Visit to Sapperton Village Hall, Pinbury Park and Rodmarton Manor

Thursday 30th June

It takes an act of will – in these days of the jet and the Blackberry- to imagine the remoteness of the Cotswolds into which Sidney and Ernest Barnsley and Ernest Gimson immersed themselves in the early 1890s. Our tour, which included Pinbury Park tucked away down a long winding drive in a valley entirely its own, gave us some inkling of this remoteness. It was here that the trio lived for nearly ten years and shortly after added a wing for their landlord Lord Bathurst. It was a treat that, through the kindness of Mr and Mrs Henry Pitman, the current tenants, we were able to see inside the house and to look at one particular room which embodies the Cotswold Movement: where without breaking any threads the old traditions are reinterpreted as subtly higher artistic form, and expressed here in panelling, decorative plaster, and carved chimney piece.

We saw the same modest approach in the village Hall at Sapperton where only the graceful detailing of the splayed entrances with their cambered oak lintels gave any hint that this was a building designed by any other than the local master-builder. For Gimson and the Barnsley brothers with their socialist ideals, ‘success’ as a designer was a far cry from the personal success of so many celebrity designers of today.

After an excellent lunch at the Thames Head Inn, a stones throw from the source of the Thames, we came to Rodmarton Manor where Simon Biddulph, the third generation of the family for whom Ernest Barnsley and Ernest Gimson designed the house, garden and furniture, showed us everything in thoughtful and sympathetic detail. For those who have any degree of curiosity in the English Arts & Crafts Movement – and especially in its furniture and decorative arts and their profound influence even to this day – Rodmarton Manor is a place which must be visited. I will only single out now the chapel, a sublimely conceived creation where architecture, furniture, fabrics and fittings come together in what can only be described as the apogee of the Cotwolds Arts & Crafts.

Gimson died in 1919, the Barnsleys in 1926. Their graves are in Sapperton Churchyard, each marked by plain ledger stones seemingly modern in their powerful simplicity – until, elsewhere in the churchyard, you find 18th century ledger stones of exactly the same design. And then you understand their respect for the best of the past, and the modesty of their designing, and that unlike so many with high ideals and principles they held true to the end and left us a legacy.

For this member of the party, it was a poignant day. I lived in Sapperton from 1964 – 1966, first at Sidney Barnsley’s Beechanger and then next door at Ernest Barnsley’s Upper Dorvel House, where I and my fellow students were immersed in Barnsley furniture and Gimson plasterwork and where Ernest Barnsley’s daughter Ethel was our landlady. In those days there was little talk of the Cotswold Arts & Crafts, yet ignorant Philistines as we were we knew in our bones that we lived in a very special place and we loved the house to bits. I, for one, shall never forget my first visit to Upper Dorvel House: the dawning discovery as I walked across the lawn, though the rose garden, the porch, and into the long low stone flagged hall, that a simple building perfectly in tune with its setting and its purpose has a magic which works on your spirit. I know that the moment did much to turn me seven years later to a life in architecture.

It was a pity that we weren’t able to see inside Upper Dorval House, but even without it, the day was packed with interest and detail and Janet Allen must be congratulated on organizing an event which gave us an insight into the remarkable artistic movement which quietly flourished in that remote corner of the country and still – in its quiet way – lives on today.

Charles Morris, FRICS