WAS Benson Biography

William Arthur Smith Benson was the greatest Arts and Crafts lighting designer in Great Britain from the late nineteenth Century and into the 20th Century.

WAS Benson Early Career and Influences

Initially trained as an architect, a chance meeting with the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne Jones, and through him, William Morris, steered his career in a new direction. Encouraged by both, he took a studio near Burne Jones in 1880, where he began designing furniture retailed by Morris and Co.

WAS Benson transition to Lighting Design

However, it was his collaboration with John Lovegrove, a skilled brass and copper-worker, that marked the beginning of his immersion into the design and manufacture of lighting. This pivot came just a few years after Thomas Edison's creation of the first commercially practical incandescent light bulb in 1879.

WAS Benson Motivation and Innovation

Benson possessed a profound desire to create, once writing to his father, "The long and short of it is, I must make something or be miserable. If one is working for anyone else, one’s ideas are only in the way – here are things wanting to be done, and I long to do them, and I think there is every chance of profit as well as pleasure." His approach to industrial art was innovative, with many of his lighting parts interchangeable among different designs. This flexibility was particularly advantageous in the early years of experimentation and development.

WAS Benson contributions to the Arts and Crafts Movement

By 1884, Benson became a founder member of the Art Workers Guild and was instrumental in establishing the Home Arts and Industries Association. He also played a key role in founding the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1888. The 1890s saw Benson expanding his repertoire to include a wide range of home appliances and fittings, such as fire screens and fenders, tableware, planters, kettles, flasks, urns, clocks, and even iron and brass side tables with lily pad designs on the copper tops.

WAS Benson leadership and legacy

After the death of William Morris in 1896, Benson took over the directorship of Morris and Co, a position he maintained until his retirement. His commission to design and make the lighting for St Paul's Cathedral in London between 1899-1900 marked a pinnacle in his career, by which time his company had achieved worldwide acclaim, with his lighting sold through Samuel Siegfried Bing's shop, the influential Maison L'Art Nouveau in Paris.

WAS Benson retirement and death

With the outbreak of the First World War, Benson converted his workshops for munitions manufacturing. He sold his company in 1920 and retired to Castle Corner in Manorbier, Wales, where he passed away on 5 July 1924. Benson's legacy as a visionary in lighting design remains influential, with his works celebrated for their innovative design and functional beauty.

Researched and written by Tony Geering.

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