Nelson Ethelred Dawson was an important figure in the Arts and Crafts movement.
Nelson Ethelred Dawson was born in 1859 at 27 St Mary’s Street, Stamford (now part of Stamford Arts Centre) and he went on to become an important figure in the Arts and Crafts movement as a designer, enameller and metal worker.
Nelson was the son of Edwin and Emma Dawson, the eldest of eight children. Edwin was a cook, confectioner and baker, and the proprietor of Dawson’s Tearoom also in St Mary’s Street at number 7. Both Edwin (d.1890) and Emma (d.1888) are buried in Stamford Cemetery.
On the 1861 census, there are 5 servants listed as living with the Dawsons: Robert C Young, Edwin Harrison and Charles Rogers, all journeymen bakers; Charlotte Lees, a housemaid; and Sarah Hireman, a general servant.
There is a gap in Nelson’s early life when, according to a later account by his eldest daughter, Rhoda, he was sent to “a sort of ‘Dotheboys Hall’ School in the West Country” - probably at Dawlish, in Devon. At the age of 15 young Nelson attended Stamford School for 2 years, and in later years he produced a unique design of the school emblem.
After leaving school he studied architecture at the office of Stamford architect, Joseph B Corby, at 69 Scotgate. Dawson was sufficiently inspired by Corby to describe him as ‘a builder of dreams. From his example we can all learn’. Corby designed a number of notable buildings including Burghley Estate Office on High Street St Martin’s.
Nelson quickly acquired an enthusiasm for painting coupled with a love of the sea. It was these passions that took him away from Stamford. However, he retained a warm affection for his home town until the end of his life and he remained an Old Stamfordian.
Nelson Dawson: Learning his Craft
Dawson took the risk of an artist’s life, moving first to London to train as a painter at the South Kensington schools, 1885 -1887, and then to Scarborough where he worked in an art shop run by his uncle Hayden Hare, and lived with his uncle’s family at 14 King Street. Hayden’s younger brother John Thomas Hare ran the Stamford family business of Fine Art dealers at 39 St Mary’s Street.
It was in Scarborough that he met his future wife Edith Brearey Robinson, also a painter but one who specialised in flower subjects. According to a later Stamford Mercury of 20th July 1934, in the 1880s and early 1890s Dawson ‘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’. A romanticised view, perhaps, but this would equate with the many marine scenes he etched and painted throughout his life.
In 1893 he married Edith in Whitby Friends Meeting House - Edith being the daughter of a Quaker schoolmaster. Nelson himself later became a member of the Society of Friends. Nelson had moved back to London two years earlier and was now concentrating more on metalwork - this change in artistic medium may have been financially inspired. He attended classes under the noted practitioner, Alfred Fisher, and passed on his skills to Edith. Together they would have been inspired by the examples of William Morris and John Ruskin. Working as a team they developed their own style with Nelson as designer/ manufacturer and Edith undertaking the enamelling on any joint works.
Nelson and Edith lived and worked in Wentworth Studios, then The Mulberry Tree, Manresa Road, both in Chelsea. By 1897 they had moved again, to Swan House in Chiswick Mall where they remained until the First World War, when they made their final move to Staithe House. During this highly productive period they produced all kinds of metalware such as ornaments, dishes, architectural fittings, lamps, and jewellery,
Nelson Dawson: The Golden Years
The Dawsons’ work grew in popularity - they employed other craftsmen to carry out their designs - and their art was exhibited widely in London and abroad. They were the news themselves now. In 1896, Studio magazine published an article devoted to them and Nelson also contributed articles to this important arts magazine and others.
In 1901 he founded the Artificer’s Guild though it soon passed on to other hands. Several of their commissioned pieces are well-known. The bronze organ grille in Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, Chelsea is Dawson’s handiwork, carried out for architect Henry Wilson. They made the trowel and mallet used by Queen Victoria in her last public appearance laying the foundation stone of the V&A museum in 1899.
Three years earlier they had come to the queen’s attention when she purchased a copper bowl with enamelled lid, inscribed ‘Nelson and Edith Dawson me made’. They also made the casket presented to President Woodrow Wilson on his visit to England prior to the 1919 Peace Conference at Versailles; a small enamelled tablet in memorial of Gilbert Talbot, son of Nevill Talbot after whom Toc H (Talbot House) was named; and the gates of Hull Town Hall.
Closer to home, the Stamford Town Regalia contains a Dawson piece, a fine silver salver bearing the Stamford arms in enamel, created in 1903, and presented in 1904 to the Corporation by the engineer, John Everard. Nelson’s versatility is illustrated by the watercolours he contributed to EV Lucas books including, ‘Highways and Byways of London’, published in 1907. Both he and Edith wrote books for Methuen - Nelson penned ‘Goldsmiths’ & Silversmiths’ Work’, published 1907, and Edith, ‘Enamels’, published 1906.
On the domestic front the couple produced two daughters, Rhoda in 1897 and Mary in 1899. Both became artists and Rhoda married sculptor John Bickerdike.
Nelson Dawson: Swansong
Well before the beginning of the First World War Nelson Dawson was tiring of metalwork; and demand for it was on the wane. The fashion for handwrought artefacts was passing and mechanical products were improving in quality. He closed his metal workshop in 1909 and artistic trips abroad became more and more attractive; to Rotterdam and Switzerland in 1909; to Étaples, a fishing port near Boulogne, in 1910; and to Venice in 1914. From 1910 an interest in etching grew and further exhibitions followed.
The First World War appears to have been a difficult time for Nelson; he felt, perhaps, there was no role for him. He tried working in a munitions factory, but his health suffered, particularly with pleurisy. Later he sketched warships and planes, hoping to be taken on by the Admiralty as a war artist - however, he was unsuccessful. Frankly, his age was against him in these endeavours: by the end of the war he was almost sixty.
Nelson continued to paint, etch and to produce occasional metal pieces after the war. Exhibitions continued - he had already shown at the Royal Academy. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers. He had also begun to amass models of ships, which he stored at The Guardship off Chiswick Mall.
Sadly, his wife and kindred artistic spirit, Edith, died in 1928. Two years later, at the age of 71, he married his second wife, Ada Mansell, a family friend. In 1934 he returned to Stamford with Ada, spending much of his time painting local scenes.
That same year he presented works to Stamford School and kept up his close contacts with the town. The wheel had come full circle.
He died on 28th October 1941 at his Chiswick home, Staithe House, aged 82, and a memorial service for him was held 3 days later, at Hammersmith Friends’ Meeting House. When his daughter Rhoda died in 1992, she was cremated, and her ashes scattered on the River Thames. It is possible that she was following in her father’s footsteps.