William Arthur Smith Benson (1854 – 1924) was a central figure in the Arts & Crafts movement. He is best known for his prolific metalwork and lighting designs, many of which he created for Morris and Co. Benson also designed antique marquetry furniture , being a director of the Morris furniture department from 1896.
W.A.S. Benson was born in Hampshire, to a wealthy family of Quakers. Expected to follow his barrister father to the Bar, he was more greatly influenced by his uncle, who was an engineer and amateur scientist. Having graduated in Classics and Philosophy from Oxford, Benson decided to combine his true interests of art and engineering with a career in architecture. He was apprenticed to the London architect Basil Champney until 1880, but changed tack after meeting the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. Through him, Benson met William Morris, for whom he worked, designing furniture and metalwork. A feature of Benson’s antique marquetry furniture designs are his exquisite inlays of tulip, ebony and rosewood.
With encouragement from Morris, Benson set up his own metal workshop. By 1887 he had a showroom in Bond Street, and was an active member of the Art Workers’ Guild. He played a role in the founding of the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society – the start of the Arts and Crafts movement – in the same year. By 1896 he was running the Morris furniture department. Despite being an avid supporter of machined goods (the exact opposite of Morris) he still adhered to the Arts and Crafts principals.
A trademark of Benson’s lighting designs was their ingenious simplicity, with wires, joins and mechanisms clearly on show. His marriage to the socialite Venetia Hunt gave him a unique insight into the needs of the mercantile Victorian elite, and by 1900 his catalogues of ‘useful and artistic gifts’ were proving highly popular. Attractive and functional, his copper and brass kettles, jugs and table lamps can be found on the shelves of antique cabinets today, while his antique marquetry furniture is eternally popular.