W.A.S. Benson: furnishing and lighting the Arts & Crafts interior

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William Arthur Smith Benson (1854-1924) inherited his love of art and beauty from his mother Elizabeth.  His father, also William, was a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn and his son together with five younger siblings grew up enjoying the comfort of an upper middle-class life.  After Winchester and Oxford, the younger William became a pupil of the rising architect Basil Champneys.  By 1877, having begun to realise that he wanted more than a career in architecture alone, chance brought him into contact with Edward Burne-Jones.  The following year, while visiting Burne-Jones at the Grange, Fulham, he met William Morris; it was through their combined encouragement that, in 1880, Benson set up a small workshop.  At first he made furniture, retailed through Morris & Co, but soon began in earnest to design and manufacture the metalwork, which was to occupy him until the outbreak of the First World War.  Although Benson ran a successful business from the Eyot Works, Hammersmith, he was constantly driven by his desire to make things.  ‘The long and short of it is, I must make something or be miserable.  If one is working for anyone else, one’s ideas are only in the way – here are things wanting to be done and I long to do them, and I think there is every chance of profit as well as pleasure.’ (letter to his father, 17 January 1880, quoted in Ian Hamerton, et al., W.A.S. Benson: Arts and Crafts Luminary and Pioneer of Modern Design, Woodbridge: Antique Collectors Club, 2005, p. 6).

W.A.S. Benson - Copper and brass English (London), circa 1891 (date design was registered)

1. FIRE SCREEN

Copper and brass
English (London), circa 1891 (date design was registered)

35” (overall height) x 20” (height of copper screen) x 21” (width of copper screen)

Literature:
W.A.S. Benson, Price List of Fittings for Oil, Gas, Candle Table Ware, &c., 1899-1900, pl. 29, no. 681A
W.A.S. Benson et Cie, Appareils d’Éclairage / Travaux Decoratifs en Métal / Exposition Universelle / Paris 1900 (perhaps the same model)
W. Shaw Sparrow (ed.), Flats, Urban Houses & Cottage Homes, 1906, p. 61 (bottom), showing a screen, perhaps the same model, in a fireplace in the designer’s own house at 39, Montagu Square, London
An identical fire screen is in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art (2004.78a-b).

Benson advised on how electric light fittings, still a novelty at the end of the nineteenth century, should be used.  He wrote, for example: ‘Dining Rooms of say 20 feet by 16 feet, will want a centre light for three lamps, well shaded from the eyes of those at the table.  These, while throwing a strong light on the cloth, leave the walls and ceiling in comparative shadow, which may be relieved by bracket lights, two of which are usually required over the sideboard’.  It should also be noted that, in the early days of electric lighting (the light bulb as we know it was invented in 1878), the wiring was celebrated as part of the design (Notes on Electric Wiring and Fittings, 1897, quoted in Hamerton et al., p. 113).

Benson advised on how electric light fittings, still a novelty at the end of the nineteenth century, should be used.  He wrote, for example: ‘Dining Rooms of say 20 feet by 16 feet, will want a centre light for three lamps, well shaded from the eyes of those at the table.  These, while throwing a strong light on the cloth, leave the walls and ceiling in comparative shadow, which may be relieved by bracket lights, two of which are usually required over the sideboard’.  It should also be noted that, in the early days of electric lighting (the light bulb as we know it was invented in 1878), the wiring was celebrated as part of the design (Notes on Electric Wiring and Fittings, 1897, quoted in Hamerton et al., p. 113).

2. THREE-LIGHT ‘PENDANT’ The shades by Powell of Whitefriars (various partnerships, 1834-1980)

2. THREE-LIGHT ‘PENDANT’
The shades by Powell of Whitefriars (various partnerships, 1834-1980)

21” (height of frame) x 15.75” (maximum diameter)
English (London), circa 1900

Literature:
W.A.S. Benson, Price List Fittings for Electric Light, 1899-1900 (trade catalogue), 1899, pl. 3, no. 1093/s

Provenance:
H. Blairman & Sons, 2016; the late John Schaeffer, Sydney

3. PAIR OF ‘TWO-LIGHT CAST AND MODELLED BRACKETS’

3. PAIR OF ‘TWO-LIGHT CAST AND MODELLED BRACKETS’

Brass
20’’ x 9” (max.)
English (London), circa 1902

Literature:
W.A.S. Benson, Benson Electric Light Fittings (trade catalogue), 1902, no. 1265

Much of British Arts & Crafts furniture combines tradition (in its form) with modernity (in its detail or execution).  For an overview of furniture designed by Benson, ranging from simple cottage bedroom chests, through neo-Georgian writing cabinets, to grand sideboards in an English interpretation of the Art Nouveau style (see Hamerton, et al., ch. 5).

4. ‘SIDEBOARD’ Manufactured by Morris & Co. (1875-1940)

4. ‘SIDEBOARD’
Manufactured by Morris & Co. (1875-1940)

Oak, with patinated brass hardware
80” x 68” x 19”
English (London), circa 1900

Provenance:
[…]; N. Asherson, 1946; thence by descent

The present sideboard, described more correctly as a dresser, was sold on 10 September 1946 by Heal & Son to N. Asherson, 21, Harley Street, London; a photocopy of the bill of sale survives.

A drawing by Benson for this model exists (present location unknown). It is thought that he first created the design for his own use in a house at Manorbier, Pembrokeshire, where he had enjoyed staying since 1898. His own version, the surface stripped of all its patina, was sold at Christie’s South Kensington, 1 July 2004, lot 83. The pattern was available from Morris & Co. as a ‘Carved Oak Sideboard, Designed by Mr. W.A.S. Benson’, priced £35, see Specimens of Furniture Upholstery & Interior Decoration, trade catalogue, London, circa 1900–10, p. 30).

The tray (30.5 cm, diameter) and candlesticks (17.5 cm, high) on the ‘sideboard’, together with the clock (no. 6) and the counter-balance candlesticks (no.10), are all by Benson

Benson’s trade catalogues show not only the familiar ‘modern’ silvered, copper and brass lighting fixtures, tables, screens and functional objects, but also a range of more traditional designs, appropriate for grand Edwardian interiors and, indeed, American Colonial Revival interiors, with their tension between tradition and progress. Benson’s trade catalogue Electric Light Fittings (undated) includes ‘Flemish’ and ‘Georgian’ pendants and candlesticks.

5 Benson Four Branch Flemish Pendant

5. FOUR-BRANCH ‘FLEMISH PENDANT’

Patinated brass
26.5” x 27” (max.)
English (London), circa 1900

Literature:
W.A.S. Benson & Co. Ltd., Electric Light Fittings (trade catalogue), undated, E 1592, a ‘Five-Light Flemish Pendant in Brass, with candle tubes’

6 Benson Clock

6. CLOCK

Brass, with enamel dial and glass
9.25” (high) x 4” (diameter of glass)
English (London), circa 1903

The design for the present clock, no. 423669, was registered in December 1903.
A smaller variant, raised on four splayed trefoil feet, is recorded in Hamerton, et al., pl. 81.
An example of the smaller clock, en suite with a pair of candlesticks, was shown at the New Zealand International Exhibition, 1906-07; see The British Government Exhibit at the New Zealand International Exhibition, 1908, p. 249 and p. 312 (photograph showing set in a showcase).

Benson is arguably best known for his extensive range of much-admired lamps.  Trade catalogues dating from around 1900 show a wide range of examples, mostly with silk shades.

7 Benson Table Standard

7. TABLE ‘STANDARD’

Bronze, with traces of gilding and the original electric switch (now bypassed); the silk shade of later date
19” (including shade)
English (London), circa 1900

Literature:
W.A.S. Benson & Co., Ltd, Electric Light Fittings (undated), no. 1508/140

8 Benson Adjustable Table - Wall Lamp

8. ADJUSTABLE TABLE / WALL LAMP

The shade by Powell of Whitefriars (various partnerships, 1834-1980)

Brass and contemporary but replaced glass
11” (as shown) x 7.5” x 6” (at base)
English (London) circa 1900

Literature:
Ian Hamerton, et al., pl. 132 (for lamps of this pattern)

Since Blairman’s first became acquainted with the work of Benson, more than forty years ago, his three models of counter-balance candlesticks have remained perennial favourites; countless pairs have passed through our hands and are now, like much of his work, in public as well as private collections.

9 Benson Pair of Piano or Mantelpiece Candlesticks

9. PAIR of ‘PIANO or MANTELPIECE’ CANDLESTICKS

Copper and brass
15.5” (long)
English (London), designed before 1887, manufactured circa 1900

These counter-balance candlesticks are described in Benson’s Price List of Fittings for Oil, Gas, Candle, Table Ware, &c., trade catalogue, 1899–1900 as for ‘Piano or Mantelpiece’.
Benson designed counter-balance candlesticks in three models, finished either entirely silvered, or in a mixture, as here, of brass and copper. An identical pair to those above is in the collection of the British Museum (1982,1-8, 2 and 3). A silvered pair is in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay (OAO 1237 1).

A pair like those below (no. 10), but silvered, is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (2002.538.1-2).

10 Benson Pair of Piano or Mantelpiece Candlesticks

10. PAIR of ‘PIANO or MANTLELPIECE’ CANDLESTICKS

Copper and brass
12” (long)
English (London), circa 1900