In 1973 Lionel Lambourne, historian of the aesthetic movement, described the sculptor, woodcarver, puppet maker and puppet master William Simmonds as ‘the calm still centre’ of the Arts and Crafts movement. But despite a major joint exhibition at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum in 1980, Simmonds and his wife, Eve, have remained unknown outside a small circle of admirers. One problem, if lack of recognition can be counted as a problem, relates to the time in which he lived – he was born in 1876 and died in 1968. He was caught between two centuries, living through cataclysmic artistic changes. He started out studying painting under Walter Crane at the Royal College of Art, then spent five years at the Royal Academy Schools. Simmonds emerged as a creator of literary, historical and fairyland illustrations, technically well trained but, aside from some fine landscapes, offering weak Pre-Raphaelitism at two or three removes. Between 1904 and 1911 he worked with the American artist Edwin Austin Abbey on huge decorative panels intended for the Pennsylvania State Capitol, receiving little acknowledgement. At that point he hardly seemed part of the Arts and Crafts movement, let alone what passed for modernism in England.
But around 1912, the year of his marriage to Eve Peart, Simmonds began carving in wood, creating two small figurative sculptures, described in detail in Jessica Douglas-Home’s fascinating new biography of this elusive figure. In the same year Eric Gill carved his little Rower in Hoptonwood stone, which was immediately