Henry Wilson (1864-1934)
Born near Liverpool in 1864, Henry Wilson studied at the Westminster School of Art and the Royal College of Art before training as an architect. In 1888, he became chief assistant to John Dando Sedding, a fierce Gothicist and himself a practicing craftsman in metalwork and embroidery. This appointment nurtured the increasingly idiosyncratic tenor of Wilson's work. Wilson absorbed Sedding's doctrine of architectural supremacy and came to believe that it was the sacred duty of the architect to unite the crafts, conducting a dedicated orchestra of stonemasons, carvers, woodworkers, metalworkers, glaziers and embroiderers.
Upon Sedding's death in 1891, Wilson completed many of his mentor's plans, amongst others the remarkable Holy Trinity in Sloane Street, arguably the finest Arts and Crafts church, immortalised by the poet John Betjeman. From 1895 onwards, he devoted himself to visionary church decoration schemes, metalwork and jewellery as well as lecturing and writing.
Often known as Harry, Henry Wilson was described by C.R. Ashbee as the 'arch individualist' (Masters of the Art Workers Guild from the beginning till 1934, Art Workers' Guild Manuscript, pp. 315-316). A key figure of the English Arts and Crafts movement, which was a more loosely formed equivalent to the French Art Nouveau and aimed to synthesise the disciplines of traditional crafts with modern day requirements, Wilson proceeded to combine a training in architecture, sculpture and painting with the knowledge of metalworking to fuse into a multi-disciplinary visionary in the manner of his Renaissance predecessors.
An incurable idealist and energetic educationist and teacher, Wilson believed in the moral force of manual work: in his treatise On Workmanship (1912) he claimed that the moral health of a nation was revealed by the standards of its artefacts. A quixotic first editor of the Architectural Review from 1896 to 1901, he published a widely acclaimed handbook, Silverwork and Jewellery, in 1903.
Designing the most flamboyant and inventive British jewellery of the time, his sumptuous gold and silver brooches, clasps, necklaces, combs and tiaras in the full-blown Arts and Crafts mannerist style were made in his London workshop or, from 1909 also at the Thatched House in St. Mary's Platt, Kent, which he acquired after his marriage in 1901 to Margaret Ellinor Morse. He employed only very skilled craftsmen which is evident in the high quality of his creations. Wilson's esoteric jewels were often decorated with enamel, indeed he was one of only a few English designers to use plique-a-jour enamel. The idiosyncratic bangle offered for sale is of strongly asymmetrical design, displaying Wilson's penchant for the unexpected. The three-dimensional design as well as the frieze of clouds is strongly reminiscent of his training as an architect and sculptor working in celestial environs, for which he was well known and of which numerous drawings survive.
A master of the Art Workers' Guild in 1917 and president of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society from 1915 to 1922, he was the designer of the 1916 Arts and Crafts exhibition at the Royal Academy, now regarded as the swansong of the movement. In 1922, out of tune with the encroaching modernism, Wilson emigrated to Paris. Heartbroken at the death of his wife in 1931, he moved to Menton where he died in 1934. Ironically, the maker of magnificent monuments had no official grave.