WAS Benson: Genius of the Arts & Crafts

19 June - 4 November 2007

One of the most significant and forward looking of the Arts & Crafts designers, William Arthur Smith Benson (1854 – 1924) embodied many of the most important themes of the Arts & Crafts movement. This summer his work is shown at Blackwell, itself a forward-looking house designed with a new century in mind, placing his ‘palpitatingly modern’ work in an ideal, like-minded setting.

Benson played a central role in the creation of the Arts & Crafts movement and, in his commercial success, highlighted many of the most critical dilemmas of what was, in parts, a reactionary and idealistic movement. Like many of the Arts & Crafts designers, W.A.S.Benson was from a wealthy middle class family. The family were Quakers, and gave their six children an upright, though artistic, upbringing. William was the less outgoing sibling of a brood that included an actor, a Classical scholar and MP, and a ranch-owner, as well as two artistic sisters who made good marriages. His father was a barrister of Lincoln’s Inn, and the young Benson, who grew up in a comfortable home in Winchester, Hampshire, was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. Benson’s uncle, however, was the first of two other relatives who were to play a more significant role in William’s career. Uncle Willie was an engineer ‘addicted to scientific pursuits’, and would take the entranced young William to his workshop to play with his lathes and mechanical toys.

Benson studied Classics and Philosophy at Oxford, where he was praised for his ‘shrewd judgement in philosophy’. He did not enjoy Classics, however, and soldiered through his degree before deciding that a career in architecture would unite his interests in art and mechanics. Though he was apprenticed to a London architectural practice, and would continue to design, primarily for friends and family, throughout his life, he realised early on that architecture was not to be his main passion.

Benson came into contact in the 1880s with Sir Edward Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, who would have a great impact on his life. He encouraged Benson’s interest to make things, and it is believed that Benson designed and made much of the romantic, chivalric armour, as well as models of ships and crowns, that feature in Burne-Jones’ paintings. It was near the Burne-Jones’ house that Benson set up his first workshop where he would make and sell items, writing to his mother ‘the long and the short of it is, I must make something or be miserable… I think there’s every chance of profit as well as pleasure’.

It was Burne-Jones’ daughter, Margaret introduced Benson to Venetia Hunt, who was to become his wife. Venetia Hunt was an attractive young woman from an artistic and well-connected family. She was described as a ‘crowning mercy’ in the life of this dreamy and disorganised man. She was also a modern woman, enjoying shopping in department stores and getting involved in fashionable new sports and games. Venetia was a great advantage for Benson, being much more sociable than he, very well connected and up-to-date with new things. Wealthy and artistic friends of her family bought Benson’s light fittings, and she was a great advocate of him and his work, who made up for his own quietness.

In London Benson attended the meetings of the campaign group for the National Exhibition of the Arts, which was a reaction to the unwillingness of the Royal Academy to exhibit items of craft in its Summer Exhibition. In one of the meetings Benson, becoming frustrated by the lack of movement, wrote on the back of his agenda, ‘Would it be possible for the decorative section to work for a winter exhibition, say at the Grosvenor?… I think that we might have a decorative sub committee informally’. This scribbled suggestion was to become the basis for a society known as ‘The Combined Arts Exhibition Society’, which later became the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society and gave a name to the movement it encapsulated.

It is clear from Benson’s sale catalogues of ‘useful and artistic gifts’ that he generated designs for an enormous number of saleable items. The 1899/1900 catalogue, for instance, lists over 800 lines. Many items were sold individually but were also a component of a more complex, larger item (so, for example, a small candlelight might be bought alone, but was a part of a larger setup as well), but his output was still considerable. His designs were ingenious, too, with double jacket dishes pre-dating Pyrex oven-to-tableware and reflecting social changes, with people now cooking for their guests and serving them, as opposed to being served formal meals by staff. Like Baillie Scott, who designed Blackwell with relaxed, informal living in mind, Benson designed for forward-looking people, in an age when much new product was based on Victorian ideals and formal living. The new, mercantile middle classes were not looking back to drawing room life, but instead playing games and cooking and entertaining guests themselves.

Benson succeeded in applying his creative mind to practical problems, thus developing entirely useful, functional pieces with modern people in mind. For example, the cold British climate made brass and copper prone to tarnishing, which,for this modern, upwardly mobile and own-housekeeping clientele was bad news. Benson formulated a thin lacquer that, though near-invisible when applied, would seal the clean surface and prevent dulling and colouration of the metal. Predictably an enormous success, this development was considered so important that contemporary sources mention industrial espionage at Benson’s works, commissioned by other companies eager to see how he managed this time saving effect.

Though his ingenuity impressed heads of industry, Benson’s love of machinery and invention set him apart somewhat from the predominant interests of the Arts & Crafts movement, which lay within hand-done work, old-fashioned methods and designs, and a complete avoidance of machined parts.

Herman Muthesius described how Benson:“Really separated himself from the ‘Arts & Crafts’ group by his manufacturing project. For it contradicts the basic principles of hand work that is cherished in that camp. The Morris group still clings to the Ruskin-Morris doctrine of hand work.”

What Muthesius was describing was the fairly backward looking nature of many of the Arts & Crafts protagonists. Benson, however, designed very much within the ethos of the Arts & Crafts, with simple, well thought through decoration, and joints, wires and mechanisms plainly visible on his pieces. What is now one of the most easily recognisable aspects of his lighting design – the visible electrical cord connecting the light to the source of power – is a perfect example of this honesty in design. What some of the Ruskin-Morris circle may not have considered was Ruskin’s dictum that the machine was perfectly acceptable providing that it was subservient to the craftsman designer as, so clearly, it was in Benson’s studio. Many of his clients, who were wealthy, artistic types, were very taken with this dreamy young designer, but were somewhat shocked to then visit his studio which was full of serious machinery, lathes and chemical solutions).

The exhibition will explore the different aspects of Benson’s work through a variety of elegant exhibits. These have been sourced from important private collections, and so the exhibition will be a rare opportunity to see some truly beautiful pieces not represented in public collections. Having the pieces on view at Blackwell will highlight the forward-looking vitality of design of Benson and Baillie Scott, both young designers at the height of their powers.

Image - WAS Benson, Flower vase, copper and brass with glass lining
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