Edward Barnsley (1900-1987) was one of the most important British furniture makers of the 20th Century. He was born into a family of furniture makers. His father Sidney, uncle Ernest and their friend Ernest Gimson had been inspired by William Morris and embraced his radical ideas. In 1893 these three moved from London to the Cotswolds to put their beliefs into practice. They built their own houses using local materials and traditional techniques. They established workshops and made furniture generally from solid planks of timber. They celebrated the construction methods by exposing the tenons and dovetails. The furniture was often decorated with simple chip carving. Today Gimson and the Barnsleys are seen as key figures in the Arts and Crafts Movement and their influence on design has been immense.
In 1910, having spent his early years in the Cotswolds, Edward went to Bedales, the progressive school near Petersfield in Hampshire. The school encouraged the learning of practical skills and valued craftwork. In 1920 Edward went back to Hampshire to train in Geoffrey Lupton's workshop in Froxfield. As well as making furniture he worked with Lupton on the construction of the new library at Bedales, which had been designed by Gimson.
In 1923 Lupton stepped back from furniture making and Edward took over the workshop retaining most of the employees. He made furniture very much in the Cotswold style. He inherited clients from Lupton and then from his father, who died in 1926. Unlike his father, who worked alone, Edward always employed craftsmen and apprentices. Under his leadership the workshop made around seven thousand individually crafted pieces. The workshop survived the difficult times of the depression and the war years keeping alive the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Edward gradually developed his own lighter style. He combined his father's influence with the elegant curves and fine inlay lines seen in the work of English furniture makers of the 18th century. As well as using the oak and walnut favoured by the Arts and Crafts pioneers he used exotic timbers such as rosewood and blackbean. Electricity finally arrived at the workshop in 1955 and by using machines, less time was spent on the more laborious tasks like planing and sawing the rough timber. Edward had mixed feelings about increased mechanization because he felt that it was the craftsman’s handwork that gave each piece its individuality. Unlike some furniture designers he thought it was important to acknowledge the contribution of the skilled maker to the success of a piece of furniture. Edward engaged his first apprentice in 1924, Herbert Upton, who went on to become the workshop foreman. Alan Peters OBE (1933-2009) is perhaps the best known of the workshop's former apprentices.
In 1945 Edward was awarded the CBE for services to design. Outside the workshop Edward was a visiting lecturer at Loughborough College and he was a key figure in the formation of the Crafts Council.
In 1980 a trust was set up secure the future of the workshop and to preserve the unique opportunity of a Barnsley Workshop training. It was through the work of the Edward Barnsley Educational Trust, and particularly the enormous contribution of Edward’s widow Tania, son Jon and daughter Karin, that the workshop has managed to establish a degree of financial security. Today the workshop continues to produce furniture to the high standards of design and workmanship established by Edward.
Carruthers, Annette Edward Barnsley and his Workshop White Cockade 1992
Comino, Mary Gimson and the Barnsleys London 1980 (reprinted under name Greensted, Gloucester 1991)
Peters, Alan Cabinetmaking: The Professional Approach London 1984