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.
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.
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.
Locket, e. 1900s; gold enamel with pearls
and semi-precious stones. Designed to
form half of buckle if required
Frontispiece and title page of Silverwork & Jewellery (1903),
second edition 1912.
Enid Morse wearing a tiara
designed for her by Henry Wilson,
present whereabouts unknown.