William Simmonds, English sculptor

William Simmonds (1876-1968) was an English sculptor and puppet-maker whose work has long been appreciated and who is now the subject of a thorough and sympathetic biography. Author Jessica Douglas-Home recalls visiting the artist while she was a child. She has consulted primary sources, including the letters and diaries of the artist and his wife, as well as archives of museums. The author situates Simmonds as a late practitioner of direct woodcarving in a line stretching back through the Arts and Crafts Movement to the artisanal creators working in traditional materials and idioms from the medieval period onward. Douglas-Home takes care to describe accurately places, people and events of Simmonds life, weaving a rich tapestry of Edwardian and early Twentieth Century life in England. Her touch is light and the book is a pleasure to read.

William Simmonds was the son of John Simmonds, a successful carpenter. An apprenticeship at his father’s firm proved unstimulating and he successfully petitioned his father to release him from the apprenticeship so he could pursue an artistic vocation. Simmonds studied art at the National Art Training School (later the Royal College of Art) (1893-8) and the Royal Academy Schools (1899-1904). Simmonds came into contact with the Arts and Crafts Movement, through his tutor Walter Crane at the NATS, which left an indelible mark on him and would guide his artistic career.

Simmonds found work as an illustrator of classic literature. Simmonds received commissions for illustrations in the golden age for book illustration – after the invention of low-cost colour metal-plate lithography, in a time when line-block graphics were common in books and newspapers before waves of austerity and photography made illustration into supplementary (and ultimately dispensable) ornamentation. Examples show Simmonds to be skilled but unremarkable as a pictorial artist.

Simmonds was hired as an assistant on a mural project under Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911), his former RA tutor. Abbey was an American illustrator who had entered the RA as a painter and was enjoying considerable success as both a painter and illustrator – too much success. His huge workload was onerous and sapped his health. Abbey’s refusal to compromise on historical accuracy meant that his work was slower than it would otherwise have been. Simmonds worked on portable murals for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, though he is not always credited for his contribution.

In 1912 Simmonds and Eve Peart were married in London. Peart was a former student of Sickert at Westminster School of Art. Her knowledge, judgment and skills would make her an ideal companion and collaborator with her husband. She was noted for her embroidery and sewing skills. She would become the more financially astute of the pair. That same year Simmonds began carving wooden puppets for private family performances. Eve would design and sew the clothing. Eve was an accomplished keyboard player and would perform popular, folk and classical songs as accompaniment to the puppet performances. Performances ranged from vignettes and comic sketches to whole plays. Douglas-Home has not entirely solved the difficulty of how to convey the content of these ephemeral performances or the impression they had upon audiences, though she does quote contemporary accounts. Puppet performances were popular and highly regarded at the time and the author effectively explains the prestige that the art form had.

Simmonds found that carving his puppets and independent sculptures (principally of animals) in wood and stone appealed to him more than painting. Thereafter, sculpture became his primary medium. He took up modelling in clay in his last years as his dexterity and strength ebbed.

In 1915 Simmonds was invited to work on the development of a prototype of a landship, which became the first tank. Simmonds’s experience with joints and traction in marionettes came in useful in this project and he was apparently pleased to be contributing to the war effort in a way few could. The tank proved to be effective and broke the stalemate on the Western Front. Simmonds never received any patent compensation for his innovations. Simmonds then transferred to the drafting department of the de Havilland aircraft company. It was an occupation he would keep until the conclusion of the war. Eve worked at Kensington War Hospital. Some of the best sections of the book are those blending the personal experiences of the Simmondses and their friends into a narrative of the First World War. Douglas-Home’s account of the Zeppelin and Gotha air raids on London reminds us of the suffering and stress Londoners endured.

In 1919, released from war work, the couple moved to the Cotswold village of Far Oakridge. The house (with thatched barn, to be used as a workshop) was close to other artists and creative figures, thus was not as isolated as it might been. They were to remain there for the remainder of their lives. The connection to nature, immersion in English pastoral tradition and intimate contact to the living culture of rural working people provided comfort and inspiration to the couple. Simmonds frequently walked the lanes and was a patient observer of the fauna he encountered. His sharp memory and sensitivity is reflected in his carvings, which elicit warm responses from observers. The carvings were unpainted and with eyes of ebony inset. His artistic approach combines strong understanding of animal anatomy and a drive towards realism tempered by adroit use of simplification and stylisation. 

One constant visitor and active supporter was William Rothenstein. Rothenstein was a well-known painter, public figure and head of the RCA. He made valuable professional contacts for Simmonds and was a link to the heart of the London art world. Rothenstein made sympathetic chalk portrait of Simmonds, illustrated in the book. Simmonds and Rothenstein became lifelong friends and Douglas-Home touchingly describes their companionship and the sense of loss Simmonds suffered when his friend died in 1945.

The Simmondses were part of the set of Fabian Socialists and Arts and Crafts progressives, though it seems the couple did not have strong political beliefs, more temperamental sympathies. Other members of their social circle included the Bloomsbury Group and prominent figures in the arts and politics. Famous names crop up frequently in asides. Despite this stellar group of friends and collectors it is easy to see how – though still respected by current connoisseurs, dealers and collectors – Simmonds’s art is not as well-known as that of Gaudier-Brzeska, Gertler, Dora Carrington, Bomberg and other British artists of the era. The natural modesty of Simmonds’s subjects and the relatively small scale he worked at, have meant it is easy to overlook his work. General public taste has swung to Modernism and the appetite for the biographical content of Bloomsbury-related art finds nothing in Simmonds’s carvings.

Regular submissions of carved animals to the RA Summer Exhibition maintained Simmonds’ reputation as a sculptor. The 1922 “International Theatre Exhibition” at the V&A led to prominent newspaper reviews and his name became widely known in Britain. Performances of the Simmondses’ marionette shows in their region and at London venues were very successful, drawing large audiences and enthusiastic newspaper notices. Later performances included celebrity attendees, including Churchill and H.G. Wells. The author notes the financial support that Muriel Rose’s Little Gallery in London provided during the years of the Great Depression. Her famous clientele (including royalty) added prestige to the material benefits artists reaped. Sadly, we do not get much indication of exact figures paid for pieces or an overview of how much the Simmondses’ income was and whence it came.

When war broke out in 1939, Simmonds volunteered for ARP work. There were many RAF airfields in Gloucestershire and there were bombing raids and dogfights over the area. When Sir Stafford Cripps moved to Far Oakridge, he and his family became good friends with the Simmondses. Simmonds’s natural charm and modesty won over many, it seems. As their social circle narrowed in the post-war years, their lives became less eventful, it seems. Simmonds died in 1968 and Eva in 1980.

Illustrations include photographs of the Simmondses, their friends and the marionettes and sculptures. Although the range is necessarily limited, the images give a fair impression of Simmonds’ skill. Examples include carvings of rabbits, dormice, owls, swans, horses, hares, ducks and dogs. Vintage photographs of puppets and miniature theatres give us a sense of what the public saw of Simmonds’s marionettes at the time they were in use. A few of the artist’s book illustrations are included. Researchers may be disappointed by the paucity of endnotes; the author has opted for a general list of published sources and archives instead. General readers will not miss detailed references; there is an index.

Overall, this biography is a wide-ranging, intelligent and fair assessment of the life and work of a much-respected English sculptor. Let us hope that this raises Simmonds’s profile with the general public.

Jessica Douglas-Home, William Simmonds: The Silent Heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Unicorn, hardback, 28 col. illus./mono illus., 284pp, £25, ISBN 978 1 911604 75 4

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art