22 Apr 2021

Arthur Simpson is one of the forgotten masters of English Arts & Crafts Furniture. Born in Cumbria, in 1857, he showed an early flair for wood carving, taking two apprenticeships and working in London before returning to Kendal to establish his famous Handicrafts workshop. The clean simple lines and superb workmanship of his Arts & Crafts furniture found a ready market locally. Simpson died in 1922, but the workshop continued under the guidance of his son until 1950. Many of Simpson’s finely crafted antique cabinets, chairs and chests can still be found in Cumbria today.

Antique cabinets for Cumbria’s clergy

Arthur Simpson started his apprenticeship at the age of 14, with a Kendal cabinet maker. At the age of 18 he transferred his skills to Gillow’s of Lancaster, where he showed tremendous scope as a woodcarver. Simpson then worked under Samuel Barfield in Leicester, returning to Kendal as an ‘Architectural and General Wood Carver’.

Initially, he didn’t meet with much success. A devout Quaker, Simpson’s early work was mainly ecclesiastical in nature, similar to other neo-Gothic styles of the period. In despair he went to London, finding work with H. Faulkner Armitage of Altrincham, where he quickly discovered what the current trends were.

In 1885, Simpson returned to Kendal, this time concentrating on both the ecclesiastical and domestic market. He was so successful that he was able to move to larger premises and, by 1888, was employing several workers. It was at this time the Handicrafts workshop was established.

From neo-Gothic to Arts & Crafts Furniture

Simpson’s early period lasted until the 1890s, still heavily influenced by his church commissions. His antique chests and cabinets from this period are traditionally designed, and intricately carved with floral motifs. Where signed, they’re carved with his initials AWS.

The breakthrough came in 1889, when a piece was selected for the London Arts and Crafts Society Exhibition. From then until 1914 his style changed dramatically; his antique bookcases, wardrobes, cabinets and chairs adorned with a more formalised, abstract style of carving. To emphasise this new, minimal approach, Simpson used light English oak; oiled, polished and waxed to reveal its natural beauty. He had more than 60 timber suppliers on his books – to him, the beauty and quality of the wood was everything.

A meeting of two Arts and Crafts masters

In the early 1900s, Simpson struck up an unlikely friendship with the urbane Arts and Crafts designer and architect C.F. A. Voysey, who designed Simpson’s lakeland house in 1908. Simpson was highly influenced by Voysey’s style between 1900 and 1910, his antique bookcases and cabinets now light, spacious and free of ornamentation. His antique dining chairs often feature leather seats and high cut-out backs.

Simpson abandoned Voysey and turned to the Scottish Revivalists for inspiration around 1908. The antique chests and cabinets he produced in Cumbria at the time again featuring intricate carving and fine embellishments. By the time he died in 1922, the demand was for “modern” furniture – which his son answered by reinventing traditional pieces. Enduring two world wars and the Great Depression unscathed, Handicrafts finally shut its doors in 1950 – but the beauty and simplicity of Arthur Simpson’s Arts & Crafts furniture lives on, in the homes and antique dealerships of Cumbria.

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