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Gillow & Company (1862-1897)

Gillow & Company

Lancaster, Manchester, Liverpool and London; cabinet makers, chair makers, upholsterers, carvers, gilders, interior decorators, joiners and estate agents (1862-1897)

Overview

In 1862 the management of Gillow & Company passed to a new partnership of four men: James Carter Moon (1803–1887); Isaac Hunter Donaldson (1826–1913); James Moon (1829–1993), son of James Carter Moon; and Samuel James Harris (1832–1906) [The Lancaster Guardian, 13 October 1906]. During the period of their leadership the firm successfully tendered for the furnishing of numerous prominent public buildings, gentlemen’s clubs, and railway hotels throughout Britain; decorated and furnished scores of country houses and urban dwellings for industrialists, merchants, bankers, and other members of the growing middle class; participated in numerous international exhibitions; received a Royal Warrant as a cabinet maker to Queen Victoria; and expanded its already sizable operations in London and Lancaster to Liverpool and Manchester.

Organised as a comprehensive firm, Gillow engaged in cabinet making, chair making, upholstery, carving, gilding, interior decoration, the design, and fabrication of interior architectural fittings (fireplace surrounds, decorative wall paneling, overmantels, doors and door casings, paneled and coffered ceilings, staircases and other ‘constructive woodwork’), as well as occasionally acting as undertakers.  In addition, the Oxford Street branch offered house and estate agency services and was involved in speculative property development. The number of employees engaged by the firm’s Lancaster operation during the second half of the nineteenth century ranged from approximately 250 to 300 people, with an additional 300 or more working in London. 

Gillow’s furniture was conceived in a broad range of historicist styles designed by a host of named and anonymous architects and designers. The firm continued to engage craftsmen skilled in hand-finishing, carvers, and marquetry specialists. These labour-intensive practices were employed in conjunction with a measured approach to new technology in the form of wood-working machinery. Details of individual objects found within the furniture inventory of 1892, demonstrate the diversity of styles and the range of price points offered a strategy explicitly avowed by management.  The Lancaster Guardian (11 February 1882) remarked that, ‘Gillows are noted almost entirely for turning out costly and luxurious work; but the firm is as capable and as willing (naturally so) to meet the demand for the cheapest class of business as they are to do that class of work which is required for the decoration of palaces’. Embracing a production strategy that balanced the creation of elaborate, high-end furniture with the manufacturing of standard commercial models, Gillow captured a wide swath of the British domestic market along with a considerable number of lucrative contract commissions.

Biographies of the Partners

James Carter Moon was the acting head of the Lancaster operation from 1862 until his retirement in 1870. He had successfully risen through the ranks of Gillow, beginning in 1817 as an apprentice to Gillow partner Leonard Redmayne (1781–1868).  Moon became a Freeman of Lancaster in 1823-24, and as early as 1827, he was described as bookkeeper, a position that he maintained until at least 1841. By 1851, Moon’s role was listed as a clerk in the census records, a post which – given his seniority – would have carried significant managerial responsibilities. His experience and longevity amply qualified Moon to take on the role of managing partner of the Lancaster branch after Redmayne’s retirement. Moon remained in this supervisory position for an additional nine years, during which time he had at least twenty-six freemen under his management, along with a considerable number of other craftsmen. He retired from the firm in 1870.

Isaac Hunter Donaldson was the public face of Gillow’s London operation. Born in Dublin, Donaldson trained as an upholsterer in Warwick, where he began his career in the trade. The exact timing of his move to London and employment with Gillow is unknown, but Donaldson was likely at the firm by at least 1857, working as an upholsterer and interior decorator, perhaps hired to replace William James Ferguson, a principal in the firm who had passed away in July of that year.

Donaldson had a penchant for drawing and design and may also have been instrumental in influencing the direction of Gillow’s in-house design department, a supposition supported by his public encouragement of design education during his long career; his membership in the Royal Society of Arts; his critical role in establishing the House Decorators’ Club in 1882; his later post of Master of the Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers in 1899, and the numerous drawings he produced as illustrations in his self-published book entitled Sketches with Pen and Pencil (1903). Donaldson may also have been responsible for hiring Gillow’s first documented artistic director, Henri Charles Joseph Henry (1847­–1908), a French-born decorative artist who designed furniture and interiors for the firm from 1873 until at least 1890. Scottish born decorative artist, Thomas Wallace Hay (1838–1917) also played a prominent role in realising Gillow’s interior design projects, as did the artist and ‘the firm’s well-known manager’, Henry Perry East (1845–1905). Amongst other commissions, East was credited with coordinating Gillow’s comprehensive decoration of Mandeville Hall, Toorak, Australia (1877–1878), with interiors reflecting Aesthetic movement taste and elaborate painted decoration by T.W. Hay; Eberle’s Grand Hotel, Liverpool (1883); as well as the installation of furniture and coordination of the decorative details in the new Cape Town Houses of Parliament, South Africa (1884). Thus, Donaldson, as partner, appears to have been instrumental in enhancing the design and interior decoration orientation of the firm.

As a complement to his role at Gillow, Donaldson took an active interest in matters relating to the education and training of craftsmen. Throughout his career he was an advocate for the promotion of the decorative arts and the profession of interior decoration. In an effort to elevate the stature of the craft of woodcarving, Donaldson was involved in establishing the National School of Art Wood-Carving in 1879. He also supported the West London School of Art, an institution established for the training of young cabinet makers, wood carvers, fret cutters and pattern designers. Donaldson also wrote and lectured regularly on the value of technical instruction for manufacturing and in 1884 submitted detailed recommendations for the improvement of education for workmen to the Royal Commissioners.

Donaldson’s external engagements took on even greater stature when he was nominated by the Prince of Wales (later, Edward VII) to be a ‘Juror on Decoration’ for the ParisExposition Universelle of 1878, after which he received the prestigious Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur for his services and for his participation as an exhibitor, having supervised Gillow’s celebrated furnishing and decoration of the Prince of Wales’s Pavilion on the Rue des Nations. Donaldson terminated his professional relationship with Gillow (14 February 1886) and continued to work independently as an interior decorator and consultant.

Following Donaldson’s departure from Gillow in 1886, James Moon (of Belsize Park, London) and Samuel Harris, jointly managed the company until the time of Moon’s death in April 1893. Initially trained in Lancaster, the younger Moon was transferred to Oxford Street, holding the position of bookkeeper from 1851. He had the benefit of working alongside Redmayne who was managing the London business at that time. By 1861, Moon had advanced to the position of 'commercial clerk', at which point he would have been working under Donaldson and Harris, a segue into the future 1862 partnership configuration.

Of the four principal partners named in the 1862 agreement,Samuel Harris exerted the most influence on the course of the business and was ultimately responsible for executing the decision to merge the firm with S. J. Waring & Sons in 1897. Details of Harris’s early career remain unclear, but he may have been trained as a joiner in Birmingham, his recorded place of birth. By 1861 he had married and moved to London where he worked as a ‘clerk to [an] upholder’ (presumably Gillow), because Harris’s obituary stated that ‘his commercial life was spent in Messrs. Gillows’ concern, in which he rose from a subordinate position to become the sole proprietor’. Harris’s most notable years at the firm were spent in Lancaster. Following James Carter Moon’s retirement in 1870, Harris, together with his family, relocated there from London to supervise the provincial end of the business. Harris was elected to several governmental posts, including eleven years on the Lancaster Town Council and two terms as Mayor, beginning in November 1881.

Expansion in Lancashire

From 1879-82, Harris supervised the construction of the firm’s new factory complex and showrooms at properties between Damside Street and St. Leonard’s Gate, Lancaster. The new expanded facility included extensive mills, workshops, offices, and showrooms, which enabled the firm to consolidate its production into one massive complex. The main building, designed by Richard Mawson (1834–1904), comprised the showrooms and offices, with a street front of 200 feet, was forty-two feet deep and about three storeys high. Upon its completion, the structure was described as ‘one of the finest in Lancaster’ and was estimated to have cost £12,000 to build [The Lancaster Guardian, 11 February 1882].

Gillow made additional accommodations to attract the growing patronage of merchants and industrialists based in the north of England. By 1870 the firm had established a showroom in the Rotunda Building at 5 Bold Street in Liverpool, and then a decade later, moved to premises at 102 Bold Street. While the ‘Liverpool House’ was run as a discrete entity with a separate payroll, expense profile, and income stream, Bold Street was fully accountable to Lancaster and supervised by Harris. In addition to the Liverpool management, there was a group of workmen employed to perform all manner of interior alterations, maintenance, repairs, and installations. No design or fabrication of furniture took place in this location; the entire stock was supplied by Gillow’s Lancaster and London workshops.

Specific sales figures for the Bold Street branch do not survive, but the number of significant private commissions and prestigious institutional clients located within Liverpool and its immediate vicinity recorded in the firm’s general ledgers suggest a thriving satellite operation.  From colliery owners and bankers to international shipping merchants and industrialists, Gillow executed some of its largest, most comprehensive domestic commissions in Liverpool and its environs, including furnishings and interior architectural alterations for the Bishop of Liverpool (1880–1882); Highfield House, owned by sugar merchant, William Henry Tate (1893–1897); and Sandfield Park, home of financier, Robert Brocklehurst (1881). The large community of Greek shipping merchants – clustered in Liverpool – was another source of significant patronage for the firm during this period, with major house commissions executed for Constantine Ralli of Ralli Brothers, purported to be ‘the wealthiest, and the most imperious of the Greek [shipping] houses’, as well as interiors executed for the cotton merchant, Demetrius Sakelarides, and shipped to his home in Alexandria, Egypt. In addition to furnishing the interiors of the Liverpool Reform Club; the Liverpool Conservative Club; the New County Sessions House (part of the grand expanse of public architecture built on William Brown Street); and the prestigious Adelphi Hotel on Ranelagh Place, Gillow also made inroads into the lucrative niche market for the fitting out of ship’s interiors.

Following over a decade of successful trading in Liverpool, during the spring of 1883, Gillow took possession of retail space at 30 King Street, Manchester, signing a fourteen-year lease on the 28th of February. Operated in a manner similar to the Liverpool branch, Gillow’s Manchester showroom was stocked by the Lancaster factory and run as an independent cost centre. The relatively few records pertaining to this segment of the firm’s business indicate that King Street experienced moderate success, posting net profits for the years 1887-90, significantly outperforming Gillow’s Liverpool location for the same period. Gillow management closed the King Street showroom during 1891.

London

Gillow’s London showroom at 176-177 Oxford Street remained the centrepiece of the firm’s operations until 1906, maximising its exposure to an urban, typically affluent, clientele.  Its physical location, architectural presence, interior design, and attention to display were critical to promoting Gillow’s public and commercial identity. The firm’s retail premises were described as resembling ‘the state rooms prepared for the reception [....] of some great potentate, than the show rooms of a trader’ [Industrial Art, 1877]. Boasting ornate architectural features such as columns with carved capitals, gilded cornices and moldings, and prominent overdoors, the Oxford Street space showcased Gillow’s full range of its constructive woodwork, upholstery, and interior decoration capabilities. In addition, Gillow frequently mounted temporary exhibitions in its London showroom to highlight exceptional objects or designs executed for prominent commissions.

The firm operated nearby workshops at 13 George Street; 48 Duke Street; and 39-40 Somerset Street. Given that the majority of cabinetwork was produced in Lancaster, these sites largely accommodated craftsmen engaged in upholstery as well as specialist carvers and gilders. The 1881 census recorded fifty women out of a total 330 employees working for the firm in London. Although evidence of the exact nature of this female participation is unclear, most were likely employed as upholsterers. Partner, Isaac Hunter Donaldson specifically cited women working at Gillow in London as being responsible for making up the bedding as well as the carpets, a process which entailed sewing the individual machine-made carpet strips together [Report from the Select Committee on the Metropolitan Buildings and Management Bill of the House of Commons, 1874]. Upholsterers (of either gender) performed a range of tasks beyond the execution of stuffed seating, window treatments, and bed hangings, including the lining of writing tables with leather and card tables with baize, providing curtains for the interior of cabinets, and the sewing of portières, tablecloths, and mantel board covers.

Designers, International Exhibitions, and Notable Commissions

Gillow’s investment in design, through the hiring of freelance architects and designers together with the development of its internal ‘Artists’ Department’, was perhaps this management’s most visible and important contribution to the firm’s legacy and demonstrated its enduring allegiance to the principles of art manufacture.

The firm’s most elaborate means of showcasing innovations in design came through its participation in international exhibitions. Beginning in 1851 at London’s Great Exhibition, Gillow exhibited at most of the major international venues held during the second half of the nineteenth century (with the exception of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876; the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889; and the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893), while also displaying furniture at numerous national venues such as the Albert Hall and the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, and at fairs and exhibitions organised in provincial cities and towns such as Lancaster, Wolverhampton, Leeds, York, Manchester, and Liverpool. This range and frequency of participation suggests that Gillow valued the promotional reach of these events in terms of product exposure, future sales, and potential press coverage.

Robert Jefferson (b. c.1827) dubbed the ‘artist of the house’ was credited as the designer of Gillow’s Renaissance revival furniture displayed at the London International Exhibition of 1862; the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867; and the London International Exhibitions of 1871 and 1872. An honourable mention was awarded to Jefferson for the Paris display.

Bruce James Talbert (1838-1881) appears to have worked for Gillow on a freelance basis from at least 1867 to about 1875, while Charles Bevan (fl. c.1860-82) a self-described ‘Inventor and Designer of Medieval Cabinet Furniture and Other Works of Art’, worked for the firm intermittently from 1867 through 1872. Both Bevan and Talbert are credited with introducing the so-called Modern Gothic or medieval decorative idiom into Gillow’s core furniture production.  The first Gillow designs annotated as ‘Medieval’, were recorded in the Lancaster estimate sketchbooks on 25 March 1867, and can be firmly attributed to Bevan. Significant domestic commissions featuring Modern Gothic furniture and interiors dating from the late 1860s and 1870s include: Abbots Wood, Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, for railway, iron and steel magnate, Sir James Ramsden (1822-96); Allerton Priory, the Liverpool country house of colliery owner, industrialist and art collector, John Grant Morris (1811-97); New Heys, Liverpool built for the solicitor, W.G. Bateson; Mossley House, Liverpool built for Lloyd Raynor (c. 1822-76), a prominent merchant and produce broker; Lunefield, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria) built for Alfred Harris (1826-1901), banker and financier; Hillbark, Frankby, built for Septimus Ledward (d.1890), iron merchant and financier; and Bryngwyn Manor, Herefordshire for James Rankin (1842-1915), timber merchant and shipbuilder.

Talbert’s most celebrated public work for Gillow was his design for a dining room elevation ‘in the later English style’, displayed at the London International Exhibition of 1871 which featured the so-called Pet Sideboard..

Sideboard

Sideboard made of oak with boxwood panels, 1871 [W.44:1-10-1953]. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O61232/sideboard-talbert-bruce-james/

Illustrated in Talbert’s pattern book, Examples of Ancient & Modern Furniture (1876), which showcased his interpretation and execution of the ‘Old English’ style, this sideboard was one of three plates related to commissions that Talbert had designed for Gillow and/or Gillow patrons. Talbert’s Reformed Gothic and ‘Old English’ designs represented a defining moment stylistically for Gillow, as these patterns were wholly integrated into the firm’s mainstream production throughout the 1870s.

Architect, Robert Edis (1839-1927) maintained an ongoing relationship with Gillow that endured throughout the 1870s. As early as May 1870, the estimate sketchbooks recorded an ‘Edis pattern’ dining room chair in the Modern Gothic taste with exaggerated through-tenon construction, boldly turned front legs, and a leather upholstered seat and back panel. A related  ‘Edis Pattern’ armchair was also recorded in January 1871. Edis was one of several designers whose name was given to patterns in the firm’s oeuvre. Gillow’s other connections with Edis include the execution of his furniture designs for the interiors of the Boscombe Spa Hotel in Bournemouth, completed in 1874, and the production of a drawing room cabinet, also designed by Edis, for a private residence at No. 3 Upper Berkeley Street two years later.

Henry William Batley (1846-1932), a designer who had trained in Talbert’s studio during the mid-1860s, designed for Gillow during the late 1870s. In addition to several pieces labelled with a ‘Batley’ prefix recorded in the estimate sketchbooks, such as a simple ‘Batley Cabinet’ (1876), on turned legs with a delicate super-structure, and another referenced as ‘A Stained dark mahogany Batley Cabinet’ (1880), of broader proportions with turned decorative details and painted panels articulated in the sketch, he was responsible for the design of an ebonised secretaire shown by Gillow at the London International Exhibition in 1874, noted for its use of incised and gilt ornament and painted panel figures, similar to the ‘Walnut Batley Escritoire’, which appeared in the Lancaster sketchbooks in 1880.

Edward William Godwin (1833-1886) was associated with Gillow in a limited capacity during the mid-1870s. Given the incomplete evidence available pertaining to the London branch operations, his precise contribution to the firm’s body of furniture designs cannot be accurately determined. There are marked Gillow examples of furniture that correspond to published Godwin designs. In 1877, Gillow commissioned Godwin to provide the design for the ceiling paintings above the double stair of London’s Midland Grand Hotel, depicting the Virtues (Humility, Liberality, Industry, Chastity, Temperance, Truth, Clarity, and Patience) rendered in medieval-inspired dress. Also, in that year, the firm commissioned Godwin to design three houses at Nos. 4-6 Chelsea Embankment undertaken as speculative investment property. Two years later, in response to resounding public criticism, Gillow was forced to have its in-house architect Adolphus Croft (1832–93) redesign the building.

Croft was also responsible for Gillow’s architectural project at 127-129 Piccadilly. In September 1887, the firm acquired the leases for speculative development purposes and charged Croft with the design of a series of three mansions on the sites. The firm had originally intended the structures to be used as private homes, but the buildings were converted into gentlemen’s clubhouses shortly after their construction.

Architect, George Freeth Roper (1843-92) an assistant in Godwin’s office during the early 1870s, and a subsequent partner in the architectural firm of Bell & Roper (fl. c. 1875-79), also appears to have designed furniture for Gillow on a limited basis during the late 1870s, and possibly later. The only known labelled Roper design in Gillow’s estimate sketchbooks is dated May 1876 and identified as an ‘Ebonised Roper Cabinet’.

Henri C. J. Henry, a French-born decorative artist, who designed furniture for Gillow from 1873, directed the firm’s internal design department in London from the late 1870s. Among his early documented work for the firm were two ebonised cabinets (one with ornamental tiles) displayed at the London International Exhibition of 1873, and described by the trade press as ‘sufficiently piquant in form and treatment’, considered ‘some of the best works in the present Exhibition’ [The House Furnisher and Decorator, 10 May 1873]. While at Gillow, Henry was responsible for furniture design as well as comprehensive interior decorating projects in 'several of the richest and finest new houses in London,' international exhibition displays, and in 1876, he undertook an independent project, founding the Windsor Tapestry Works [‘The Royal Windsor Tapestry Manufactory’, The Illustrated London News, 29 April 1882]. He was referred to as ‘a decorative artist of high talent and repute’ and by the late 1880s, had earned the post of Gillow’s ‘artistic director’, a title that had not been previously referenced at the firm.

Artist and designer, Thomas Wallace Hay, was associated with Gillow from the early 1870s. At the London International Exhibition of 1873, the firm exhibited a cabinet painted with ‘a choice representation of the fables of Aesop, The Fox and the Grapes and The Hare and the Tortoise’ attributed to Hay [The Furniture Gazette, 3 May 1873]. In 1876, Hay executed a mural in the vestibule of Mandeville Hall, Toorak, a prominent Italianate residence, on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, for millionaire landowner and philanthropist, Joseph Clarke (1834-95) fully furnished by Gillow in the Aesthetic taste. Shortly thereafter, he is documented by The British Architect as having designed and executed some of the painted decorations for the grand staircase, drawing-rooms, music room, coffee room, hall, and west wing of the Midland Grand Hotel, an important Gillow commission. Painted ceilings and murals, stenciling, gilding, and the application of faux finishes such as marbling and graining all had a role in the firm’s decorating repertoire, executed by Hay and other decorative artists on staff. Prominent commissions of this sort include: ceiling paintings for Bradford Town Hall (1873); painting and refurbishment of the Saloon and Long Parlour of Mansion House (1874); painted panel decorations for the ceiling over the United States Industrial Galleries at the Paris Exposition (1878); the decoration of the Newfoundland, Canadian, and Italian courts at the International Fisheries Exhibition held in London (1883); mural sized paintings of London, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, and New Zealand for the entrance hall of Indian and Colonial Exhibition (1886).

Henry and Hay’s most celebrated project for Gillow occurred in Paris at the Exposition Universelle of 1878, where the firm was selected to design and furnish the interiors of the Prince of Wales Pavilion, one of five buildings organised by the British Commission on the Rue des Nations for the official and personal use by the Prince of Wales. Celebrated as a decorative triumph, the interiors included a grand Elizabethan style dining room hung with Windsor Tapestry panels designed by Hay, an ‘Adams’ style octagonal boudoir, a Japanesque morning room hung with sage-green velvet, and two dressing rooms, furnished in the ‘Old English’ manner. The design of the pavilion interiors, credited to Henry and Hay with oversight from Donaldson, validated Gillow’s reputation as one of London’s top furniture and interior decorating firms. Notably, Robert Edis described and illustrated two plates depicting the dining room and boudoir in his Decoration and Furniture of Town Houses (1881), using such tributes as ‘elegant in design, and marvelously beautiful in workmanship’. After the Paris exhibition, the octagonal boudoir was reassembled for two other public events: the Manchester Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition in 1882 and the International Fisheries Exhibition held in London in 1883. The complete boudoir was then later rebuilt in Gillow’s Oxford Street showroom in 1888, while the tapestries and woodwork from the pavilion’s dining room were purchased by Albert Sassoon (1818-1896), who installed it in his London home at 25 Kensington Gore. Gillow was engaged to design and furnish subsequent pavilions for the British Commission during the series of thematic fairs staged on the grounds of the Royal Horticultural Society in London: The International Fisheries Exhibition (1883); the International Health Exhibition (1884); and the International Inventions Exhibition (1885). Each pavilion featured a configuration of eclectic interiors and were credited to Henry’s design.

Architect, Thomas Edward Collcutt (1840-1924) does not appear in the Gillow accounts or estimate sketchbooks until 1879. While his designs appear to have been broadly incorporated into the firm’s general lines of production, he did not design any Gillow exhibition pieces, or publish a catalogue, like those of Talbert featuring mutual commissions. As such, Collcutt’s work for Gillow in the so-called Queen Anne style received little public recognition but nonetheless represented an important break from the Reformed Gothic and ‘Old English’ styles with which Gillow had become so closely associated during the 1870s.

The designer Henry Charles Noble (1853-c. 1941) was mentioned in connection with Gillow’s display at the 1881 Art Furniture Exhibition held at the Albert Hall: a design for a mantelpiece cover that was executed by members of the School of Art-Needlework, comprising a ‘flowing Italian embroidery design in gold braid on a dark ground’, complimenting Gillow’s cabinetwork in a ‘rich and highly-decorated style’ [The Builder, 28 May 1881]. Noble designed ‘a rosewood cabinet inlaid’ for the Arts & Crafts Exhibition in 1890, executed by craftsman, John Salkeld [Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society Catalogue of the Third Exhibition, 1890, no. 274]. His last design of note for Gillow dates to 1893, when the Art Journal published an image of a cabinet designed by Noble with imposing proportions and complex surface decoration, in the ‘German Renaissance’ style with ‘traces of Jacobean influence’. This particular piece was constructed of oak and ebony, embellished with carved and inlaid panels recalling seventeenth-century Flemish cabinetwork. Recorded in the estimate sketchbooks as an ‘Oak Inlaid Cabinet’, it was made in conjunction with a monumental sideboard with similar marquetry panels, carved masks, and densely arranged ornament, also likely Noble’s design. Both were shipped to London for the client, E.C. Oddie.

Other known designers that worked for Gillow include: Edward J. Tarver (1841–91) who worked in conjunction with Gillow on several occasions during the 1870s and 1880s; the architect Maurice B. Adams (1849-1933), who produced the designs for a Queen Anne style bedroom suite for Gillow that was published in the Building News in 1882; William Scott Morton (1840-1903); Adolph Jonquet a self-described ‘designer of all branches of art industry’; and the architect, Frederick G. Knight.

By the mid-1880s, the Gillow estimate sketches document a shift in focus from external design talent to the development and promotion of in-house designers, many of whom remained anonymous to the public. Gillow maintained its diverse stylistic range through the balance of the nineteenth century, as did most firms of the quality trade, producing near copies of well-known eighteenth-century French models; Renaissance revival designs that featured bold carving or intricate ivory inlay; Georgian revival designs—with many neoclassical examples sourced from the firm’s archived eighteenth-century estimate sketch books; as well as Japanese and ‘Moorish’ inspired furniture and interior decoration.

Standard Grade Contract Furniture

In addition to furnishing domestic interiors, Gillow developed an important sub-specialty of supplying furniture and interior architectural fittings for large institutions. These contract commissions often involved the execution of considerable quantities of standardised furniture forms and therefore took full advantage of the firm’s mechanized production capacity. Significant institutional commissions included: Barrow Town Hall (1871); Bradford Town Hall (1873); the London Courts of Justice (1882); Liverpool’s New County Sessions House (1883-84); the Cape Town Houses of Parliament (1883-84); and the Corporation of Lancaster (1892). The fitting out of hotel interiors was also an important source of revenue for Gillow during the second half of the nineteenth century. Hotel commissions included: London’s Midland Grand Hotel (1872); Glasgow’s St. Enoch’s Hotel (1879); Eberle’s Grand Hotel, Liverpool (1883); the Northumberland Avenue Hotel, London (1883); and the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool (1891), along with the principal hotels on the Midland Railway line, including those located in Derby, Bradford, Leeds (Queens Hotel), and Morecombe. Gillow’s diverse range of institutional clients reflected, in part, the changing nature of Victorian society as reflected in buildings dedicated to leisure pursuits, as well as the growing prominence of civic architecture constructed in the urban manufacturing centres of the North.

Commissions Relating to Transport

Gillow’s work also impacted the quality of the travel experience through its design and execution of select train car interiors. From 1880 and for the following two decades, Gillow produced decorative seat ends and a variety of upholstered bench seats for the railway cars contracted by the Lancaster Wagon Company. Building upon this experience, in 1896, Gillow was charged with designing and constructing the interior fittings for a pair of first-class ‘superb dining coaches’ for the Midland Railway Company. The cars were described in the Lancaster Observer as ‘a triumph of cabinet, upholstery, and decorative work’. 

Gillow also played a material role in the transformation of steamship interiors. Working with the Liverpool shipbuilders, Ismay Irmie & Company, the firm designed and executed the fittings of several Whitestar Line steamship interiors. Oak and teak parquet floors were executed for the saloons of the Republic, the Celtic, the Adriatic, the Baltic and later the Oceanic, followed by additional interior work for each, including carved paneling and other fitted furniture. Gillow showed its expertise in the decoration of ships’ interiors at the Liverpool International Exhibition in 1886. The display of the firm’s fitted furniture was described as ‘architectonic in character, bold and good in design, and executed with exquisite delicacy’, according to the Journal of Decorative Art. 

Having built a reputation for its work in this specialised market, Gillow was commissioned in 1880 to furnish and decorate several of the interiors of the Russian Emperor, Alexander II’s (1818-81) yacht, the Livadia. The firm also executed a portion of the interior fittings for William K. Vanderbilt’s (1878-1944) yacht, the Valiant, in 1893. Built by Laird Brothers, Birkenhead, it was reported by the New York Times as being the ‘biggest and most handsomely furnished vessel of her kind afloat’.

Ephemeral Interior Commissions

Gillow also applied its expertise to stage set design and decoration, providing a portion of the backdrop for the production of Youth, a melodrama written and directed by Augustus Harris, that opened at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1881. Decorated in a lavish ‘Oriental’ manner, replete with wall hangings, carpets, and richly embellished furniture, this particular scene was described by the Times as having ‘cost more than is generally expended on an entire production’.

Other important temporary displays, designed and executed by Gillow, included the decoration and furnishing of impermanent spaces commissioned for dinners, parties, and other celebrations. In March 1863, in preparation for the welcoming reception of Princess Alexandra of Denmark – held immediately prior to her wedding the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) – Gillow was charged with transforming the interior and exterior of the Bricklayers’ Arms Station (also known as West End Station) into an opulent display to officially mark the point at which the Princess was to commence her public entry into London. Employing a combination of richly textured fabrics and other decorative devices, the firm was said to have created ‘a perfect triumph of decorative art’.

Additional commissions for temporary reception spaces followed. In 1876, Gillow created a tent-like structure for a dinner held by the Prince of Wales in honour of the Sultan of Turkey ‘furnished in a style of Eastern luxury’. The firm arranged the temporary dining saloon so that the tables formed a crescent and a star replicating the elements found on the Turkish flag.  The balance of the furniture and decorations included ‘flowers arranged on a series of semi-circular mirrors’, two large sideboards, and other tables ‘lighted by candles in crystal candelabra’. For the Queen’s visit to Derby on 21 May 1891, Gillow was commissioned to decorate the royal reception room and retiring room, converting a utilitarian space, ordinarily used by the clerks at the train station, into ‘one of the most beautiful and airy apartments one could conceive’. All of the walls were ‘covered with pleated draperies in cream-coloured satin, relieved with old gold satin decorations’, while the furniture showcased the firm’s propensity for eclectic design [Permanent Record of Queen Victoria’s State Visit to Derby, 1891, p. 71].

The Final Years

Gillow & Co. ceased operations as an independent entity in 1897. Surviving financial records and client accounts dating from the 1890s indicate that the firm was profitable, continued to attract high-profile public and private commissions, and had access to ample working capital in the years leading up to its merger with S. J. Waring & Sons and thus was not forced into the arrangement as an option of last resort. The Lancaster Guardian reported on 12 June 1897:  ‘The old-established concern of Messrs. Gillow and Co. has recently changed hands, having been disposed of to Mr. J. Musker, of London, who has purchased the entire undertaking at Lancaster, London, Manchester and Liverpool as a going concern from May 1st’. John Musker was part of a consortium of London-based retailers that included Samuel J. Waring (1860–1940). Almost simultaneously, the London furniture maker, Collinson & Lock, which had taken over the firm of Jackson & Graham in 1885, declared bankruptcy (18 May 1897), and was subsequently absorbed by the then, newly-formed Waring & Gillow, along with the Old Bond Street firm of Thomas Bonter & Co., specialist dealers in carpets of Oriental and British manufacture, thus forging an alliance of unprecedented dominance within the furniture and decorating trades.

On 10 July 1897, The Economist reported that Waring and Gillow Limited was poised to issue £250,000 of mortgage debenture stock. According to the prospectus, the financial structure was organised as follows: £92,000 allocated to the cash portion of the purchase price and £158,000 to be used as additional working capital for the amalgamated business. The announcement further stated: ‘The principal and interest of the stock are secured on £715,122 worth of assets […]. It is certified that the profits of the businesses far exceed the amount required to pay the annual interest on the existing and proposed issues of debenture stock’.

The implications of the amalgamation from a business perspective were voiced in both the popular and trade press. That Waring & Sons, a company of relatively short history, ‘an establishment of amazing rapidity in growth’, should partner with a firm of Gillow’s longevity and reputation was considered a formidable combination. Gillow was perceived as valuable not just for its production capacity and synergistic effect on profits, but for the remarkable continuity and permanence of its name. In order to preserve this important asset, it was determined that each house would be run as an independent business.Long-time Gillow employee, Thomas B. Clarke, junior partner to Harris during the last few years prior to the merger, was retained to manage the Gillow premises at 406 Oxford Street. It was this managerial and administrative division between the two businesses, in part, that contributed to the many published inaccuracies regarding the year and circumstances around which the merger occurred.

Dr Laura Microulis