Ambrose Heal was born in Crouch End in 1872. The firm of Heal started in 1810 and later became "Heal and Son" long before Ambrose was born.
After studying at Marlborough College and Slade School of Art he began a two year apprenticeship as a cabinet maker training with Plunknett of Warwick, he then spent a further six months at Graham and Biddle of Oxford St before joining the family business in Tottenham Court Road in 1893 and his 1st pieces appeared in Heals shop windows in 1896. He was inspirational of building Heals reputation for over 50 years until he retired in 1953. He was fanatical about his work and designed many pieces over a long period always with an economical approach but with incredible attention to detail. A cottager’s chest, a mahogany wardrobe and an oak bureau was shown in 1899 at the sixth exhibition of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. He became a member of the Society in 1906, and regularly contributed to its exhibitions. He exhibited also at the International Exhibitions at Paris 1900 and Glasgow 1901. He joined the Art Workers’ Guild in 1910. When C.R. Ashbee moved his Guild of Handicraft from London to Chipping Camden in 1902, Ambrose Heal was able to recruit some of Ashbee’s craftsmen, who did not wish to leave London, into the Heal and Son workshops.
In 1898 his factory was moved to its position at the end of Alfred Mews where he produced his own furniture in the true Arts and Crafts tradition. He became managing director in 1907 and chairman in 1913. Heal was one of a group of founder members of the Design and Industries Association (DIA) whose ideal was to bring the principles of Arts and Crafts furniture into machine production.
Between the war years Heal’s was at its height. He quickly expanded the range of products the shop sold, which started to sell general furniture, nursery, kitchen and garden furniture, furnishing fabrics, carpets, glass, china, metal wares and lighting. Heal told the DIA, as it “emerge[d] from the welter of war”, that “there is a demand for plain, straightforward, stoutly made, properly planned and thoroughly useful furniture; and the shopman must be brought to see that we will no longer be satisfied with a style if that style does not conform first and foremost with our ideas of fitness for use” (DIA Journal, April 1918).
During the Second World War, the firm’s efforts like all companies were diverted to war work. After the War Heals was back on track again, but in 1953 Ambrose stood down from the chairmanship, succeeded by his son Anthony. Sir Ambrose Heal's was awarded in 1954 by The Royal Society of Arts the Albert Gold Medal for services to Industrial Design. He died on 15th November 1959 age 87.
His obituary in the Times hailed him, extravagantly, as “perhaps one of the great artists and craftsmen of his time”.
Researched and written by Tony Geering.