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The quiet rural world of Arts and Crafts puppet maker William Simmonds

black and white photo of two string puppets one dancing and one playing pipes

William Simmonds’ Italian wandering Pifferari musician puppets. Courtesy Museum of Gloucester.

The fascinating and little known world of William Simmonds, Gloucestershire’s Arts and Crafts puppeteer, artist and sculptor, is explored at the Museum of Gloucester

If he is remembered at all, William Simmonds is best known today for his beautiful puppets and sculptures inspired by nature in the bucolic corner of the Cotswolds he shared with his wife Eve and the circle of Art and Crafts artists that settled there in the early twentieth century.

Simmonds’ artistic career began at the turn of the century when he trained initially as an architect and then as a painter in London, at the Royal College of Art under Walter Crane and the Royal Academy Schools before securing work as an assistant to the American painter and muralist Edwin Austin Abbey, who was then working in a vast barn studio in the Cotswolds.

Abbey was toiling on an ambitious set of murals for the Pennsylvanian State Capital of Harrisburg in America and Simmonds assisted him for several years, until Abbey died in 1911 of cancer – no doubt exacerbated by the scale of the task he had undertaken. It was left to Simmonds and Abbey’s wife, Gertrude to take the canvasses to America and oversee their installation.

On his return he still considered himself to be a painter (who was also dabbling in illustration work for publishers) and this pioneering exhibition in his home county begins by paying homage to this early work via one of his rare surviving paintings.

a black and white photo of two dancing puppets

Columbine and Harlequin. Courtesy Museum of Gloucester.

a photo of a puppet deer

Courtesy Museum of Gloucester.

a blac and white photo of a man holding two glove puppets

William Simmonds with two of his glove puppets. Courtesy Museum of Gloucester.

Fairies Frolic is one of just a handful of Simmonds’ paintings in a public collection. Painted in 1907 it is thought to have only been shown at the Royal Academy before it disappeared for decades until its discovery in 1985, years after Simmonds’ death, rolled up and forgotten in his abandoned workshop.

“He was rather Victorian,” says exhibition curator Dr Jacqueline Sarsby, of Simmonds as painter. “Victorian painters seemed to like historical subjects – stories basically – and Simmonds did that kind of thing. But then he met Evelyn Peart [they married in 1912] and Evelyn’s background was much more aligned to the modern thing that was going on in painting.”

Evelyn had been taught by Sickert and introduced Simmonds to a much looser kind of painting style influenced by the Camden Town group and her wide circle of friends, many of whom were active in the Arts and Crafts movement.

“By this time Roger Fry had brought all of these new paintings over to Britain and a new kind of painting was becoming fashionable. I think that Simmonds thought he must do something else, and he started to sculpt and carve instead.”

Ever resourceful and influenced by the Arts and Crafts idea of the artist craftsman, Simmonds began carving human figures but he soon rested upon the animals and birds for which he is revered today. Then he started making puppets.

“He was sitting with his dying father and he started carving these puppets,” says Sarsby, “and in about December 1912 he had his first puppet show around the table in the house where he and Evelyn were living in Wiltshire.”

a black and white photo of a woman with cropped bobbed hair seated at a piano

Eve Simmonds. Courtesy Museum of Gloucester.

a close up photo of a clown puppet

Courtesy Museum of Gloucester.

a black and white photo of a male puppeterr with two strng puppets and set

Simmonds and his puppets. Courtesy Museum of Gloucester.

Carving and puppetry soon began to take hold; William would make the exquisitely crafted figures and Eve, who was a talented embroiderer, would make the costumes and even provide the music for the shows on the spinet, playing early music and pieces by Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams. The Simmonds’ puppet shows soon became annual productions that were visited by their circle of Arts and Crafts friends and their families.

When the First World War intruded on this Arcadia, Simmonds went to live in London in the top flat of the house of Alfred and Louis Powell, the famous architect and painter of pottery respectively, both of whom were very influential in the Arts and Crafts movement.

Simmonds, who was a pacifist, landed a job designing the first tank with Colonel R. E. B. Crompton – bringing his puppet making skills to bear on the design of tank track links, before moving onto aircraft designs with De Havilland, but puppetry was never far away and he started holding puppet shows in the capital.

Offering a welcome diversion from the privations of wartime, the shows became increasingly popular, attracting the support of the Art Workers Guild and people like Emery Walker and the wider circle of artists the Powells had connections with.

In 1919 the Simmondses relocated to Gloucestershire to live in Far Oakridge – a tiny hamlet in the village of Oakridge, near Stroud. Together with Sapperton, where furniture designers and architects Ernest Gimson and Sidney and Ernest Barnsley had their workshops, the village become a nest of Arts and Crafts artists, and Simmonds fell right into the middle of it.

One of his close neighbours was William Rothenstein, the immensely influential painter and head of the Royal College of Art from 1920 – 1935, and the two became very good friends. Rothenstein gave him his first exhibition of sculpture in London.

“He would put something in the Royal Academy nearly every year,” says Sarsby, “perhaps a sculpture of a fox or a horse, which usually sold; these sculptures are now very rare, difficult to get hold of.”

close up of a glove puppet

A clown glove puppet. Courtesy Museum of Gloucester.

a photo of a man polishing a large wooden carving of two farm horses

William Simmonds with one of his carvings, Farm Team. Courtesy Museum of Gloucester.

a photo of a puppet faun character

Courtesy Museum of Gloucester.

Then of course there were always the puppet shows; local people adored having him for their parties and he became the go-to man for country house socials.

“There were other puppet people around, but he really was very, very special,” adds Sarsby, “there was nothing really to touch him and his puppetry became immensely famous. He did a whole season at the Art Workers Guild and another at the Grafton Theatre in the 1920s and 30s. It helped that his wife Eve was a good business woman and organised things, as well as making the music and the costumes.”

And it’s these exquisitely detailed puppets that still amaze visitors to the Gloucestershire Museum collection. The exhibition is filled with original sets, magical woodland creatures and comical circus clowns, many of them not seen for decades, each created from Simmonds’ imagination and inspired by his surroundings, which he recorded diligently in his diaries.

Simmonds’ diaries show his love for the countryside and for country people and their work, and they are full of references to the animals and birds that he saw, drew and carved while living in Far Oakridge. He used these sketches to give his puppets – whether people or animals – their own particular character and sense of movement – like the deer, the faun, or Snowball the horse with his equestrian rider, which can all be seen in the exhibition.

“One of my favourite characters is a lute player, beautifully dressed in blue silk clothes and hat,” says Sarsby. “He’s so cleverly made that behind the hand, which is over the strings, is a little spring which makes his hand flutter over the strings just as if he was playing.

“He was really interested in movement from all sorts of points of view – he did drawings of windmills and he even wrote in his diary about how he loved a mangle and the way it worked. Because he was a great draughtsman he drew an enormous amount, he worked very hard and that is why he was so good. He lived through a momentous century and he always adapted, he was immensely versatile and full of different talents.

a black and white photo of a puppet show with a harlequin dancing

One of the first puppet photos from Oakridge. Courtesy Museum of Gloucester.

photo of a puppet stage set with fauns and a deer

Courtesy Museum of Gloucester.

a photo of a puppet riding a horse

Courtesy Museum of Gloucester.

“In his diaries you will also find whole conversations that he has written out with country people he has met and found interesting; old men and women who have lovely ways of speaking and things to say. He also wrote about the animals and birds that he saw.”

As well as the diaries, with their valuable insights into rural life, the exhibition features paintings and artworks by the couple’s many Arts and Crafts friends, including by William Rothenstein, who also inhabited this world, and there’s even a Punch and Judy set which has come from the collection of the Arts and Crafts House, Rodmarton Manor.

A pair of beautiful jackets made by two women friends within the Simmonds’ circle, the textile designers Barron and Larcher, has been loaned by the Devonshire Collection of Costume at Totnes Museum and is part of several displays highlighting  the community of important and successful female artists such as Louise Powell and her sister Therese Lessore and the silversmith Catherine ‘Casty’ Cobb, who all lived in Gloucestershire at various times.

And it is Gloucestershire – in particular Oakridge – that lies at the heart of life and art of Simmonds who became what Sarsby describes as, “an Oakridge Man”, unassumingly working away in his workshop until his death in 1968.

The exhibition includes the map he lovingly drew, listing the names of every house and family in the village that fell under his care when he became Oakridge’s Chief Air Raid Warden during the Second World War. So it seems fitting that among the carvings, the puppets and the artworks, are also drawings by Oakridge Primary School children who have produced their own artwork inspired by the drawings in his diaries.

It’s likely William Simmonds would have quietly approved.

The Magical World of William Simmonds: Puppets and Paintings is at the Museum of Gloucester from October 12 2019 – April 18 2020. An extensive series of talks and events has been programmed to accompany the exhibition, see the Museum of Gloucester Facebook page for more details.  

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Museum of Gloucester

Gloucester, Gloucestershire

Found within the city of Gloucester is an internationally important collection of treasures of nearly one million objects. The Museum of Gloucester tells the story of the city’s origins as a Roman settlement and its subsequent development through the Dark Ages and Medieval period to the present day. This fine…

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