Green Fingers archive
Friday 4 January 2013
Although historians and biographers have neglected him, the legacy of Arthur Romney Green is worth investigating as Miriam Bentham discovers
Arthur Romney Green was born on 16 February 1872 at Wandsworth Common. Although he has been relegated to the footnotes of furniture making history, his influence has lived on, quietly pervading the modern world of making with his keen eye for detail and geometric designs. A poet, essayist, social reformer and furniture maker, Green is considered a descendant of William Morris, a contemporary of Gimson's and the Barnsleys' Arts and Crafts tradition and his work is displayed in the V&A - the world's premier museum of art and design.
Despite his willingness to learn and obvious ability, Romney spent his academic life in a state of distraction. These distractions took many forms; namely the poetry of Emerson, a harem of eligible young ladies and a life-long passion for boat-building - his first boat, the 'Astor' a 16 by 4ft flat-bottomed skiff, was built when Romney was only 13. This led to Romney's graduation from Cambridge with a third class mathematics degree and the resignation that this mediocre degree would lead to equally mediocre work. After marrying his first wife he accepted a post as a mathematics and science tutor in South Africa and in 1897, Mr and Mrs Romney Green set sail for Durban.
His marriage was tainted by his wife's privileged upbringing; a teacher's salary didn't go far in keeping her in the lifestyle she was accustomed to. Green, who was famously frugal, considered his set of Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the pinnacle of material luxury. One day a friend of the couple looked at the boat and furniture Romney had built by hand and remarked that if he possessed the same skills he would give up school mastering immediately and become a 'gentleman woodworker' - which at the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 was exactly what Romney decided to do.
Becoming a makerReturning to England at the turn of the century, Green converted a stable at his house in Hampshire into a workshop and began making simple furniture. Although he had built basic chairs and tables before, he was still very much an amateur woodworker. He employed a joiner to assist him and taught himself to cut rule joints and knuckle joint hinges. He enjoyed sawing and planing - favouring the time-consuming, careful approach to work over the burgeoning factory mentality that prized uniformity and speed above all else. As is evident from the poetry he wrote during this period, he felt a true affinity with wood and nature, believing the maker's responsibility was to enhance a material's natural beauty. He drew upon his degree, using his knowledge of geometry to structure his designs.
Romney was a contemporary of the Cotswold school of furniture making, which flourished in the 20th century and eventually led to the modernist movement. The Cotswold School's founding members were young architects Ernest Gimson and the Barnsley brothers - Sidney and Ernest, who, disaffected with work in their well-established London firms, decided to move to the Cotswolds and set up their own workshops producing handmade furniture.
The Cotswold school combined elements of the Arts and Crafts tradition with their own decorative aesthetic, using traditional tools and methods to create furniture with equal emphasis on utility and embellishment. Inspired by William Morris, a generation prior, the Cotswold school prized craftsmanship over mass production and balanced tradition and innovation to great effect.
Romney Green is best-known for his antique dining tables, chairs and cabinets, which are prized for their craftsmanship and elegant simplicity. The National Trust property Standen House displays one of Green's large oak dining tables within its Arts and Crafts interior that would have been used by the late Victorian family that lived there until the 1920s.
A visit to the workshops of Ernest Gimson in 1904 was said to have had a profound effect on Romney's style; similarities between the two makers' furniture are certainly evident. In particular they shared a penchant for exposed joinery.
Only with hand tools could Romney execute his designs exactly. The enjoyment he took in the specificity of the design was perhaps what ensured the quality of his finished pieces; mathematical accuracy could be employed to create complex pieces that were elegant and functional, yet still highly decorative.
The range of furniture Romney's workshop was producing in the early 20th century was very unusual. Instead of focusing on just one or a couple of items, there were sailing dinghies, collapsible tables and extremely complex chairs - commonly regarded as the most difficult type of furniture to get right. One account has Romney building a magnificent oak frame door for his new house. He used the door as an example in a lecture on joinery for the Society of Arts in London - taking it on the train in pieces and assembling it on stage with a sledgehammer.
The Haslemere workshopAfter tiring of life in Hampshire, the Greens moved to Haslemere in Surrey, which at the turn of the century was a booming centre for craft and design. Green hired Arthur Terry, a country joiner, to work with him as his first employee. The two men worked in solid timbers with hand tools, producing items constructed to Green's designs. The work gained recognition and started to be displayed by the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society whose 1903 and 1906 catalogues list an oak sideboard at £22.15s and an oak table at 6 guineas by Romney Green. The Board of Trade showed his work at international exhibitions. An oak bookcase with a mathematically arched top, four shelves and a cupboard at the base won a silver medal in Milan.
Records show that Green built up many loyal customers over the years at Haslemere and a good deal of local trade. Starting with just one employee, he eventually had six men working under him, plus two pupils. But despite the success of the Haslemere workshop, the enterprise was never completely secure. Although he worked hard at his furniture business, he was never willing to wholly devote himself to it.
Another obstacle standing in the way of Green's fame as a furniture maker was his affair with Bertha Murray, a family friend and married mother of two. Green had been asked to become a member of the Senior Art Worker's Guild, which would have put him in contact with established makers like Ernest Gimson, the Barnsley brothers and Paul Cooper. This membership would have not only enhanced his credibility but enabled him to become more proficient in his craft. When Green left his wife for Bertha in 1909, the Guild withdrew their proposal to avoid any scandal through their association with him.
Beginning againLeaving his family and workshop in Haslemere behind him, contacts in the London Arts and Crafts set helped Green start up a two-bench workshop in Hammersmith Terrace - a stone's throw from where he was born. The workshop's former occupant was a young Eric Gill. Hammersmith was a brilliant place for Green to begin his work again, providing a vibrant artistic community on his doorstep. William Morris lived nearby, as did many members of the Arts and Crafts movement plus poets, publishers
Green continued to exhibit work at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, showing two pieces in 1910, five in 1912 and three in 1916. He continued to exhibit until 1935 and records show he was the third most prevalent exhibitor between 1907 and 1935 after Ernest Gimson and Ambrose Heal - two makers with legacies far exceeding Green's.
The Christchurch workshopAfter over a decade in London, Green was informed by doctors he must leave the city for health reasons. He and Bertha moved briefly to Bournemouth before settling in Christchurch where he set up his final workshop - a photo of which can be seen overleaf. This workshop had room for a show room and a converted tool shed out the back, which housed a circular saw and a bandsaw which could be driven by hand or foot.
Although Green had no objections to the use of machinery, he enjoyed working by hand and believed that men should be able to impart "something of the beauty of nature to the work of their hands."
The war had displaced many men now seeking employment so this was a busy time for the workshop. If an order for a set of chairs was received, Green would make the first and then the rest of the set would be made by his men with Romney's example for reference. There was no factory-style batch production in the workshop; Romney wanted the men to experience a sense of ownership over the items they made.
In 1928 Green's Instead of a Catalogue was published. It commemorated his 25 years as a woodworker and gave a brief description of his craft. The title is derived from a typically contrite idea of his that anything worth having could not be catalogued.
He argues, "Furniture should be made of wood with the least possible mixture of any other material - the modern bedstead with its garish ends miraculously supported by its ugly invisible side irons are spoiled to my mind, just as much as modern architecture is spoiled by a too extensive use of iron." Going on to describe what his workshop produces, he says "Easy chairs with backs adjustable on knuckle joint hinges and extending leg rests, which are thus as comfortable as a good sofa though the elegance of the woodwork is not smothered in upholstery."
The 1930sThe great depression did Green's workshop no favours and with no work coming in, the number of employees dwindled considerably. It was at this time that the Rural Industries Bureau, or RIB - an organisation designed to keep alive the crafts of the English countryside - offered Green the position of 'Supervisor of Woodworking Shops for the Unemployed in the distressed Areas of England.' Romney accepted. He taught his pupils how to sharpen their poor quality tools and showed them some simple joinery. As with Instead of a Catalogue Romney used this opportunity to have his voice heard to decry the tendency for "braiding of machine-pressed bearings all over furniture, otherwise constructed of deal and plywood nailed together - the whole stained chocolate brown and heavily polished as if it were treacle."
Green's legacyAlthough Green left the world an unknown with hardly a penny to his name, his life's work lives on in homes and museums around the country. The impact of his other pastimes is, however, harder to locate. His work with the RIB enabled him to continue to fight for those born to poverty, odd poems found their way into anthologies, and published essays and books - like his collaboration with Eric Gill: Woodwork in Principle and Practice - are relegated to glass cabinets and private collections.
Green's is a story worth telling. It doesn't take much knowledge of him before you begin to see where the philosophies he lived segue into the furniture he made. With this furniture now commanding eye-watering sums at auction it's interesting to consider how many pieces of this little-known maker's funriture are anonymously in use in homes around the country.