… exquisite animals and one astonishing angel …

wood mouse william simmonds arts and crafts

The Court Barn Museum’s current exhibition displays an array of Arts and Crafts delights from William Simmonds including a number of extraordinary wood carvings which contemporary critics likened to Japanese Netsuke: smooth, polished, small images of nature including a wren encased in a box of furled leaves, a crouching group of leverets and this dormouse (above). This very personal exhibition includes hand inked sketches in concertina letters to children, sketch books and photographs.

archangel gabriel william simmonds arts and crafts

An absolute show stopper greets the visitor: a marvellous puppet ArchAngel Gabriel, lanky and long limbed with high arching wings and wood shavings for hair. The beautiful figure alludes to William Simmonds‘ other life as a much celebrated puppeteer in the 20s and 30s. It’s difficult to reach back a hundred years to appreciate William’s impact – he gave shows in London and country houses and became one of Europe’s most renowned puppet masters. His wife Eve, a talented embroiderer and designer, made the puppets’ costumes. She accompanied the shows on her virginals playing pieces by Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams. One Times critic remarked:  “I count my experience of his puppet-show among the most exquisite of pleasures.”

This is a gem of an exhibition illustrates why I love the Court Barn Museum. The curator, Sarah McCormick Healy, works hard with a small space and a limited budget. She is helped by the museum’s fine Arts and Crafts pedigree and loyal supporters. In this way Sarah has been able to put together an absolutely gem of a show  including many privately owned pieces which haven’t been seen in public since the 1980s. The exhibition has been co-curated by biographer, Jessica Douglas-Home, who knew Simmonds as a child.

William Simmonds, and his wife, Eve, usually lurk in the sidelines of the main Arts and Crafts narrative though Mary Greensted does include a good chapter on them in her classic The Arts and Crafts in the Cotswolds, 1993. Interest in this extraordinary man has been rekindled by Jessica Douglas-Home’s biography: William Simmonds: The Silent Heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement published by Unicorn Books in September 2018.

William Simmonds: The Silent Heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement is at the Court Barn Museum running until Sunday 21st July. The exhibition is sponsored by Mallams The Museum is open Tuesday – Sunday 10.00 – 5.00 and is closed on Mondays (except Bank Holidays). There are several events associated with this exhibition which are all free with an Entrance Ticket: Thu 13 June 11:00-13:00 A short illustrated talk on a few of Mallams’ recent highlight lots followed by an opportunity to have items valued. Sat 22 June 11.30 One-on-One by Mary Greensted on the Young Zebra, Simmonds final animal piece. Sat 6 July Demonstration by Fiona Valentine, wood carver. Visit the Court Barn’s website for further information here.

Dormouse. Wood carving. ©Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT.

ArchAngel Gabriel ©Unicorn Publishing Group. Private collection.