The Lyf So Short, The Craft So long To Lerne.
Arthur William Simpson of Kendal or "A.W.S." as he was known to his family, friends, workman and many of his clients was one of the most important Master Craftsman from the Arts and Crafts Movement, a leading carver and designer of domestic and ecclesiastical furniture at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the 20th century. He was born in Highgate Kendal on December 7th 1857 in the heart of England's Lake District, during his childhood he was constantly in trouble with his father for poaching a pocket knife and cutting sticks from a Willow tree in his garden. As a child he loathed school and no sooner than his mother had dropped him at school, that he'd made his escape. He was always carving objects for friends and for favours after school hours and even took projects to bed with him thus waking up with his bed sheets filled with wood carvings. At the age of 14 it was quite apparent that he was to become a carver and was apprenticed to Robert Rigg a new cabinet making company who had recently opened. But the work he was given was not in the line of wood carving. When he had to make a coffin and was persuaded to help put the body into it he vowed to leave at the next opportunity. He had heard that Gillows of Lancaster were looking for an apprentice carver and after a successful interview he started work on Monday the 4th of October 1875. While at Gillows he became great friends with William Murry a deaf mute who worked at the same bench as Simpson from whom he learned to communicate with by using his fingers. He learnt a great deal about cabinet making from this excellent draughtsman and they shared many long walks together in their spare time. He stayed at Gillows learning his trade for just under four years. In September 1879 he left Gillows and went to Leicester gaining employment with Samuel Barfield a "Master Carver" himself whom employed around 30 carvers. Simpson stayed there for fifteen months and resided with his Uncle Thomas and his Auntie Lizzie Seddon.
Simpson worked in various parts of the country before settling momentarily back in Kendal, where he opened for business in 1881 at 22a Highgate, Kendal as an ‘Architectural and General Woodcarver’. A short lived experiment where he came into debt to the sum of £30 over a 12 month period and decided that Kendal wasn't the best place for a carver to be and on advice went to London to find work where he was employed by Osmonds. At Osmonds he felt the work they gave him would not teach him much and continued looking for work walking from workshop to workshop in his spare time until he gained employment with William Aumonier's in Tottenham Court Road where he worked for approx five month's. Here he met a very skilful carver called Mackie and learnt a great deal from him in the short period that he worked for Aumoniers.
Simpson was known to love walking almost as much as he loved to work with wood. After he had been made redundant at Aumoniers he walked 252 miles home to Kendall to be the best man for his cousins wedding to be held on the 31st of August 1882. After the wedding he set off walking in search of more work where he gained employment in Altringham with H. Faulkner Armitage although little is known of his work there it seems he stayed in Altringham until sometime in 1885 when he returned home to Kendal and re established his furniture and carving business. From 1885 he devoted much of his time to teaching, he taught evening classes in local villages and thought nothing of walking ten or so miles there and back to teach. Early in 1886 he began to teach classes at the Keswick School of Industrial Art while working on carving for church interior commissions. On April 9th in 1886 Simpson employed 'Tom Dixon' his first employee as an apprentice carver and in the same year held his first exhibition of carvings in Kendal.
In the summer of 1887 he became engaged to Jane Davidson while on holiday in the Isle of Man and they were married in March 1888. Jane Davidson became an accomplished embroider and leather worker and did much of the embroidery and embossed leatherwork mainly for chairs and stools the company produced. In 1888 he was employing a number of craftsmen all involved with church and domestic interiors, carving and making furniture and it is in this early period of his work where carving is more prolific. In 1889 a piece of his carving was accepted by The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. The Simpson workshops were originally at Berry's Yard in Kendal but later moved to Queen Katherine Buildings in the Christmas of 1896. In 1901 a new showroom was opened in Windermere in the centre of the Lake District, introducing fabrics, needlework, leatherwork, pottery and metal work by The Keswick School of Industrial Art . This showroom originally named 'The Handicrafts' was not transferred to the workshops at Queen Katherine Buildings until 1906 and would continue to be the company name until it's end in 1950/51.
Arthur Dixon another apprentice of Simpson went on to become the Foreman cabinet maker of The Handicrafts in 1922. In 1899 Simpson organised The Loan Exhibition and exhibited with C.F.A.Voysey, Harold Stabler, Rathbone, Mawson, Collingwood, Shrigley and Hunt, Messrs Essex and Co and Messrs Morton and Co at Abbott Hall, Kendal. It marked the beginning of a very close working relationship with Alexander Morton and Simpson supplied all the furniture for Alexander Morton on his marriage in 1900. In 1909 The Handicrafts introduced Sundour fabrics, Donegal carpets and Torfyn rugs into their stock. Simpson’s son, Ronald became one of Morton’s most highly acclaimed designers. Simpson exhibited at the 1912 Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia and sold his entire stand to one client. In this exhibition Simpson was nestled between two other important designers of the period, on one side C F A Voysey and on his other side George Walton . Simpson was also a true follower of John Ruskin and his design principles.
Arthur Simpson probably met Voysey around 1890 through exhibiting with The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. He later made furniture to designs by C.F.A.Voysey who greatly influenced his work and it is this period of his work that is the most important where he uses less carving and his pieces become more architectural, restrained and simpler in design and true to the Arts and Crafts principles. Simpson and Voysey became great friends over a long period. Voysey designed Simpson's family home in 1908/1909 called Littleholme. Voysey was always impeccably dressed usually wearing a flamboyant Liberty cravat, a stern and fastidious man of whom many including the Simpson family stood in awe of him but Simpson born a Quaker had a very strong will. At the dinner table with his family and Voysey, Simpson stood up and told Voysey, 'I stand in awe of no man'. Simpson used and sold metalwork through The Handicrafts made by Richard Rathbone and Bainbridge Reynolds of Clapham who both produced metalwork to the designs of Voysey, including wallpaper by Sanderson who with Messrs Essex produced wallpapers also designed by Voysey. Anne Macbeth born in Bolton a famous Glasgow designer of the period produced embroidery and pottery which was also sold through the Handicrafts.
Arthur Simpson's most important interior was for Blackwell, designed by another famous Architect/Designer of the period M.H.Ballie Scott. 'Blackwell', a beautiful property over looking Lake Windermere is a monument to Ballie Scott's designs and Simpson's work where Simpson did all of the internal woodwork and carving from skirtings to staircases, carved panelling, doors, exposed beamwork and furniture. Blackwell is now open to the public and holds regular exhibitions throughout the year, it is a superb example of Arts and Crafts architecture still with its original period interior and probably the most important and complete example from the Arts and Crafts Movement in England today. Arthur Simpson was a true genius who thoroughly understood different woods its capabilities and it's limitations, his precision craftsmanship inspired by nature and life like carvings are so perfect that they capture ones attention and draw one in to look closer at his simple skilfully accomplished designs and detailing. He worked with many types of wood and had over 60 suppliers but his preference was quarter sawn oak, each piece hand chosen for the grain and using the same cuts strategically placed on furniture he made which was always lightly oiled, polished and waxed, to bring out the natural beauty of the wood. Simpson left a scrap book which included a line taken from an article about Philip Webb which simply explains the philosophy behind Arthur Simpson: ‘Quantity was never his aim, for he invariably refused all work to which he was unable to devote careful and detailed personal attention’.
He died in 1922.
His son Hubert carried on the company always moving with the spirit of the time but never forsaking the quality of his father's work. He produced many modern pieces through the twenties, thirties and forties many with carved handles made from various fruitwoods contrasting the colour and wood a piece was made in. Hubert worked alongside his father from an early age going through two wars and the great depression. Hubert's designs were exhibited at The Red Rose Guild in Manchester throughout this period. The Handicrafts closed in 1950 when sadly much of the Simpson records were burned and disposed of.
Researched and written by Tony Geering.