Who was Hugh Birkett?

{Ed. Note:  This is the latest from Books and Vines contributor DlphcOracl.}

Hugh Birkett (1919-2002) was born in Solihull (a stone’s throw south of Birmingham), the son of Thomas & Annie Birkett, who were both at the heart of the Birmingham Arts & Crafts movement in the 1890s and 1900s.  Thomas was a member of the Birmingham Guild of Handicraft and his mother Annie studied at the Margaret Street School of Art.  His aunt Kathleen Stubbs was a talented book binder who exhibited regularly in Birmingham.  More on this a bit later.

Initially Birkett trained as an engineer and went on to work with furniture maker Oliver Morel, who himself had trained under Edward Barnsley.  Barnsley was one of the most important British furniture makers of the 20th Century.  His father Sidney, uncle Ernest and their friend Ernest Gimson, having been inspired by William Morris, moved from London to the Cotswolds where they established workshops and made furniture in the Arts and Crafts Movement style.  Birkett then spent time working with Edward Gardiner, who had produced chairs to Ernest Gimson’s designs.  In this manner, Hugh Birkett became a fine designer and furniture maker firmly rooted in Wm. Morris’ Arts and Crafts Style and methodology as well as the Cotswold style and tradition of fine furniture craftsmanship.

In the 1940’s he set up his own furniture making studio in the garage of his parent’s home in Lapworth after the family had moved there from Solihull nearly a decade earlier.  He continued working in this manner until 1966, then moving further south to Moreton-in-Marsh, a small historic village in the northern Cotswolds, approximately 35 miles south of Birmingham.  Hugh Birkett became recognized as a superlative craftsman and designer, producing furniture directly attributable to the style of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th Century. His pieces were produced as individual commissions as well as work for local churches at Baddesley Clinton and Lapworth,  He received the coveted ‘Guild Mark’ award from the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers for one of his larger pieces and lived and worked in Moreton-in-Marsh until his death in 2002.  He was buried alongside his parents at Lapworth Church.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th Century and especially in the decade following his death, Hugh Birkett’s pieces have developed a following amongst discerning collectors and have seen steady appreciation when his work is offered at auction.  The links given below will enable you to see the exquisite design and craftsmanship he was capable of as a furniture and cabinet maker.

http://www.artnet.com/artists/hugh-birkett/past-auction-results

http://www.semleyauctioneers.com/28.html

http://www.millineryworks.co.uk/images_furnexhibs/Dovetailed/24.jpg

http://www.acfc.co.uk/05exhib/stkpgex05f52.shtml

By now, dear reader, you may be asking: “What on earth does this have to do with Books and Vines?  As hinted above, he had exposure and access to the art of fine book binding through his aunt Kathleen Stubbs and, apparently, he learned this craft as well.  To my knowledge, he did not work as a bookbinder on a commercial basis and restricted his work to rebinding selected works from his personal library.  Fortunately for book lovers, Hugh Birkett’s foray into the art of book binding was not an example of “Don’t quit your day job!!”   His skill as a fine furniture designer and maker extended equally to his work as a book binder and he brought the same Arts & Crafts aesthetic and superb craftsmanship to his chosen hobby.  To the dismay of those of us who do not possess any semblance of manual dexterity, Mr. Birkett seemingly possessed a pair of “magic hands” which were incapable of producing anything that wasn’t finely crafted and beautiful.

Photographs of two books from his library, one with his ex-libris, are provided below.

The King Who Knew Not Fear, Hugh Birkett, Riccardi Press, Cover and Spine
The King Who Knew Not Fear, Hugh Birkett, Riccardi Press, Cover
The King Who Knew Not Fear, Hugh Birkett, Riccardi Press, End Papers
The King Who Knew Not Fear, Hugh Birkett, Riccardi Press, Title Page
The King Who Knew Not Fear, Hugh Birkett, Riccardi Press
The Loves of Clitophon and Leucippe, Shakespeare Head Press (1923), Spine and Cover
The Loves of Clitophon and Leucippe, Shakespeare Head Press (1923), Spine
The Loves of Clitophon and Leucippe, Shakespeare Head Press (1923), Cover
The Loves of Clitophon and Leucippe, Shakespeare Head Press (1923), Cover Detail

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