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 that he created in the bucolic corner of the Cotswolds he shared with his wife Eve and a circle of early twentieth century Art and Crafts artists.
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. From here he secured 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.
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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 the American 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.
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; eventually turning up 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’ early stint as a 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. Her wider circle of friends included many who 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,” adds Sarsby, “and 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 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.”
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 from his mind 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 the village of 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 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 and difficult to get hold of.”
“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,” she adds. “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, which has filled the exhibition with original sets, magical woodland creatures and comical circus clowns, many of them not seen for decades, each of them 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,” says Sarsby. “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.
“One of my favourite characters is a lute player, beautifully dressed in blue silk clothes and hat. He’s so cleverly made that behind the hand, which is over the strings, is a little spring that makes it flutter 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. He was a great draughtsman and drew an enormous amount. He really 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.
“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 many Arts and Crafts friends who shared this idyllic world.
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 as 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 the story of William Simmonds. During the Second World War he became Oakridge’s Chief Air Raid Warden and the exhibition includes the map he lovingly drew, listing the names of every house and family in the village that fell under his care. He really was, as Sarsby says, “an Oakridge Man” who worked quietly away in his workshop until his death in 1968.
Among the carvings, puppets and beautiful artworks by the great and good of the Costswolds Arts and Crafts scene are drawings by Oakridge Primary School children who were inspired by the drawings in Simmonds’ diaries. It’s likely he 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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