henry wilson


compilation of work

This brief overview illustrates a selection of works that could not be included in my published study of Henry Wilson.

Wilson's career encompassed a broad spectrum of art and design, from silverwork and jewellery to architecture and large-scale sculptural commissions in bronze. Within these commissions, his remarkable approach mingles elements of Arts and Crafts style and Art Nouveau with his own interpretation of tradition, symbolism, nature and personal creativity.

What he produced was both individual and universal, realised in a style that was uniquely, irreducibly Wilsonian

Overview

The most significant phase of his early career was spent as Chief Assistant to the architect J. D. Sedding (1838-91), collaborating with him on designs for Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, London. On Sedding’s sudden death he took over the business, completing several important commissions his late master and mentor had left unfinished.

Elphinstone Tomb

The Elphinstone Tomb, King's College,
University of Aberdeen.

Increasingly, however, he felt drawn towards the arts associated with architecture rather than to the business concerns of architectural practice. While designing some striking independent buildings of his own, his talents were most effectively expressed in church plate and furnishings, sculpture, jewellery and the metalworking arts. His remarkable achievements in those areas range from the silver chalice and breathtaking green marble fittings he created 1898-1910 for St. Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton, to the interior schemes of the 1890s for great houses like Douglas Castle, Lanarkshire and Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire; from jewels glowing with enamel and semi-precious gems to great bronze entrance doors or the monumental Elphinstone Tomb (1910-26).

As contemporaries attested, it was hard to get him to talk much about his own work; this reticence, however, did not apply to his views on art, design and craftsmanship generally: his talks and public lectures show him as an inspired, passionate and engaging communicator. Fellow members of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society fully recognised this talent in electing him their President, as which he served 1915-22, while the Art Workers’ Guild made him Master in 1917. His words reached craft practitioners and students well beyond these circles via his seminal book ‘Silverwork & Jewellery’ (1903), and through the teaching he undertook at leading art schools in London and Birmingham.

Examples of Henry Wilson’s work may be found throughout the UK – from Cornwall to Scotland, from Kent to Wales - and still further afield, in the US. There, in Boston, in 1922, he began designing the bronze entrance doors for the HQ of a leading tea importer, while in the early 1930s he completed his designs for the bronze bas-relief West doors of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York. This would prove to be his final commission, and might be regarded as the greatest of his works, not only in respect of its dimensions (the 4 leaves each measuring 18’x 12’) but also in terms of the complexity, inventiveness and eloquence of the modelling.

Kemsing grave

Side view of Kemsing grave, trio of bronze cherubs just visible on top.

Wilson himself would have been pleased that he reached such heights, especially in this particular art – sculpture. Writing to his brother Edgar c.1927, he explained ‘I have not got to the top in sculpture yet, but I hope to before I go over to the other side…’

His ex-studio assistant Brown Morrison thought that by the end of his life he had indeed achieved this ambition, deeming the Collett and Skarret family graves that Wilson designed for the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin, Kemsing, Kent, ‘some of the loveliest sculptures I know’.

Longstanding friend, colleague, fellow Guildsman and one of Wilson’s obituarists, the architect Francis William Troup (1865-1935), would have shared the belief that Wilson had fulfilled his aspiration regarding sculpture, confidently asserting that it would be for the Elphinstone Tomb above all that Wilson would be remembered.

Nowadays, however, it is his jewellery that most readily comes to mind: in fact, some people are not fully aware that he was an influential architect.

Brooch

Locket, e. 1900s; gold enamel with pearls
and semi-precious stones. Designed to
form half of buckle if required
Silver work and Jewellery

Frontispiece and title page of Silverwork & Jewellery (1903),
second edition 1912.


Enid Morse

Enid Morse wearing a tiara
designed for her by Henry Wilson,
present whereabouts unknown.


Formative Elements

sketch aged 10

Wilson was 10 or 11 when he produced this
sketch of the couple he lodged with while
attending school in Liverpool.
From childhood, Henry Wilson was encouraged to draw and to study design. When the family moved from Liverpool, where both parents had been teachers at the Collegiate School, he returned as a pupil there, lodging in term-time with a family in Everton. In the holidays he joined the family in Cleobury Mortimer, Shropshire, where his father had become headmaster of the village school.

Later, after graduating from Kidderminster School of Art, he entered the practice of respected architect E. J. Shrewsbury, as an improver (an assistant on a nominal wage enhancing his skills). He worked there for about 2 years in its office in Queen Street Chambers, Maidenhead, Berks., the building having been designed by Shrewsbury himself. The pargettingon it is typical of E. J. Shrewsbury’s essentially local stance in relation to architecture. Providing what the town required, in an unpretentious style appropriate to local needs, his approach to building was direct and revolved around frequent site-visits to the work in hand.

Wilson's next job was in London, with John Oldrid Scott (1841-1913). One of the famous Gothic dynasty, J. O. Scott was a devotee of the 14th century manifestation of the style, as well as being a sensitive church furnisher. A keen advocate of architects understanding the crafts that contribute to a building, he was also renowned as a designer of church plate, and a restorer of old churches – it was in the course of one such restoration that Wilson was entrusted with his first recorded work, designing the reredos at South Marston church.

South Marston

South Marston reredos, 1888.

In 1886 Wilson moved on, to the office of John Belcher (1841-1913); this established architect often worked in the gothic style, as in the design produced under his name for a church in Paddington. However his proficiency in the style did not automatically indicate a yearning to explore its deepest emotional resonances: sound commercial reasons drove his work as much as an intense inner necessity. Nevertheless, he appreciated the need for architecture and its associated crafts to be approached with understanding and a sense of unity: in fact, Belcher was one of the founder members of the Art Workers’ Guild.

447 Oxford Street

J.D. Sedding's office,
447 Oxford Street, London.

When, in 1888, the position arose of Chief Assistant to the sensitive, innovative architect John Dando  Sedding, whose affinity with the gothic was profound, Wilson jumped at it. This new post, with so craft-driven and individualistic a designer, was particularly appealing, given that Belcher was about to embark on designing the HQ of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. This was to be a grandiose Baroque edifice - albeit one incorporating sculpture by Arts and Crafts sculptor Hamo Thorneycroft - the scale and corporate feel of which was neither Wilson’s nor Sedding’s natural territory.

Wilson immediately clicked with his Sedding, who took Wilson on on the strength of their initial discussions about design, and a perusal of his sketchbooks.



Friends and Colleagues

Already working in the office, or soon to join it, were several up-and-coming architects who would form the core of the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1890s – Ernest Gimson, Beresford Pite, Christopher Whall, John Paul Cooper. A crucial link was formed with the office of Sedding’s exact contemporary, Richard Norman Shaw, in the person of Gimson, whose brother, Sidney, was working there with other rising architects completing their training, including Ernest Barnsley and Robert Weir Schultz, and, most significantly for Wilson, William Richard Lethaby. Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, Lethaby’s 1891 book, would have a profound influence on him - so much so that the symbols, shapes, structures of the ‘universal architecture’ discussed within its pages would consistently permeate Wilson’s own subsequent designs.

Lethaby’s illustration of the ideal temple standing ‘foursquare’ at the centre of the world is echoed in the concept of the baldacchino enclosing the altar, both structures appearing in Wilson’s sanctuary of 1898-92 for St. Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton.

Lethaby drawing

The ‘mysterious form of the egg’ documented in
Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, translated into ...
Welbeck lamp

reality in Wilson’s
lamps for the chapel
at Welbeck Abbey.
marble skirting

Where Lethaby wrote of mythical ‘pavements
like the sea’, Wilson embodied them in
marble at St Hugh’s Church, Langworth. 

A direct practical outcome of working amidst such an original peer group was Wilson's friendship with Thomas Phillips Figgis – then a young architect in Sedding’s office – which lead onto their collaboration in the competition for the free public library, Ladbroke Grove, London: this incorporated a symbolic ‘tree of Knowledge’ on its façade and Art Nouveau features, as seen in the window of the General Reading Room. The first of these was lost to budgetary constraints, though the second survives. Had the original scheme been borne out as planned, the resulting building would surely have justified its description as one of the first examples of British Art Nouveau; the cuts to which the scheme fell prey were probably an early factor in Wilson’s decision to get out of architecture.



The major works of the Wilson/Sedding era

Chancel rail

Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, London, chancel rail
devised by Sedding with gilt embellishments added by Wilson.
Chancel rail

Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, London, Wilson's baptistry
panel in plaster depicting Christ and children.
Brithdir

Brithdir: this small church in Gwynedd was
planned and executed from start to finish
according to Wilson’s most exact stipulations.

In Sedding’s office the possibilities offered by architecture seemed thrilling. After working with him on the Church of the Holy Redeemer, Exmouth Market, London – daring in its use of Renaissance rather than Gothic inspiration, and well underway by the time Wilson arrived in the office – Wilson became immersed in the building of Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street. This project was extraordinary for the range of artists and craftsmen working, as a team, in its creation. It was like an old guild in action, with Sedding, the inspiring, coordinating architect. At the same time, there were restoration commissions reaching the office, work in which again Sedding excelled, his sensitivity to making repairs or necessary additions exceptional amongst his contemporaries.

Sedding died with the Sloane Street church unfinished. Knowing his late master’s views so intimately, Wilson stepped into his place and proceeded, seamlessly, with the project, along with the several other unfinished works to which the practice was committed, including St. Peter's Church, Ealing. At the same time fresh, incoming commissions were arriving, including that for St Mark's Church, Brithdir.




The independent architect espousing the guild ethos

Pulpit steps

Charlton Adam church: 14th century
pulpit steps inconspicuously repaired
during HW's restoration of the church.

Wilson’s achievements in such large-scale schemes as Welbeck Abbey, Notts (already in progress, the job having been awarded to Sedding), and Wynyard Hall (entrusted to Wilson, quite independently of the Sedding connection) both vindicated and enlarged upon the philosophy and practice that had been established under his beloved JD. As for restoration work, Wilson took the same line as his late master, doing the imperceptible minimum when repairs we needed and working in the spirit of the old craftsmen when extensions/additions were required.

Significantly, though, there were examples of Wilson deviating from Sedding’s plans, notably at St. Clement’s Church, Bournemouth – Sedding’s idea for a squat tower was substituted by Wilson’s slender design with symbolic tracery –  and at St. Augustine’s Church, Highgate, where Wilson offered a powerful, dramatic scheme for the West front (later rejected) and the Lady Chapel screen which had been directly inspired by Architecture, Mysticism and Myth (executed as planned).

 

St Augustine

Lady Chapel screen depicting golden tree
crowned by seven stars, St. Augustine's
Church, Highgate.

At Welbeck Abbey, the old riding school was converted into the Chapel and Library, both later decorated by Wilson. This large commission represented one of the most impressive examples of the projects undertaken in the 1890s in the mood J.D. Sedding had pioneered, that of a modern guild: Wilson could call upon the talents of an informal, variously-constituted team of craftsmen (Pomeroy, Whall, Davison etc), all of whom understood the value of individual skills mobilised in a common creative cause.

Another similarly concerted effort was seen at Wynyard Hall the stately Georgian house of Lord Londonderry. Works by Whall, Pomeroy etc., all working under Wilson, featured in the Chapel and the proposed Monument Room.

Sedding had built St. Martin’s Church, Marple, Cheshire, in the mid-1870s. Wilson completed it with the addition of a N. aisle c. 1895. He called on Whall’s skills for the vivid plasterwork. Wilson himself also designed the Lady Altar cross, altar gates, silver wafer box and gilded iron font cover; later on he made a Bronze war memorial panel c.1918, depicting a complex figure scene, unusual in bearing his name in the bottom right-hand corner. The very clarity of the name suggests how deeply Wilson shared the sense of loss surrounding the Great War; by this time, Sedding’s son had been killed on the Western Front.

Far Headingley Grave

Grave of Rev. Stables, St Chad's Churchyard,
Far Headingley, 1907.

A familiar pattern was established of one commission leading to another: this was the case in relation to the work Wilson carried out at Far Headingley, Leeds – an altar cross, and the grave for Rev. Stables (both 1907) led directly to the Ripon pulpit of 1913, paid for with a bequest from Stables, organised by his widow Emily.

Sometimes work came simply as a result of his reputation for rich symbolism that preceded him: he was renowned for the Brighton and Sloane Street commissions, and admirers of such work could depend on him, when commissioning him for their own projects, to produce something equally redolent of tradition, meaning, sensitivity to materials. The Westminster processional cross, made for the Anglo-Catholic Conference of 1923, was a case in point.



Emblems and symbols

westminster processional cross

St Matthew's Church, Westminster. Processional
cross , with symbols of the apostles,1923.
Welbeck chapel doors

Wise virgins panel from the Welbeck chapel doors
Madonna and Child Tondo

Madonna & Child tondo, Tonbridge School, 1918.

Motifs reappear in various settings, these signs and symbols representing universal themes, reinterpreted yet continuously relevant.

In fact, the same design might be judiciously re-used in distinctly different contexts, yet be equally at home in each, viz. the Madonna and Child tondo, which first occurred on the Tonbridge School Gate of Remembrance of 1918, then again at the Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925, where it featured in the 'chapel' section.

Numerous other examples may be traced, especially in the many detailed, bas-relief door panels gracing the four important sets of bronze doors he created at Nottingham's St. Mary's Church, Welbeck Abbey, and in Boston and New York.

Leaflet for doors of St John the Divine, New York

Commemorative booklet issued at unveiling of the
'Golden Doors', West entrance, Cathedral of St John the
Divine, New York, USA, 1936.
Leaflet for doors of St John the Divine, New York

Boston USA; bronze doors commissioned for the Salada Tea Co.
showing tea cultivation from planting to export, 1927.

 


book cover

Henry Wilson: Practical Idealist discusses Wilson's work throughout the UK and in North America, including works in silverwork, jewellery, sculpture and architecture as well as his yet unexplored work as an exhibition designer and his influential teaching at the Royal College of Art, at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and at the Vittoria Street School for Silversmiths and Jewellers in Birmingham .

Drawing on original archives, biographical details and insights from family members, this is the first published study devoted wholly to him and his work.

For further details:
Henry Wilson: Practical Idealist
by Cyndy Manton
(Lutterworth Press, 2009).