THE tale of William Simmonds, artist and craftsman, begins in a Cotswold garden. A little girl, “moon daisies level with my eyes”, walks up the path towards a quiet man and his wife. She will visit him every holiday, learning to draw in his studio-barn, under the painted eyes of his marionettes. Much later, she will write his life story.
The intertwining of nature, art, and small, delicately made people is the focus of this biography. Simmonds’s life was undramatic. He often played a supporting role to more effervescent artists, including his teachers at the Royal Academy of Art, Edwin Abbey and William Rothenstein. He refused to be drawn into the cataclysmic events of the early 20th century, spending the Great War as a secret designer of aircraft, and organising the Home Guard in his village of Oakridge from 1939. Turning away from conflict, he devoted his life to creating “patterned and rhythmical loveliness”. He was described as a “scholar and artist, light of figure and step”, and with a “smooth sensitive face . . . that will probably never look old.”
Simmonds’s marriage to the gardener and musician Eve Peart seems restrained. Even when she becomes ardently attached to the charismatic Violet Gordon Woodhouse (the subject of Jessica Douglas-Home’s previous biography), Simmonds is unconcerned. He is on hand to calm Violet’s nerves when she is rehearsing for her concerts, and, as Rothenstein lies dying, he is “quite content to sit . . . without talking”. He crosses paths with Detmar Blow, Arnold Dolmetsch, and E. H. Shepard. Well-connected and well-loved, he is, none the less, an elusive character, discreet and unperturbed.
private collectionWilliam Simmonds’s puppet Archangel Gabriel, whose curls are made of wood shavings. From the book under review
Simmonds made his name as a sculptor, creating exquisite carvings of animals, which were eagerly collected by museums and connoisseurs. But he delighted in his puppets. Simmonds produced uncanny plays, overlaying the movements of his marionettes with Eve’s music; she played virginals and clavichords, to accompany the “nimbleness of his figures”. After one performance, the composer Ethel Smyth wrote admiringly about their “troubadour visions” and “the sway of strolling love and music”. They were a theatrical sensation.
Simmonds showed his playlets in village halls and stately homes. His “surprised puppet faces . . . capable of many strange things” were a highlight of the 1922 International Theatre Exhibition, opened by the peerless Ellen Terry. His work was recognised as a late flowering of the Arts and Crafts movement, born out of the interplay between sophisticated London taste and the vernacular traditions of Gloucestershire.
Through Simmonds’s biography, we gain a better understanding of the systems of art teaching in fin-de-siècle Britain. And we can see more clearly the afterlives of pioneering Victorian artists. As his friend John Masefield explained, “we were the last of the Pre-Raphaelite followers. All of us were . . . deeply under the spell of William Morris. . . we felt we owed our souls to them.”
Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper is a cultural historian with an interest in Victorian and 20th-century Britain She was the Research Curator for “Ruskin, Turner and the Storm Cloud” (2019), and her most recent book is To See Clearly: Why Ruskin matters (Quercus, 2019).
William Simmonds: The silent heart of the Arts and Crafts movement
Church Times Bookshop £18