Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Object of the Week: Domestic Lighting by W.A.S. Benson

Oil reading lamp, with tilting reflector in brass and copper.
Accession no. M.359
William Arthur Smith Benson has been described as “one of the most original metalwork designers", and was connected with both the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau. The Cecil Higgins collection contains a number of pieces designed by Benson and the lamps in the collection display all of the finest aspects of his work.  

Benson had hoped to be an engineer but with direct encouragement from William Morris decided to set up his own workshop to produce sinuous teapots, kettles, and gas and electric light fittings. Morris & Co. sold his products and Morris and others, such as Philip Webb frequently used him on architectural commissions to provide the lighting. When William Morris died in 1896, Benson took over directorship of the Morris firm. Later, he was a founding member of the Design and Industries Association in 1915.

Benson’s interest in art preceded his architectural training, and the practical skills that gave him such an intimate knowledge of the problems of constructing parts for his products in metal were learnt within his family. His maternal uncle, William Smith, had introduced the young Benson to the lathe and this first-hand experience of machine production marked him out from his Arts and Crafts peers who rejected machine production on principle and without any direct knowledge of that method.

After he established his firm, the first year was spent training his team of craftsmen, getting them to hone their technique. That year, from Easter 1880 to Easter 1881 was well spent because the sheer quality of the products coming out of the Benson factory after that point was the bedrock of his reputation, and the defining factor between his produce, and that of the copyists and imitators that sought to make a living off of his reputation.
Initially his designs were for lamps were fitted with oil burners and in our collection we have a beautiful hanging oil liamp with a reflector of polished curved copper petals. It used to hang in the panelled Baring room, for those familiar with our Victorian House. The lamp at the top of this article (M.359) shows a desk top reading lamp with an elegant reflector made from one expertly cut copper sheet, which also includes little chain pulley to adjust the angle of the light emitted on to your reading material.

Hanging oil lamp in copper, brass and glass, Accession no. M.364

The electric light bulb had been invented in 1878 but only the wealthiest were able to afford the generators needed for an electricity supply until a general supply of domestic electricity became possible in the 1890s. Benson was a pioneer of electrical light fittings and incorporated the electrical fittings and cables into his designs while still incorporating his familiar fluid lines and foliage inspired shapes. Below the hanging 'stem' and light 'bud' emerge from the base with a sprouting of leaves, but refrain from twee-ness by clearing showing the hook form that the shade hangs from and the clean, regular forms of the petals that make up the light fitting.
An electric table lamp c.1902, Accession no. M.367
His use of organic flowing lines and simplified floral forms were part of the evolution of Art Nouveau, and were sold in the shop that gave the style its name, Seigfried Bing’s Salon de L’art Nouveau, Paris. Benson’s products were amongst those selected by Bing as the best Eurpoe and America had to offer when his shop first opened in 1895.

Kristian Purcell

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