NELSON AND EDITH DAWSON – Arts & Crafts artists
Note, in the text, (S) refers to slides as this was originally a slide talk given at Stamford Arts Centre.
Ester Ethelburgh, born 1860; Emma Annie, 1862; Edwin, 1864; Harold, 1865; William, 1866; Evelyn, 1870; Edith Lister, 1872; all preceded by firstborn, Nelson Ethelred Dawson born in 1859. The eight surviving children (six more died before or during birth) of Edwin Dawson – born in St George’s parish in 1830 – and Emma Annie Harris – born in Clifton, Gloucestershire in 1837.
What became of them all? Seven we know little or nothing about. But thanks to the 3Rs – records, research and relatives – we do know quite a lot about the life of Nelson Dawson (S), there he is, and how he travelled from a fairly comfortable start in life in St Mary’s Street to become Stamford’s most important artist, one of the most crucial yet least celebrated artisans of the Arts and Crafts movement, and a notable and much-lauded London-based artist with a string of letters after his name.
But what of his contemporary, Wilfrid Wood, I hear you say? Yes, Wilfrid was an accomplished and indeed well travelled artist. However, though until recently less renowned, Nelson Dawson’s claim is the greater. Not only was he a highly accomplished drawer, painter, water colourist and etcher, he was also a potter, printmaker, enameller, metalworker and jeweller. His many works in many media are, not only, sprinkled across private collections but also the V&A, the British Museum, the National Maritime Museum and, yes, Stamford Museum.
But we get a little ahead of ourselves. In the 1861 census (S) the aforementioned Dawson clan can be found listed at 27 St Mary’s St, now ironically a part of Stamford Arts Centre. There’s Nelson aged 1, sister Esther, just 5 months old; Mum, Emma, 26, Dad, Edwin, 31; Edwin’s unmarried sister, another Emma, aged 24, also Stamford-born, in St John’s parish. Together with three journeymen bakers, Robert C Goung (probably Young), 21; Edwin Harrison, 16; and Charles Roars (probably Rogers) aged 17. There’s also a general servant, Sarah A Herman aged 17 and a housemaid, Charlotte Lees, 16. Ten in all and quite cosy, I’d imagine, but the fact the family had servants and employees reveals that Nelson at least had certain advantages in his start to life compared to many in the town at that time.
Edwin Dawson took over his business from his father, confectioner, William Dawson, presumably when he retired. Dawson’s Refreshment Rooms was at 7 St Mary’s St, currently Black Orchid (S) and a stone’s throw away from the family home. This paper provisions bag from the museum collection (S) advertises that he was also an ale, wine and spirit merchant and, one assumes the hope is that a bit of reflected glory will rub off from the illustration of Burghley House onto the business. The shop must have been busy to have required the three journeymen bakers. A later bag (S) sees the new proprietor as JT Holmes, note ‘late Dawson’ underneath, now a fully licensed Dining & Refreshment Rooms.
An advert in the 1900 Dolby’s (S) declares their bread as ‘the best in the neighbourhood’ with wedding cake ‘sent all over the world’. Blimey! They also do a Friday market ‘special’ for a bob and Bass, Guinness and Whitbread ales to boot.
Little is known of young Nelson’s early life and there are no childhood photos. We do know that at age 15/16 he spent 2 profitable years at Stamford School, in 1874-5 and he must have had fond memories of his time there as in later life he designed a homage to the school in the form of a unique version of its emblem (S), here on a school magazine cover. ‘Me Spede’ indeed. He would also make generous donations to the school, of which more anon.
In a 1988 Apollo article – an influential art magazine – Nelson’s eldest daughter, Rhoda, says how prior to his spell at Stamford School he suffered at a ‘sort of Dotheboys Hall School in the West Country, kept by a relative (on his mother’s side?) who no doubt charged him less and made him work his passage; when a boy was ill he had to act as nurse’. Dotheboys was the harsh academy of Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby. She contrasts this with a somewhat florid description of Stamford Grammar ‘where some of the beauty of that lovely town rubbed off on him’ and ‘the old Brazenose knocker still hung by one nail on an old door, twirled by irreverent boys as they passed’. (S)
As an aside, we are greatly indebted to Rhoda Bickerdyke, nee Dawson, (S), that’s her, not only for a great deal of biographical information about her father but also for a great proportion of the works currently on display in the museum’s Nelson Dawson exhibition, that came via personal donation and from that of her generous family following her death in 1992.
After leaving the grammar, Nelson studied architecture at the offices of Joseph Boothroyd Corby (S). They were at 69 Scotgate (S). Corby was influential in building a number of fine buildings in Stamford and beyond, including Burghley Estate Office on High Street St Martin’s (S), Oddfellow’s Hall (S) and North Street Baptist Chapel. (S)
He must have impressed young Dawson as he described him as a ‘builder of dreams. From his example we can all learn’. Corby’s dreams included a fantastical vision for Stamford that, I’m afraid, I must quote verbatim. ‘The demolition of St Mary’s Church and the Town Hall and the creation of a vast Baroque terraced garden leading to a riverside promenade ornamented with lavish Blashfield terracotta statues of heroic figures, Also the enclosure of High Street with a splendid arched canopy of iron and glass, recalling the Crystal Palace, to form a fashionable arcade whose focal point was to be a giant terracotta fountain of Daniel Lambert with attendant putti and angels.’ Sadly the RIBA drawings for this are missing, but I wonder what the anti-Gateway lobby would have made of it!? Corby became Mayor in 1912 but died of apoplexy a year later.
During this time Nelson acquired a passion for drawing and painting. This is the earliest work in the museum collection; (S) it bears no resemblance stylistically to any other of the works we have seen. The Usher Gallery in Lincoln has a sketchbook that includes rough drafts of a number of recognisable local scenes, ecclesiastical views and architectural details. (Ss) St Leonard’s Priory, Tickencote Church, Barnack Church, All Saints and others.
Whether his talent was innate or inspired by events in his personal life we simply do not know – and, perhaps surprisingly in a town many miles from the sea, Nelson developed a particular enthusiasm for depicting seascapes, harbours, boats and shipping. Rhoda has something to say on this, stating he always had an ‘inclination to paint’ and a ‘passion for the sea’ and suggests the latter might partly be due to a family legend of an ancestor that fought at the Battle of the Nile with the Nelson. Is that how he also came by his name? Other relatives are somewhat dismissive, suggesting the Nelson name was an old family name. As with all family relations and the passing of time, some of Rhoda’s observations may need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
The census of 1881 does, however, provide us with information on how Nelson’s passion for art led him to take his first steps away from Stamford, away from his family and his roots. It lists him as a 22 year old Assistant Shopkeeper to a General dealer in Scarborough; living at 14 King Street in the seaside town. That dealer, also listed, was Hayden Hare, then 51, living there with his wife, two children, a servant and a governess. Hayden was Nelson’s uncle. Significantly the Hare family also had a shop in Stamford, on St Mary’s Street at number 39 (S) and both shops were retailers of artist’s materials. The Stamford shop also did carving, gilding, picture framing, and painting & decorating. It is now RS Office Express. This was a young man’s grand entrance into the world of art, toiling in a provincial art shop.
The Scarborough move was a key life-changing event for Nelson in more ways than one. As well as spreading his wings and giving access to his beloved coast – places like Whitby (S), Holy Island and Robin Hood’s Bay – it was there that Nelson met his future wife, muse and collaborator, (S) Edith Brearey Robinson, introduced to him by the Art School headmaster. She was also a painter, but one who specialised in flower and cottage scenes like these (Ss). Rhoda describes the Scarborough art shop as later having two watercolours in the window, one labelled Nelson Dawson ‘rising young English painter’, the other Miss Edith Robinson, ‘rising young Scarborough painter’, one a marine scene, the other of a cottage garden.
Much later on in life, Rhoda quotes a Stamford Mercury of uncertain date that Nelson ‘was more of a sea painter than anything else, was never without a boat, mixed with fishermen and sailors, picked up a knowledge of seamanship, and worked up and down the east coast.’ This equates with his self-image in 1894 (S), aged 35, and though perhaps a romanticised, posed photograph, it does add up with his profusion of nautical scenes, and his constant return to painting them throughout his life. (Ss)
Nelson’s romantic obsession with all things maritime was reflected in his later collection of nautical memorabilia, models of ships and everything to do with the sea. It reached its apotheosis with the sale of his Maritime Collection in New York in the 1920s. The catalogue notes are telling.
‘Mr Dawson has been a seaman before the mast, has spent years of his earlier life in deep sea vessels’ and ‘a collection as catholic as his could only have been gathered by one steeped in maritime lore from childhood’. Mmmm! In the sale are model kayaks, South Sea praus, clippers, men-o’-war, steamboats, old figureheads, carvings, needlework and scrimshaw, not to mention maritime paintings.
This is merely Part One of the sale catalogue and it contains a staggering 359 lots. A very valuable collection that reflects the taste of a by-then wealthy man with the resources to fund an expensive collecting habit.
The move to the Lincolnshire coast was not as clear-cut as it first appears. Nelson had already been enjoying forays to London, no doubt mixing with fellow artists. Indeed, during the 1880s he pops up in both Scarborough and London, but increasingly in the capital.
But, returning to his future wife, Edith. Born in Croydon in 1862, she was the middle daughter of a Quaker schoolmaster. The Society of Friends would later play a role not only in her life but also in Nelson’s. Edith must have been a strong character to pursue her art in what might be construed as the somewhat ‘sombre and pious’ atmosphere of a Quaker household. Painting may well have been seen as a trifle frivolous – perhaps until she showed she could make a living at it. Earning £100 in one year in the 1880s.
Nelson and Edith became engaged at some time in that period but didn’t marry until 1893 – him 34, her 31 – in Whitby Friends Meeting House. Quakerism, with its emphasis on a creed-less, personal experience of God must have appealed to Nelson for he converted to it shortly after Edith’s death. The concepts of plainness and egalitarianism would also have chimed well with his notions on art and the simplicity and functionalism of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Interestingly, Nelson Dawson was also for a time a freemason, the museum holds a framed copy of his indenture (S), but he resigned in 1906. Was there a clash with his changing religious beliefs?
At some time in the 1880s Nelson attended lectures in London by Alexander Fisher, the leading Arts & Crafts enameller. It is not clear how Nelson learnt to do enamelling or where he learnt it. Nor whether he learnt the art and passed it on to Edith or whether they learnt together. He may have learnt it from fellow-craftsmen and metal workers, and it is unclear to what degree he became Fisher’s pupil but he was certainly a key influence. (S) This is one of Fisher’s.
Indeed, during this time and into the 1890s Nelson increasingly concentrated on metalwork and enamels, moving away from painting. Was this move in part financially inspired? The need to support a future family?
What is clear is that Nelson was spending more and more time in London. As early as 1887 he had the Wentworth Studio, Manresa Road, Chelsea. More than likely this was a kind of pied-a-terre, perhaps shared with other like-minded artists. Undoubtedly his change in direction was influenced by a rising interest in hand-wrought metalwork and jewellery and his own ability and inclination to work in these materials. Together, Nelson and Edith were inspired by the works of William Morris and John Ruskin (Ss), but after Nelson and Edith’s betrothal, working as a team they began to develop a house style with Nelson as designer/manufacturer and Edith undertaking the enamel work. They were being carried along by the current of Arts & Crafts whilst making significant contributions to it as well. (Ss) Influencing as well as being influenced. A symbiotic relationship.
A small digression on this important artistic design movement is necessary. It developed in the 19th century as a direct reaction to the industrialization that was sweeping England. It emulated earlier concepts of craftsmanship, turning its back on the use of ‘soulless’ machines and towards handcraft. It was based on fidelity to materials and the use of nature as inspiration and source of ideas and pattern. (S) An important feature of the movement was the formation of guilds and societies. An example being Nelson Dawson himself founding The Artificer’s Guild in 1901 from his workshop in Chiswick. This was acquired two years later by Montague Fordham (one time director of the Birmingham Guild and School of Handicrafts). (S) This silver-plated copper bowl is attributed to the guild. These guilds brought together artists, craftsmen (and women) and designers in many different disciplines, such as ceramics, stained glass, furniture, book-binding, typography, embroidery and metalwork. (S) The Century Guild, the Art Workers Guild, and the Home Arts and Industries Association are all instances of this.
Some of the most famous names from this important movement were, of course, Morris and Ruskin, but also CFA Voysey (S), Charles Rennie Mackintosh (S), Edwin Lutyens, Baillie Scott (S), AH Mackmurdo (S) and CR Ashbee (S).
The term Arts & Crafts was first used in 1888 with the first of the movement’s landmark exhibitions in London. Art Schools such as those in London, Birmingham and Glasgow played a key role in the movement’s development.
The role of women in the Arts & Crafts design field evolved as they worked alongside and in partnership with husbands and friends. Margaret Macdonald worked with her husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh; Gertrude Jekyll with her friend Edwin Lutyens. Edith Brearey Dawson and Nelson is clearly one further example. The role of the female artist at this time has often been understated. Edith’s is just such a case in point.
Edith’s high-class enamelling followed in the footsteps of the masters – like Faberge and Lalique – it required immense patience, determination and precision of application. This, perhaps, is why the art was more suited to the calm, understated and modest personality of Edith rather than a man who at times spread his undoubted talents too thinly and too widely and could be occasionally ‘tempestuous’. In 1905 the Dawsons and Lalique both showed off their work in London, Rhoda says critics preferred her parents work for its’ freshness, Englishness and modesty’ over the technically superior, brilliant but ‘decadent’ French work. No bias there of course.
Rhoda describes in detail her mother’s workroom as ‘a little gas muffle furnace supported at face-level (S) on four iron legs, her little chests of drawers containing tools, enamel in slabs, apple or quince pips in solution, (what where they for?) burnishers, gold leaf…tidily stored, her pestle and mortar… and the portrait of George Fox, founder of Quakerism, on the mantelpiece’.
An Architectural review of 1897 describes Edith collapsing through overwork, mainly caused by fumes from the enamelling kiln, and ‘highly detrimental to health’.
During the 1890s and entering the new century, collectively Nelson and Edith amassed a body of fine, high-quality work. Sadly Nelson’s parents would witness little of their success. Emma died in 1888, and Edwin two years later. They had remained in St Mary’s St to the end. Both lie in Stamford Cemetery but there are no headstones. It would appear that Nelson would continue to maintain links with and to visit the town and he became a member of the Old Stamfordian Club. The Stamfordian, its official organ, says in 1890 it ‘sprung into existence through want, which has been frequently experienced and expressed by some means whereby Old Boys may learn of each other’s doings and whereabouts’. Entrance fee five shillings, a one-off payment.
The Dawsons were now on the threshold of their golden age, an intensely productive period where their fame grew and the commissions rolled in. All kinds of metalware – ornaments, boxes and caskets, dishes, architectural fittings, lamps and chandeliers, memorial tablets and plaques, and of course, beautiful jewellery (S).
Their raw materials were iron, steel and copper but also gold, silver and bronze. Artistic handicraft was gathering momentum over mechanisation and mass-production; craftsmanship over vulgarity. The Dawson’s rode the wave of success.
Physically they moved on too. First to The Mulberry Tree, still in Chelsea, then to Swan House in Chiswick Mall where they remained until WW1. This is it (S), and its nameplate (S). Their last move was to Staithe House. (S) in 1914. They are actually very close together (S) in this charming part of bohemian West London. Many artists lived in this area and the Nelson was known to friends with several including Whistler.
There was a large pool of skilled labour available in London to the working artist; craftsmen to draw upon, to learn from, to create with, and to direct. Nelson had a metal workshop in Oil Mill Lane in nearby Hammersmith – it is claimed at one time he had 30 hands working for him (S) This picture of his artisans is from the Gunnersbury Park Museum which also has a collection of Dawson material, indeed Rhoda worked there for a while in the 1960s – then at Hampshire House, next door to William Morris’ Kellmscott House. (S) Years later in 1915 daughters Mary and Rhoda visited Kellmscott on a boat trip up the Thames and called on May Morris.
In October this year the museum received an email from Maggie Norvell in Somerset. Whilst browsing the internet for references to Nelson Dawson she happened upon details of Stamford Museum’s exhibition. Her grandfather, William Gillett, an East Ender, trained as a jeweller, was one such artisan that worked for Nelson at his workshops in Chiswick. Indeed, Nelson had given him an oil painting in gratitude in 1903, still in the family’s possession, alongside some Dawson plaques and a spoon. (S)
Maggie paints a vivid picture of the interconnections within the Arts & Crafts fraternity working in what she describes as the Hammersmith Group. It is also indicative that although we regard Nelson Dawson as a Stamford artist he was set for a greater stage in London. Gathering information about the Dawsons led us eventually to the Chiswick Local Studies department who very much regard Nelson as a ‘Chiswick artist’ and one of theirs, rather than one of ours!
By the late 1890s the Dawsons were certainly the news themselves. The influential Studio arts magazine devoted an article to them in 1896 in which Nelson declares ‘my wife and I work together in this’ influencing the aforementioned Rhoda to tellingly entitle her later Apollo article ‘The Dawsons: an Equal Partnership of Artists’. Both names were usually used when exhibiting enamel work, although Nelson would use his monogram (S) on certain works, or as it is on the Stamford Tapestry (S) or stamp them plain ND.
It was just one year later in 1897 that Rhoda N Dawson was born, followed in 1899 by Mary Ethel N Dawson. No prizes for guessing what the N was! Both became artists though less is known of Mary. According to a great-granddaughter she remained a Quaker, became warden of Briggflats Meeting House in Cumbria (S) with some of her artworks displayed therein. Rhoda’s greater significance to the story rests on two counts.
Over 80 years later a lively correspondence sprang up between her and John Smith, then curator of the museum. Rhoda first wrote in 1983 regarding the proposed Arts & Crafts summer exhibition of that year. This is the genesis of the museum archive on Nelson Dawson, the collection of Dawson material, the current exhibition, and this lecture!
At over 80, Rhoda was still able to come up from London to visit the museum, see her father’s birthplace at first hand and get a flavour of his early influences. She was especially interested in St Mary’s Church (yards from her father’s family home) and its John Seddon-inspired Arts & Crafts restoration. John was able to return the favour and visit Rhoda, still in Chiswick, her parent’s old stamping ground. In his notes of that time, he remarked on the wonderful things scattered around in Rhoda’s house ‘with a lack of concern only those who truly appreciate works of art can have’. Many of these were, presumably, Nelson and Edith crafted, but Rhoda was a gifted artist in her own right, and a great adventuress too. She spent much time in Newfoundland and Labrador, (S) this is a Rhoda Dawson work, later married the sculptor John Bickerdyke, and her obituaries in 1992 were printed in The Independent and Guardian, the latter under the headline ‘A missionary zeal for rag rugs and Ruskin’ a reference to her handicrafts and her influences. (S) An earlier People piece sensationally named her ‘Girl-artist of the Snows’!
However, at this juncture I would like to turn to what in the Dawson canon may be termed the ‘great pieces’. Works of art that fix and gild their reputation. Great commissions of which this is one, (S) the trowel made for and used by Queen Victoria in her last public appearance laying the foundation stone of the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1899. Three years earlier they had come to the sovereign’s attention when she purchased a copper bowl with enamelled lid, inscribed ‘Nelson and Edith Dawson made me’. Presumably an homage to that great enamel of the past, the Alfred Jewel with its ‘Alfred ordered me wrought’ lettering, well-known to Nelson and mentioned in his writings.
Talking of which, both Nelson and Edith penned books for Methuen. Nelson’s ‘Goldsmith’s & Silversmith’s Work’, published in 1907, is a mighty tome on the history of the subject, lavishly illustrated. Edith’s, predictably, the more slight and modest ‘Enamels’ published a year earlier (Ss)
Nelson also contributed 16 watercolours of London scenes to EV Lucas’ ‘A Wanderer in London’, a best seller, republished many many times. The museum has several original watercolours that were used for this book, (S), again on display.
Another mesmerising piece of metalwork was completed in 1900. Humble bath taps transformed into a work of high art (S). These were made for 2nd Viscount Hambleden, William Frederick Danvers Smith of the WH Smith dynasty and are part of the V&A collection, there (S) they are in their London home, although they can currently be seen in Stamford Museum.
This was a loan that took a great deal of time and determination to negotiate. The V&A has very stringent loan requirements that include not only museum insurance and security, but also temperature and humidity requirements. Even delivery and collection are very closely controlled.
A frequently asked question is whether or not they were ever used in situ. We don’t know but they were for a time installed in Smith’s house, Greenlands, in Henley-on-Thames. They are made of copper, silver and white metal. With ornamental relief, incorporating classically inspired human figures. It was unusual for Nelson to do figurative work, let alone in Neo-classical style. The detail is stunning (Ss)
This commission represents clearly one of the key contradictions of the Arts & Crafts age. Many of the items created by these artisans were quite expensive to buy, being handcrafted, and sometimes incorporating precious metals and jewels. They were thus purchased by the elite members of the aesthetically orientated upper middle and upper classes, including nobility. The masses were ironically excluded. In a way the very ideals of the movement were bypassed by the practicalities of commissioning works, as in this very instance. Even the drawings (S) are quite something and are insured for £15,000.
Contrast this work with the humble shovel from the Stamford Museum collection (S), a perfect reflection of true Arts & Crafts; a functional hand-wrought item with very simple adornment to lift it out of the ordinary.
Moving on, another fine commission resides closer to home (S). Usually to be found in Stamford Town Hall, as part of the civic regalia, kindly on loan to the museum. It is often designated a salver but is in fact a rosewater dish. The enamelling of the town crest is said to be of an unusually iridescent quality with the employment of bright foil beneath the enamel endowing a certain brilliance. Edith’s handiwork, no doubt. It was commissioned by John Breedon Everard, engineer for Stamford’s first drainage system in 1904 and donated to the town in that year. The Stamford arms and inscription lie in the centre.
Another well-known piece is the bronze organ grille in Holy Trinity Church in Sloane Street, Chelsea. (S)
The Dawsons also made the highly ornate casket presented to President Woodrow Wilson on his visit to England prior to the 1918 Peace Conference at Versailles; an enamelled tablet in memorial of Gilbert Talbot, son of Nevill Talbot, after whom Toc H (Talbot House) was named. There are no pictures of either.
But perhaps my favourite item gets to the very core of values of this artisan-fuelled industry. The Arts & Crafts School had strong links to the labour reform movement and even socialism. Nelson – though evidently not a socialist – can be viewed within that tradition in that he produced his own designs, ran a workshop employing tradesmen, founded an artisan’s guild, followed in the footsteps of Morris, and lectured to working men on his craft at craft guild meetings. He also set up a social club for working men at Hampshire House in 1905, which included drawing classes.
Originally spotted in a poorly copied part of an old Studio art magazine article, it was intriguing and was tracked down to West Sussex, to St James Church in the village of Heyshott, where the vicar kindly arranged for it to be photographed in all its glory. It is a beaten copper tablet reading, ‘in this place Richard Cobden who loved his fellow–men was accustomed to worship god.’
Obviously this was Cobden’s local church, the piece was made at the expense of his daughters and placed in the pew where the ‘great agitator’ prayed, on the 50th anniversary of the Repeal of the Corn Laws, in 1896 – which the Liberal statesman, Cobden, had done much to have overthrown.
Looking at some of the Dawson’s jewellery can also be inspiring.
Necklace and pendant. (S) Gold setting with sapphires and diamonds. Trilobed pendant surmounted by a crown of fleur-de-lys executed in translucent enamels over foil. A private commission, possibly one of a series ordered for Lady Stanley by her husband. Exquisite.
Rose pendant. (S) Again gold, sapphires diamonds and enamelling.
Rose brooch. (S) Oxidised copper and enamel.
Covered pot pourri vessel. (S) Silver with enamelled violets and amethyst finial. Assayed London 1902.
Waist ornament. (S) Silver, turquoise and enamelling.
Cloak clasp. (S) Entitled ‘ Birds in the Trees’. Silver and enamelling.
Rose and moon pendant. (S) Silver, enamel, tourmaline and moonstone.
Scarf ring. (S) With enamelled trefoil and clover buckle.
Swan brooch and flower brooch. (S)
Round box (S)
Triptych entitled Autumnal Crocus, dated 1901. (S)
Enamelled buttons with blackbirds from the V&A. (S)
Other fine works have disappeared into the ether. We know of them only via poor black and white photocopies from articles at the time. One such piece is a (S) so-called Kipling posy casket in silver and cloisonné enamel with the verse rendered to it thus,
Buy my English posies
Kent and Surrey may
Violets of the Undercliff
Wet with Channel spray
Cowslips from a Devon combe
Midland furze afire
Buy my English posies
And I’ll sell your heart’s desire
Perhaps expressing the purest synthesis of the ideals behind the Arts & Crafts movement, I wonder where it is now? In fact, flowers were frequently a personal characteristic of Dawson work – no doubt Edith-inspired. Speedwell, love-in-a-mist, crocus, ferns and other floral emblems often appear. Organically alive forms to provide artistic inspiration.
Heraldic devices and coats-of-arms were another favourite leitmotif (S) This is one of the V&A’s (S) with the King’s College Cambridge arms.
These are a selection of Dawson ceramics in the museum collection. (S) And an interesting plaster relief (from a magazine article) attributed to Edith alone (S). Done in 1916, ‘Who fights for England fights for God. Who dies for England dies for God’, we know little about it.
If all the fine art creations of this couple where gathered into one exhibition it would be a truly stunning sight.
Well before the beginning of the Great War, Nelson was tiring of metalwork – demand for it was anyway on the wane long before the needs of the war machine for metals killed it. The fashion for hand-wrought objects was passing and mechanical products were improving in quality and individuality. Nelson closed his metal workshop in 1909 and painting grew again more attractive. A Times reviewer said of one exhibition, ‘Mr Dawson, who began as a painter, then turned to goldsmith’s work, now seems to be coming back with much success’.
He resumed artistic trips abroad. He had been to Assissi and Perugia on an Art Worker’s Guild expedition as early as 1898 – it is recorded as costing £15 – and he visited Bruges in 1905. In 1909 he went to Rotterdam and Switzerland – he showed watercolours of the Alps. He also took up etching seriously and exhibited those. In 1910 he went to Etaples, a fishing port near Boulogne; stylistically there are some departures in his work around this time (S); and in 1914, on the brink of war, he went to Venice to do etching. (S) Note the boats!
World War One appears to have been a difficult time for Nelson. He felt, perhaps, there was no role for him. He did try working in a munitions factory but his health suffered and he endured numerous bouts of pleurisy. Later in the conflict he sketched planes and, yes, warships in Dover, hoping to be taken on by the Admiralty as a war artist. He was unsuccessful. Frankly, his age was against him, by the end of the war he was nearly 60.
After the war he continued as ever to sketch and paint and etch. The last dated etchings were done in Appledore and Barnstaple in 1929. Devon and Cornwall were another favourite haunt of his. He also concentrated on his previously mentioned marine collection that he kept specially housed in The Guardship in Chiswick (S), which he had acquired in 1924. He added the ship’s wheel, figurehead and anchor sign, of course.
In 1928, Edith Dawson died, aged 66 – she had been Nelson’s kindred spirit in a life of boundless artistic endeavour. Two years later, at the age of 71, Nelson married again, presumably for companionship. Ada Mansell was a family friend and the only image we have of her is this (S) photograph, taken by Nelson, of her sitting on a log in Uffington meadows beside the River Welland with the romantic title ‘Oh willow, willow, willow, sung willow ah’s me’, taken from Desdemona’s lines in Othello. Nelson and Ada had returned to Stamford on a trip in 1934, Nelson spending his time painting, drawing and taking pictures. (S) We don’t know where they stayed, although Rhoda says in a greenhouse! Did she mean a green house?
That same year, the Mercury ran a headline that ‘Old Stamfordian gives “Art Gallery” to his School’. It was Nelson. The piece went on to say that among the Stamford School Old Boys ‘none entertains a greater love for his Alma Mater than Nelson Dawson. He donated paintings, sketches, etchings and enamels to JD Day, then headmaster. Many were hung on the walls of masters’ common room, hall, landing and staircase. A catalogue was even produced, printed by Dolby Brothers (S). Sadly, the pictures later fell out of favour and many were taken down, mislaid, painted over or given away as prizes. Nonetheless some remain and can be seen in the current exhibition (Ss)
In his career Nelson achieved both national and international recognition but often gets only a cursory mention in books on the Arts & Crafts movement. There is no biography of him. Why is this? One reason may be that whereas contemporaries like Ashbee and Morris were prolific writers and polemical reformers, adding to social debate. Nelson, though putting many of these reformist ideas into practice through his art works, did not write or speak about the theories behind his work. His writings were on his art, his only book the aforementioned, ‘Goldsmiths and Silversmith’s Work’. He appears almost to be apolitical, his obscurity rests on his lack of a public image.
There remain a number of gaps in our knowledge of the life of Nelson Dawson. Arguably the greatest mystery surrounds his death on 28th October 1941, aged 82, at his Chiswick home, Staithe House. There was a service held for him at the Friends meeting house in Chiswick, later badly bombed in 1941 and thus closing the Quaker burial ground. But as to where his final resting place is – we don’t know. It’s not Stamford Cemetery, nor the parish church in Chiswick, nor Mortlake, despite a note to that effect in the Quaker records. His daughter, Rhoda’s ashes were scattered on the River Thames. Maybe her father’s were too.
The Stamfordian magazine naturally marked his passing mourning the loss to the Old Stamfordians Club of ‘one of its most prominent personalities and most enthusiastic supporters’ who ‘defended the architectural beauty of Stamford with passionate devotion’.
The Times listed his achievements as an associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours, member of Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, and regularly represented at the Royal Academy.
His obituary in the more modest Brentford & Chiswick Times describes him as having a ‘keen civic sense’ and, perhaps, was closest to the mark noting he ‘supported us at a time when apoliation (?) of the riverbank seemed likely’. It seems his love of the water stayed with him to the end.
I leave you with a brief selection of Dawson works.