Five of the best: The Wilson Gallery

WORDS BY Katie Jarvis

Award-winning The Wilson Art Gallery and Museum in Cheltenham houses a host of superb collections of local and international significance.

Particularly important is its gallery showcasing the British Arts and Crafts Movement – an aesthetic, anti-mass-production movement inspired by William Morris - which spans the 1880s until around 1940.

So who are the artists and craftspeople who helped secure the Cotswolds’ place as one of the most creative in the world? We asked Kirsty Hartsiotis, The Wilson’s Curator of Decorative Arts, to choose five ‘favourite’ museum exhibits (from a list of very many!).

Fire screen: May Morris

My first artist is William Morris’s younger daughter, May. The reason I’ve chosen her over William himself is because she lived here in the Cotswolds in a way that he just couldn’t [for work and practical reasons].

As a child, May spent a lot of time at Kelmscott Manor (Morris’s summer home in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds). Here, she and her sister Jenny were allowed far more of a rough-and-tumble childhood than many a middle-class Victorian girl. But they would also sit at their embroideries - and that’s really critical for May’s story because she became an absolutely exquisite embroiderer. May joined Morris & Co. when she was 23 as head of the embroidery department. The company was very unusual in employing women in these roles.

We have a design of hers at The Wilson: a fire screen panel. The lovely thing about this particular one is that it was never used, so the colours of the silk thread are as fresh as when they were embroidered, back in the early 1890s.

When you think of a Morris & Co. design, they’re often very hectic. But May’s embroidery here is much simpler. We’ve got wonderful red tulips that are already starting to go flop, which tulips madly do. It’s clear that the green leaves – long spears - in the background are the tulip leaves. Winding in and out is a beautiful radiating dark blue in the middle and in the shadows; and then blue-grey where the light is catching the leaves. You’ve got a different kind of leaf snaking around, creating this pattern in greys and greens and reds on a creamy background. It’s very fresh; it’s very bright; it’s very modern.

Polished steel fire dogs: Ernest Gimson

I’m focusing next on Ernest Gimson because he’s part of our core Designated Arts and Crafts collection at Cheltenham, as well as being one of the first Arts and Crafts designers to move to the Cotswolds, in the early 1890s. In 1902, Gimson set up a furniture-making workshop with Ernest Barnsley [master-builder and furniture designer, alongside his brother Sidney] in Sapperton, between Stroud and Cirencester.

This set of polished-steel fire dogs was designed by Gimson and made by Alfred Bucknell, son of the Waterlane blacksmith just up the road. Fire dogs were made to hold a fire basket, keeping the fire off the ground, allowing a through-draught to make it burn more efficiently. These fire dogs are for an inglenook, and were designed for Lord Bathurst [of Cirencester Park, who rented out the workshops to Gimson].

What I like about Gimson designs is their splendid simplicity. There is a suggestion that the Arts and Crafts Movement inspired modernism. The makers would have hated that! In fact, this design is also based on 17th century fire dogs Gimson had seen in buildings around the countryside.

I love the two roundels made of cut and pierced steel, at the bottom, which we know (from sketches we hold) were inspired by a bench-end in Winchester Cathedral. What’s even better is that they’ve got squirrels on them! Gimson observed and sketched red squirrels that lived in Sapperton Wood. He loved them, and they appear all the time in his work.

Children’s alphabet book: Freda Derrick

Freda Derrick – a lesser-known artist - was born in Cheltenham in 1892, the daughter of the man who ran the workhouse. She studied at the School of Art in Cheltenham, and was inspired by Gimson, the Barnsleys, CR Ashbee, William Morris and others in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

This is an alphabet book Freda designed, facsimiles of which are in our ‘under 5s’ area of the museum:

D is for dragon who died some years ago.

E is for elephant who’s very large and slow.

It was very common for a young woman wanting to get ahead in the art world to get into illustrating children’s books - and alphabet books were particularly popular. We have in our collection lots of sketches where Freda has obviously gone to a zoo and studied the more exotic animals she’s included in these watercolours.

There’s such a contrast here between the dragon and the elephant. Freda had surely never been to India but she’s got that sagginess of skin in just in a few lines. It’s all very economical and brightly coloured, even though the elephants themselves are grey.

But the dragon…! It’s mad - completely imaginary and full of spikes. Its claws remind me of my cat, Gwen, in its jolly fierceness.

Although this dragon is spurting fire, it’s smiling. You’ll be going on very exciting adventures together.

Water jug: Ray Finch

We’re back to crafts now with Winchcombe Pottery [https://www.winchcombepottery.co.uk], a place you can still visit and support, as well as coming to see pieces in the museum.

Michael Cardew founded Winchcombe Pottery in 1926, the longest-running studio pottery in Britain. In the 1930s, a young man called Ray Finch - who had never touched clay in his life - rocked up at the pottery door, asking to be taken on. He was sent away with a flea in his ear and told to come back when he’d got some experience. A year later, that’s exactly what he did.

This is one of Ray Finch’s water jugs. Studio pottery is often described as being ‘boring brown pots’. To me, this very graduated brown glaze is not boring but subtle: and you can see it’s very even; very well potted. At the top of the jug, the glaze has been allowed to spill down in dribbles of a slightly contrasting greenish colour, with a darker streak in the middle, which could appear a mistake – but it’s not. It’s adding individuality: a handmade aspect to something that is essentially production ware.

The fish have been incised on with a technique called sgriffito: you scratch onto the clay while it’s still wet. They’ve been sketched extremely rapidly - there’s a lot of freedom here - born of long experience, hand done every time.

This was made in the 1950s: Ray Finch was making pots into his 80s.

Watercolour of the Antarctic: Edward Adrian Wilson

This is a watercolour by Edward Adrian Wilson, who travelled to the Antarctic twice with Captain Scott and (as we all know) didn’t come back from the second expedition. A great tragedy.

We often think of the Antarctic as a landscape so white that it blinds people; but, actually, it’s full of colour. This particular painting of Wilson’s – capturing a midnight in March 1911 - is really subtle: you have a slight pink glow in the background, blue on the iceberg.

Yet some of his other paintings are absolutely humming with colour.

Wilson’s understanding of biology (as shown in the Nature Notebooks held by The Wilson) meant that, when he did illustrations in the Antarctic [such as birds including penguins, and elephant seals], his drawings and paintings added to scientific knowledge. He was an active scientist, not just an artist, taking part in the ‘Worst Journey in the World’ during the Antarctic winter, an expedition to collect emperor penguin eggs still in the collections of the Natural History Museum in London.


Wilson wanted to be a naturalist from when he was a boy. Although the family lived mostly in Cheltenham town, they had a second home at the Crippets, Leckhampton: a farm bought for Maur, his mum, so she could raise chickens. (She wrote the book on this!)

The Crippets is where his passion for all nature – but particularly birds – began. And he was very much encouraged in this by his father.

We hold thousands of Wilson’s sketches, which show his obsessive powers of observation. Those powers really stood him in good stead in the Antarctic: it was so bitterly cold that he could only do a quick pencil-sketch outside before he had to put his gloves back on. He would observe, sketch, do a colour-notation; then go back inside the expedition hut and paint.

The Wilson Art Gallery and Museum – named in honour of Edward Wilson, polar explorer, naturalist and painter – is at 51 Clarence Street, Cheltenham GL50 3JT

The Wilson Art Gallery and Museum