Stoneywell Cottage – Arts and Crafts Ideology and Contradiction

Banner 1The City of Leicester is well-known for its connections to the Arts and Crafts movement for instance with the Leicester School of Art and the Dryad Cane and Metal works. The purchase by the National Trust in 2013 of Stoneywell Cottage and its subsequent opening to the public in February 2015 has brought an important Leicestershire Arts and Crafts building linked to this history more fully into the public domain. Built in 1897-9 by the architect and furniture designer Ernest Gimson  (b.1864 d. 1919) and the architect Detmar Blow (b.1867 d.1939) for Gimson’s brother Sydney, this small house, set in the rolling hills and woods of the Charnwood forest north of Leicester is a tour de force in the craft of building by hand.  Both Gimson and Blow were influenced by Ruskin and William Morris, Morris famously stayed with the Gimson family in Leicester after giving a rather tedious lecture on ‘Art and Socialism’ at the Leicester Secular Society but none the less he and young Ernest hit it off immediately. After an excellent training at the Leicester School of Art at the age of 21 Morris introduced the young Ernest to the architect John Dando Sedding who had offices next to Morris’s showrooms – Morris & Co. in London. Gimson worked for Sedding (the ‘Free-Style’ architect of Holy Trinity Sloane Street) for 2 years, learning more of the business of Arts and Crafts architecture, involving himself with SPAB and through the Art Workers Guild learning practical skills of making, particularly in furniture and plaster-work. After travel abroad and then working with eminent Arts and Crafts designers in England, in 1893 he moved with friends to Sapperton in the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire to live closer to nature, where he remained for the rest of his life and became known for his furniture designs and his workshop there. Banner 2 While Stoneywell was not his first built project in Leicestershire (there are a number of houses in the Leicester’s Stoneygate for which he was responsible) it was an early and very clear signal by an English architect of the real extent to which the means of production and aesthetic ambition of a vernacular “closeness to nature” could be expressed in contemporary building. Constructed and furnished entirely by hand using traditional techniques, Stoneywell cottage is remarkable firstly for the way it appears to emerge from the ground into the landscape (almost from below) and secondly for the integration of its materiality, interiors and furniture. This appearance of  ‘growing’ out of its site, organically and naturally (decades before Wright mastered the idea) is mirrored internally in the sequence of spaces and their interconnection which give this same impression. Arts and Crafts rubric holds that these are both a function of its means of production. Country Life (September 23 2015 p40) puts it thus, “The sum of the Arts and Crafts house is not only what it is made of but how it is made. With Ernest based for at least some of the time in Gloucestershire, the all-important process of building the house was entrusted to the head mason, the young, ideologically impeccable Detmar Blow….[as a young aspiring architect] he was introduced to John Ruskin…On learning that Blow wanted to become an architect, the white-bearded sage delivered his theory of the profession – which was that it should be avoided. Honest handiwork was the thing. Physical labour not only dignified the individual…but the involvement of men like Blow could help revive the old ways, which gave the builder a creative role in his craft – a tradition snuffed out by the tyranny of architects drawing plans that had to be followed in every detail.” While both Gimson and Blow subscribed to this ideal, exactly how far the use of preformationistic methods of plans and sectional drawing were actually avoided is perhaps questionable. The building has changed  relatively little in the intervening years  though originally sporting a thatched roof an early fire in 1939 caused it to be replaced with one of fine Swithland slate which does it no harm. So what we see now of the building fabric was much as it was intended. Banner 3 The setting beyond the house is equally important, the grounds and gardens are a delight, conceived as a naturalistic series of groves and woodlands in an undulating geology, they entice the visitor to walk through bluebell filled glades and sun-dappled clearings, following a circuitous path around the site. But here’s the rub. Stoneywell Cottage was only ever intended as a summer house for the son of a Leicester industrialist and his family, a place to escape a Midlands manufacturing city that was a couple of hours ride away or a 9 mile walk. Like the Arts and Crafts movement itself the concept of Stoneywell is riddled with contradictions on the one hand between an ambition for the dignity of labour and socialist ideals in life and work shaping buildings and artefacts and on the other hand the reality that it was only the wealthy who could afford both the time and money that such hand crafted works of art and architecture required. As an antithesis of machine production Stoneywell cottage has a modern emblematic significance of extreme romanticism (some would say even a fairy-tale quality), but even though one may be acutely aware of this one cannot also help reflecting again on the question which prompted its creation, why should not everyone who wishes it have a little Stoneywell to retreat to? There is no doubt there remains an undercurrent of leisure demand for self build and kit retreats which address this very question, even “shed-working” has been a trend but I would suggest that only rarely do we see the passion and craft of the hand-made in architecture (and all that implies beyond instrumentalism) such as we see at Stoneywell. That is why it is important today. Banner 4 The National Trust have gone to considerable lengths to preserve the quietude of this remarkable building and its grounds. Visits must be pre-booked, and visitors are conducted by a shuttle bus to the property since no cars are allowed and must be left at a visitor facility about a mile away. As one expects from the National Trust, these support arrangements are up to their usual high standards (the scones are particularly good at Stoneywell). For more of Ernest Gimson’s creative work there is an excellent special collection of his furniture and other artefacts at Leicester’s New Walk Museum and there are others collections at the Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, Rodmarton Manor and Owlpen Manor . stoneywell Plan exploded sketchBanner 5

About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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