About two years ago, I received an unexpected phone call from a Washington D.C. architect who was looking to place a collection of metalwork by the Arts and Crafts designer William Arthur Smith Benson (1854 – 1924). He explained that it would be a “promised gift,” meaning it would come to the Museum after his death. He knew of our collection of Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts art from his Delaware relatives, and felt the Delaware Art Museum would provide the right context for his collection. In honor of our centenary celebrations, the donor has allowed us to show these works temporarily in the decorative arts cases in the Bancroft Pre-Raphaelite galleries (on view through fall 2012.)
The installation is comprised of 25 objects, primarily lighting fixtures but also jacketed vessels, trays, and flower pot holders—all of which were designed by Benson. Benson’s work presents the kind of marvelous contradictions that force cultural historians to rethink the prescribed boundaries of design history. A successful inventor, designer, and businessman, Benson was also characterized as “a rather dreamy artist.” He utilized machinery and modest modes of “machined production” while also remaining firmly within the boundaries of the “made-by-hand” Arts and Crafts philosophy. For the majority of his working life he collaborated with his good friend, William Morris, producing metal design work for William Morris and Company and ascending to the chairmanship in 1896 upon the death of its founder.
Benson achieved financial success by producing a broad spectrum of aesthetically pleasing, functional household goods for a reasonable price. The period of Benson’s productivity also encompassed significant technological advances in home illumination. His products reflect these developments by progressing from simple candlesticks to oil, gas, and electric lamps as well as wall sconces. Benson combined an artist’s appreciation of the qualities of light with an engineer’s understanding of thetechnology. His designs utilize the reflective qualities of copper to enhance both the beauty of the light as well as its intensity. Benson’s products, particularly his lighting fixtures, were immensely popular, so much so that they were pirated and copied by others.
In many ways, Benson’s contemporary aesthetic replaced the nostalgia for the past in the designs of William Morris with the glimmers of a modernist future. His ability to combine functionalism with beauty places him firmly within the new industrial—and modernist—age.
Margaretta S. Frederick
Chief Curator/Curator, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection