Edward Barnsley & Roger Powell -- Great men of England's past

My sister had a school friend, Karen Barnsley, who lived with her family in Petersfield, Hampshire, an hour by train from London. We were frequent visitors but it was only much later that I realised that Karen's father, Edward Barnsley, was one of the foremost furniture designers in England. Not only that but through his father, Sidney Barnsley, he had a direct connection to the English Arts & Crafts movement founded in the early part of the previous century. It was a brave but unsuccessful attempt to reverse the destruction of English traditional crafts by mass production and factory labour.

 At that time, the late 1940s, neither Barnsley's house nor his workshop were wired for electricity. It took two men to power the treadle table saw and all by the dim light of kerosene lanterns. It was only when Barnsley's foreman, Bert Upton, threatened to quit that power was finally brought to the house and workshop.

It was typical of the England of that era that within the confines of the workshop there were two classes of students: There were the Pupils, who paid an annual  premium to learn the basics of design and drafting together with woodworking skills.

They worked alongside apprentices who were paid an hourly wage and expected to do all the grunt work. So this one small shop was turning out designer/craftsmen and highly skilled manual workers.

Forty years later I interviewed one of Barnsley's former apprentices, Alan Peters, for an article in Fine Woodworking, I could see that this last vestige of the English class system still rankled. Alan remembered his time at Barnsley's: “I was the boy” he said, “I swept the floor, I made the tea and stuck lumber in the drying sheds”.

I might very well have become one of Barnsley’s pupils myself if I had not lost the use of my left hand and arm in the polio epidemic of 1947. I was 17 and although some strength returned, woodworking did not seem a viable option at the time.

I had a New York friend, Peggy Farber, staying with me and took her down to meet Edward Barnsley and see the workshops. We took a train to Petersfield, then a grumpy taxi (petrol was still rationed) up the long, winding hill to Barnsley’s house and workshop. Edward had made all the furniture, mostly in English oak, no veneers or plywood, no stains and all natural finishes. It was obviously not for show,but furniture to be lived with.

Roger Powell was Barnsley’s close neighbour---the two elderly men were in the local cricket team and would hobble around the pitch for the Sunday afternoon matches. .  In 1964 there was a devastating flood in the Italian city of Florence. A large number of rare books which had been stored in basements---many of great historical value---were submerged for several days in polluted canal water. Some of the most valuable were sent to Roger Powell--one of the foremost binders and restorers of rare books in the country.

Our visit was made memorable by the two Irish constables, armed with shotguns, who guarded the premises. Roger Powell met us at the door, invited us in to the workshop and there, laid out on long wooden trestle tables was the explanation for the police presence. A hand-colored (illuminated) manuscript dating from the early 9th century, known as The Book of Kells. It had been sent over by the Irish Government (under armed guard) for restoration and conservation and is now on limited display in Dublin.

I asked about the Florentine books and Roger took us to the far end of the property and a disused tobacco barn. This had louvred plank walls, hinged, so they could be opened for ventilation. Hundreds of waterlogged books, spine upwards, were being hung on heavy galvanized wire which ran the length of the barn.Too rapid drying was harmful but the growth of mildew was even more damaging so the pages needed frequent ventilation. We returned a week or so later when all the books had been hung and I remember it being a bizarre sight---the books appeared to be flying and one could almost hear them twittering to each other. Drying books in this way takes time but the English climate (for this narrow application) is ideal.

As we were taking the train back to London I told Peggy that she’d just met two of the most distinguished men in England. “Yes”, she said “I could tell”.

Roger Powell’s son, David, had served four years as Barnsley's pupil and then two years at the Royal College of Art in London so had the very thorough training that I lacked. Several weeks previously, when cross-cutting an oak board, freehand, the kerf had closed on the blade and the board thrown at him with such force that it broke his jaw and dislocated several teeth. He was undecided about setting up another shop in London-- it was enormously expensive--so I suggested he run my woodworking shop in Vermont while I was in Nova Scotia the next summer. David packed and crated his tools and sent them by sea to New York. The dock fraternity had no patience with smart wooden crates fastened with screws so opened them with a crowbar. Since David had no business to return to in the UK. He decided to stay on in Vermont through the fall and share the Putney (VT) workshop.  

It was a somewhat uneasy partnership.  Our styles were so different that when clients walked into the shop--depending on which one of us they approached--they would get a totally different piece of furniture. My work was actually closer to the Arts and Crafts style--solid wood, exposed joinery and natural finishes. David wanted to produce museum pieces but since he lacked any reputation in the US, his clients were unwilling to pay the steep price of ‘collectors items.’

The Putney workshop was cramped with no space to display finished pieces of furniture so I bought a two-story hay barn in Putney and hired a carpenter full-time make the conversion. He spent a year making it into a large workshop with an upstairs showroom for which we had to make and install water-proof skylights fitted in the slate roof.

Last I heard from friends in Putney the workshop had morphed into a Yoga Parlor.



  1. Great little narratives about some greatly under-appreciated fellows. I love your story about the Book of Kells!


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