Henry Owen and the Guild of Handicraft
By David Ellis
To those who are familiar with Pembrokeshire’s rich history Henry Owen needs no introduction but for those unfamiliar with his sterling work as a local historian need look no further than to the late Dillwyn Miles’ summary of his life, career and achievements in the second article of this Journal.1
Besides soliciting on behalf of the law while resident in London, Henry Owen gave his spare time to charitable work mainly connected with hospitals. He was a member of the management committee of the Samaritan Hospitals in Marylebone Road and Honorary Secretary of the Lying In Hospital in York Road, Lambeth . It was in the latter hospital in the early 1870s that Henry Owen met Dr. John Williams (later Sir John Williams GCVO) and the two became life-long friends. It was Dr. Williams who persuaded him to lecture to the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion on the life and writings of Gerald of Wales, but who afterwards told him that it was the worst delivered address he had ever listened to, at the same time advising him to extend his account into a book. This he did in 1889 and it gave hi m immediate recognition, not just of h is gifts of literary expression, but also of a keen sense of humour.
In his Memoirs of a Literary Bloke,2 H . M . Vaughan recounts his visits to Dr. Owen at Poyston in winter as being uncomfortable because:
Henry Owen detested warmth fully as much as I desired and required it. Now and again I was forced to wearing an overcoat, scarf and hat in the chilly dining room, which my host seemed to think effeminate though excusable on my part
Vaughan describes how he:
was fond of him and consequently was only amused by his eccentric and sometimes rather alarming manners, although many people who met Dr. Owen were liable to be upset by his brusqueness and even sudden explosions of anger, assumed rather than genuine, I aways suspected.
Interesting too, that:
Dr. Owen had a perfect mania for displaying the white boar chained to a holly bush , which is the coat of arms of the Owen family, in every guise at Poyston. It decorated the entrance gates of the drive, it appeared on candlesticks and Sheriff ‘s banners, and it occupied a large portion of the specially woven carpet of the parlour. Some of us used irreverently to allude to these heraldic figures as “The Poyston Pigs”.
There is a connection too with Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936), a noted medieval scholar and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University ( 1 913-15), perhaps best known as the author of some of the greatest ghost stories in the English language. He had met Dr. Owen when they both sat on the Royal Commission on Public Records in 1912-3. In ‘A View from a Hill’ , published in 1926, James modelled Squire Richards on Dr. Owen:
. . . the two of them had met on an official inquiry in town, had found that they had many tastes and habits in common, and liked each other, and the result was an invitation from Squire Henry Richards to Mr. Fanshawe.
It is perhaps surprising to learn that Henry Owen had a close association with the Arts and Craft movement of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods and was friendly with Charles Robert Ashbee, the driving force behind the Guild of Handicraft. A highly significant figure in British artistic and cultural life in the early twentieth century, Ashbee’s philosophy was influenced by the Romantic anti-industrialism of William Morris and John Ruskin. He started the Guild of Handicraft as a small craft workshop in the east end of London in 1888 before moving it to the small Cotswold town of Chipping Campden in 1902. A man of great energy and passion, part socialist, part imperialist, his interests included architecture, the history of architecture in relation to political and social factors, the medieval craft tradition, printing and publishing, town planning and social reform.
Born in 1863 Ashbee grew up in Bloomsbury in a comfortable middle class home. His father, Henry Spencer Ashbee, had married well and was senior partner in an export firm. His wealth enabled him to establish himself as a bibliophile and scholar. Curiously, under the pseudonym of Pisanus Fraxi he compiled Cantena Librorum Tacendorum (London, 1 885), a bibliography of erotica. In 1898 C. R. Ashbee married twenty year-old Janet Forbes, the daughter of a prosperous stockbroker who had been a supporter of the Guild of Handicraft for many years. In one way this was a curious partnership as for many years she had found him ridiculous, ‘clouded with his own conceit’, whilst he had always, as he told her in a letter, felt a ‘coldness to her sex’, preferring the affections of men.
A connection between Henry Owen and C. R. Ashbee has long been known, and the writing desk made for Henry Owen by the Guild of Handi craft in 1892 and currently on display at Scolton is evidence of this. Further information came to light in 2004 when Graham Peel of Tenbury Wells, a researcher working on the life and career of Alec Miller (1879- 1961 ), a Glasgow-born sculptor, found reference to a pair of cast lead heraldic boars apparently made in 1906 and installed on gateposts at the entrance to a house belonging to a Dr. Owen in Haverfordwest. This, of course, was Poyston. Normally working in wood and stone, and mainly for ecclesiastical clients, Alec Miller’s boars were, for him, an unusual commission. From 1 902 he worked with C. R. Ashbee and the Guild of Handicraft at Ch i ppi ng Campden, although eventually he emigrated to the United States.
The relationship between Henry Owen and C. R. Ashbee appears to have come about through his being the family solicitor to Janet Forbes’ family. By 1904 Owen had visited Campden and in August of that year Ashbee stayed at Poyston. Two quotes from Ashbee’s journal relate to these two events which seem to show a degree of affection, perhaps greater than that usual between solicitor and client:
The family lawyer has been with us. A dear frowsty old thing, very human and very shrewd, who smokes like a chimney, balances his gold eye glasses on the bridge of his nose and blows up his moustache like a walrus. To us he is inseparably connected with a stuffy little office in Old Jewry, where he sits among deeds and papers, where he draws up family documents and never by any means sends out a full bill of charges. It is his most charming trait to firmly believe that legal charges are always too high and should be reduced whenever possible. This is what he appears to Janet and me, in reality he is the great Dr. Owen of Owen’s Pembrokeshire, historian, antiquary, JP, mayor of Pembroke, Lord High Sheriff of the County, fur and tipstaves, pomp and antique dignity . . .
Poyston . . . is a delightful stretch of wild woods and lakeland in the Owen Withybush estate and he is nursing it for his retirement in his old age.
Henry Owen was also involved in amending the rules of the Guild of Handicraft and in 1910 was advising Janet Ashbee about a possible move to the Norman chapel at Broad Campden. This was a building that Ashbee had surveyed in 1903 when it was derelict and for which he had prepared plans for its reconstruction and enlargement, in 1905-7, for a Singhalese scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy and his wife Ethel. By 1910, with Janet Ashbee pregnant with their first child, the Coomaraswamys were giving up the tenancy of the Norman Chapel and the opportunity therefore arose
for the Ashbees to live there, which they did, moving in in the summer of 1911.
It is likely that Henry Owen had also been a trustee to the marriage settlement of C.R. and Janet Ashbee. In July 1914 Janet Ashbee stayed at Poyston and her journal includes a picture of the gates captioned ‘The Gates (with lead boars) designed by CRA (modelled by Alec Miller)’. The actual making of the gates was undertaken by two members of the Guild, Bill Thornton and Charley Downer, described as ‘truculent but inseparable’, and a photograph exists showing the partly assembled gates in the blacksmiths’ workshop at Campden.3 In August 1907 a photograph of them was used in an advertisement for the Guild of Handicraft in The Archi tectural Review.
In the late 1890s and early 1900s Henry Owen extended and remodelled Poyston with the help of architect D. E. Thomas, embellishing it with several decorative details with a strong Arts and Crafts flavour. As well as the gates i t is likely that the plaster fireplace overmantel commemorating General Sir Thomas Picton’s battles is a Guild of Handicraft product utilising the Tree motif that features in many of the designs listed in the Guild Workshop Record Book in the library of the Victorian and Albert Museum. It is seen also on the library book case ends at Madresfield Court, Worcestershire. At Poyston the library fireplace overmantel is a sophisticated exercise in wood, repousse brass and ivory incorporating Henry Owen’s initials. It is known that Alec Miller carved an overmantel based on the story of The Jackdaw of Reims for a house near Ledbury, and that he was commissioned for a sizeable work in plaster for the Coronation Hall in Ulverston.
The editor wishes to thank Kath Woolcock, Senior Library Assistant, Pembroke shire County Libraries, for supplying the photograph of Henry Owen.
1. See also the notice of Henry Owen printed in the Dictionary of Welsh Biography.
2. H. M. Vaughan, Memoirs of a Literary Bloke (Privately printed, 1941).
3. A. Crawford, C. R. Ashbee (London, 2005), 142.