May that year. The experience certainly helped Barnsley develop some of his ideas about furniture making; the foursquare design of the two tables and the placement of quartered panels on the mirror frames were all features in his later work. Barnsley used herringbone inlay on some of the furniture designed for his first architectural project in 1892, the Church of the Wisdom of God at Lower Kingswood in Surrey. The commission came from Dr Edwin Freshfield, a solicitor who was also involved with the British School at Athens, and Barnsley was able to bring together both Byzantine and British traditions in its design. In contrast to the pulpit, lectern and two domed clergy seats in Macassar ebony inlaid with light and dark wood and mother of pearl, the choir stalls were simple oak settles with chamfered decoration.

Kenton & Co. made one particular long-term impact on Barnsley’s working life. In 1926 he described his shock and sadness that he and the other young architects had had no influence at all on the makers’ views of design. In a letter to his son Edward, he explained: ‘I remember when Kenton’s closed down how Hall our famous foreman rejoiced to make furniture for himself in the shop we lent him till our lease was up – overmantels of bevelled plate glass & turned balusters glued on – Oh! Such things as you’ve never seen & it was that that made me decide never to employ men – a stupid, selfish decision I know – but that was how I was made!’. Malcolm Powell, the brother of his friend Alfred, did however spend a year working on his own designs in Barnsley’s workshop – so not as an employee – in the early years of the 20th century.

The experience with the Kenton & Co. cabinet makers may have influenced his decision to move out of London to the Cotswolds with Ernest Gimson. In April 1893 they took lodgings for a year at Home Farm, Ewen, near Cirencester and spent the summer scouring the countryside for a permanent base to concentrate on developing their hands-on skills in building and the handicrafts. The following spring they moved to Pinbury Park, a dilapidated former farmhouse near the village of Sapperton, with a number of outbuildings, part of the extensive estates of Lord Bathurst with an inspiring view over the Golden Valley bisected by the River Frome. Ernest Barnsley had been persuaded to join them; his architectural experience and outgoing nature were valuable assets when negotiating with the Bathurst estate. They were able to move in by the spring of 1894 on a repairing annual lease of £75. As well as the three men, the small community included Ernest Barnsley’s wife and two young daughters who lived in the house itself. The two single men adapted outbuildings for their accommodation while a third outbuilding served as their joint workshop. They were all city born and bred so Gimson’s cousin, Lucy Morley, who had been brought up on a farm in Lincolnshire, was persuaded to join them to look after the practicalities. Under her direction they kept goats and hens, brewed their own cider and made their own bread. Lucy had lost her hearing at nineteen but was immensely capable and sweet-natured; she and Sidney were married in 1895.

Barnsley concentrated on developing his woodworking skills, watching and talking to Richard Harrison, the local wheelwright who also supplied much of their timber. Lucy Barnsley subsequently recalled these early days: ‘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 and the other two (Ernest Barnsley & Gimson) standing by, often hands in pockets, whistling Gilbert and Sullivan’. He was learning by doing and his new skills were illustrated by two pieces shown at the 1896 Arts and Crafts Exhibition in London (nos 41 and 295). An oak gateleg table made in 1895 now at Leicester Museum & Art Gallery (cat. no. 1956.1974) shows his progression from the piece made for Kenton’s. There is no decorative inlay; instead Barnsley used chamfering, a newly-acquired technique, traditionally part of the wheelwright’s craft. The stretcher is chamfered and the gatelegs, when closed, fit snugly into its semi-circular recesses. With its dovetails and through tenons, this piece also illustrates the increased emphasis on open joinery so that neither poor workmanship nor cheap materials could be hidden. It was bought for £5 by C. H. St John Hornby, the founder of the Ashendene Press and a director of W. H. Smith & Sons, providing Barnsley with his first professional sale. Also shown was an oak chest with a domed top, now at Rodmarton Manor in Gloucestershire. Chamfering softens its four sides and its dovetail pins stand proud from the surface. The Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher commented in November 1896: ‘There is no pretence about this article. Mr Sidney H. Barnsley is so determined to secure attention to his excellent dovetails that if you happen to sit on them you feel them.’ Despite describing it as ‘a capital and clever piece of work’ and ‘one of the best pieces of construction’ in the exhibition, the reviewer criticised the design for following ‘the lines of a coachbuilder. If this were put on wheels it would make a perfect covered truck.’

In about 1897 he made a massive oak bow-fronted dresser with a lattice-work plate rack bisected by a curved upright devised by Gimson (illus. Livingstone and Parry (2005), pp.100-101). The open joinery in this piece is particularly significant for the use of double dovetails or butterfly joints which Barnsley believed he had invented until he saw them in a much earlier Japanese piece, and of cogged dovetails which, according to Edward Barnsley, his father had seen on an old Italian chest on a visit to St James’s Palace in London following the completion of the decorative schemes by Morris & Co. in the late 1880s. Many commentators at the 1899 exhibition found the dresser too rough; in October that year the reviewer for The Builder described some of the features as resembling ‘the work of a savage’. Hermann Muthesius, the architectural attaché to the German Embassy in London from 1896, saw these pieces and wrote critically, in a somewhat perplexed tone, that Barnsley ‘had gone so far as to practice joinery with his own hands; he finds craftsmanship entirely satisfying and takes pleasure in making kitchen or farmhouse furniture of a primitive kind which he sends in to Arts and Crafts exhibitions’.

In 1901, galvanized partly by the interest Barnsley’s furniture was attracting, Sidney’s brother and Ernest Gimson went into partnership to design furniture and employ trained cabinetmakers to make their designs. They were inspired by aspects of Sidney’s work – both techniques and designs – and, although he firmly chose to remain separate, his relationship with them remained close. In the 1899 Arts and Crafts Exhibition Gimson had exhibited a box that was made to his design by Sidney Barnsley (cat. no. 151) and a number of Gimson’s later drawings now at Cheltenham are annotated by both men.

This change coincided with a development in their circumstances: their landlord Lord Bathurst decided that the restored Pinbury Park would make an excellent base for his young family while Sidney and Lucy Barnsley, now with two children, had outgrown their accommodation. The three men relinquished their tenancy at Pinbury and in return were given land in Sapperton to build their own homes. Sidney designed his house, Beechanger, together with a workshop in the garden on the border between his and Gimson’s land. It was a thatched two-storey building; the well-lit workshop was above the stable and wood store and provided a beautiful view across the valley. He installed a large hand-and foot-powered circular saw made by the Britannia Co. and a treadle lathe for both wood and metal – he occasionally turned drop handles for his furniture. Barnsley was both a purist and a realist: he enjoyed all aspects of woodworking and felt that it was wrong to delegate the more tedious aspects of the craft but he also understood that he required more mechanical help working on his own than Gimson’s workshop of about ten men. Despite his small build he was strong and managed to undertake major pieces of work on his own. He made himself a pulley to enable him to move large pieces of timber on his own and occasionally asked Gimson’s gardener to lend a hand. Barnsley was commissioned to make a dresser and two oak tables for the 4th Marquess of Bute at the Old Place of Mochrum in 1903. Each table was 12 feet long by 3 foot 6 inches, the tops made out of two planks, 3 inches thick, with one joint in the width (illus. Carruthers (2013), p.300). On their completion in May 1904 he wrote to Philip Webb: ‘they have given me a fair dressing down and by night time I have felt fair tired out’. Alongside such major commissions he would also make smaller pieces such as boxes, chests and mirrors, which were sometimes inlaid with mother of pearl, harking back to his Byzantine studies, and lines of holly and ebony stringing, or painted by his friends Alfred and Louise Powell.

He would meet with Gimson on a more or less daily basis, usually at his workshop as Gimson went in to his smithy at Sapperton or down to the workshop at Daneway. They would discuss projects and problems generally, cementing their long friendship, and some of Gimson’s craftsmen subsequently commented on the continuing similarity between the two men’s designs. Inevitably Gimson’s output, working with a team of about ten cabinet makers, was much larger than Barnsley’s, working on his own. One obvious difference is in the use of decorative lines of gouged decoration which they both favoured. On Gimson’s pieces the gouges are of a standard length with parallel sides whereas Barnsley, who was undertaking all the work himself, tended to cut the gouges smaller and splayed out, something which, according to Edward Barnsley, his father described as ‘tickling the furniture’ and could be achieved quickly by a trained hand.

Barnsley continued to exhibit at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society but he usually had as much work as he could cope with. Ernest Gimson’s brother Sydney bought and commissioned pieces for Stoneywell, his house in the Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire, as did other members of the family. Other clients included fellow-architects and designers such as Robert Weir Schultz and friends including Emery Walker, Fred Griggs and William Simmonds. The Biddulphs at Rodmarton Manor and the Cholmeley Family at Easton Hall in Lincolnshire were important patrons as was St John Hornby who bought a number of his cabinets from exhibitions and then commissioned stands for them. Probably the final piece of furniture he made with his own hands was for another furniture designer, Ambrose Heal, in 1923 (illus. Heal (2014), p. 25). The design of this oak dresser was developed in an exchange of letters and drawings between the two men, detailed by Oliver Heal in his book on Sir Ambrose Heal.

From 1913 onwards Barnsley received more commissions for architectural work, mainly extensions and additions to large Cotswold houses, and after 1923 he rarely worked at the bench himself as he suffered from back pain. He provided capital for his son Edward to take over Geoffrey Lupton’s workshop at Froxfield, Hampshire, when the latter emigrated to South Africa and a number of his designs were made there including the kneelers in Macassar ebony for St Andrew’s Chapel, Westminster Cathedral. The only Sidney Barnsley design made at a workshop other than Froxfield was a built-in dresser in the dining room at Rodmarton Manor entrusted to the estate workshop run by Alfred Wright.

Following Gimson’s death in August 1919, Barnsley oversaw the completion of outstanding work including the chancel screen at Crockham Hill Church in Surrey and furniture for G. F. B. de Gruchy in Jersey. The biggest project was the Memorial Library at Bedales School, Hampshire. Barnsley supervised the work which was carried out by Lupton whose team included Edward Barnsley. He was also commissioned to design hayrake tables and armchairs in oak for the library and clock.

Even in his lifetime Barnsley’s reputation was overshadowed by that of Gimson although this never seemed to be an issue for him. The disparity in their output and unwarranted omission of his contribution from the 1924 memorial volume, Ernest Gimson, his Life and Work, by Lethaby Alfred Powell and F. L. Griggs, all augmented this. Sidney Barnsley died suddenly at Sapperton on 25 September 1926. The following month his old friend Lethaby sent a fitting tribute to his widow: ‘In his quietness and withdrawal – whilst having his gifts – there was true greatness. He was a big Englishman. It is a very conscious world, and his keeping out of things so much and going his quiet way was part of his bigness. Our hope is that we may have more of the kind but there can never be just that again’.

The Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum has Barnsley furniture and more than 250 designs for furniture and architecture by Sidney Barnsley as well as archive material.  His furniture is also represented at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery; the Edward Barnsley Workshop in Hampshire (which also has archive material); Rodmarton Manor and Owlpen Manor in Gloucestershire; and the Emery Walker Trust, Hammersmith, London.

The Barnsleys’ daughter, Grace trained as a decorator of pottery with the Powells and continued to decorate Wedgwood pieces on a freelance basis until 1934 when, with her husband Oscar Davies, she set up the Roeginga Pottery in Rainham, Kent. Edward Barnsley began making furniture in his father’s workshop at an early age and in 1919 went to work for Geoffrey Lupton at Froxfield, Hampshire. He took over the workshop in 1923 and it is still active today, run by a trust and managed by James Ryan.

By Mary Greensted

Sources: Sources: Comino, “Good Citizen’s Furniture”: The work of Ernest and Sidney Barnsley (1976); Carruthers, Ernest Gimson and the Cotswold Group of Craftsmen (1978, 2007); Comino, Gimson and the Barnsleys: ‘Wonderful furniture of a commonplace kind’ (1980, 1991); Carruthers, Gimson and Barnsley: Designs and Drawings in Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museums (1984); Carruthers & Greensted (eds), Good Citizen’s Furniture: The Arts and Crafts Collections at Cheltenham (1994); McGrath, ‘Sidney Barnsley, a quintessential Arts and Crafts architect and craftsman’, in Originality and Initiative, Greensted and Wilson (eds), 2003; Crawford, ‘Barnsley Family’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2004); Livingstone and Parry, International Arts and Crafts, (2006); Carruthers, The Art and Crafts Movement in Scotland, (2013); Heal, Sir Ambrose Heal, (2014); Carruthers, Greensted, & Roscoe, Ernest Gimson: Arts & Crafts Designer and Architect (2019).