The Witter Collection

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The Witter Family – Founders of:
Arts & Crafts and Ickleford Industries
The Cambridge Tapestry Company Ltd
WALTER GEORGE WITTER (1863 – 1928) – ARTHUR WITTER (1861-1940)
MARIAN GASKELL (1866 – 1935)

Walter Witter was born on April 10th 1863 in Cheshire. He and his elder brother Arthur, were involved in the building enterprises of their father, William Preston Witter, during their youth, but both were more interested in drawing and painting in their free time and they would often skip work to go to the nearby woods to paint. Arthur Witter actually had some of his works exhibited at the Royal Academy, Liverpool and in other exhibitions between 1882 and 1904.

Marian Witter (nee Gaskell)

Walter met Marian Gaskell, who also came from Birkenhead, Cheshire. Her mother came from a large, talented family, many of whom made their names in the arts, literature, legal and stage professions and her father was a cotton broker. Marian’s uncle, Johnathan Carr, acquired land opposite Turnham Green railway station in London and developed the renowned residential area of Bedford Park, West London.

Johnathan Carr also built a School of Art, which became known as the Chiswick School of Art. The Art School, together with a community clubhouse, helped to establish the reputation enjoyed by Bedford Park at the height of it’s popularity and many leading artistic and literary figures of the day used to live and visit there.

The School of Art opened in 1881 with the aim of offering courses in “…freehand drawing in all its branches, practical geometry and perspective, pottery and tile painting, design for decorative purposes as in furniture, metalwork, stained glass ….”. This is where Walter trained as a teacher of Arts and Crafts.

On January 4th 1900, Walter and Marian (Marie) married and went to lodge in Freewaters Cottage in Ickleford, Herts. Walter took up a teaching post in Hitchin – probably at the Literary and Mechanics Institute whilst Marie Witter, who was an expert needlewoman, carried out orders for embroidered trousseaux. She started to teach embroidery and needlework to the village schoolgirls at weekends and during holidays. As the girls left school they went to work with Marie Witter full time. During this time Walter interested local boys in the art of making beaten brass and copper work.

Their son Carr was born in 1902 and gradually the cottage began to bulge with school-leavers, needlecraft and metalwork so, in 1904, a workroom was put up in the meadow beside the cottage to house the 25 – 30 men and women employed in the business. A second building was then built in 1906 to create a workshop for the brass and copper work and a forge for the wrought iron.

The tapestry workroom was built with a platform at one end dressed with large curtains. Examples of the tapestry work was hung on the wall of the workroom. An article in ‘the Bedford Guardian’ dated 1909 described one item as a “Jacobean quilt for a state bed – 9ft x 7ft in size, made of stone coloured velvet and worked with an elaborate floral design in red and blue”.

Every year an exhibition of students’ work was held at the workshops and items were sold to friends, family and neighbours.

Then, in 1908 a number of embroidery items were entered into the Franco-British exhibition and 5 bronze medals were won (The Bedford Guardian, 1909).

This was also the age of amateur theatricals and in 1909 a series of tableaux, with dresses and scenery made by the employees, proved a triumph of stage art for the local community.

(click here to see programme in more detail)

Walter Witter left his teaching post in Hitchin sometime between 1904 and 1908 to concentrate on the business full time. Some of his first students included Francis Olney and Tom Newbury, aged 13. They were employed in 1906, to learn forging skills and the business known as “The Ickleford Industries of Applied Arts” was inaugurated.

In 1911 Arthur Witter went to live in Hitchin and joined his brother in the growing business making Arts & Crafts copperware, pewterware and wrought iron work. With the outbreak of the First World War, however, the company dwindled as the young men went away to fight in the war. During this time, Walter Witter made aeroplane propellers in Ipswich alongside Frederick Tibbenham (manufacturer of reproduction furniture).

Alongside the development of the Arts & Crafts metal work, demand also increased for the embroidery and needlework undertaken by Marie Witter and the girls of Ickleford. By 1915 there had been a significant increase in demand in Ickleford, but female labour was in short supply and so was large loom space so in 1916 Frederick Tibbenham helped the Witters to launch The Cambridge Tapestry Company Ltd. The company was founded, with four directors, and they bought the big house in Thompson’s Lane, Cambridge which had very adequate outbuildings at the back for tapestry workrooms. As there was little work for girls in Cambridge at that time this was a great boon for the economy. Supervisors were brought from Ickleford to ensure their high standards were maintained.

(click here for more information about the Cambridge Tapestry Company Ltd)

Embroidery, needlework and metalwork continued to be carried on in Ickleford for a while under the direction of Mr Witter’s personal assistant, Madeleine Warren; but in 1923 the forging and metalwork side was handed over to Francis Olney and Tom Newbury, two of Ickleford Industries’ earliest pupils. They renamed the firm “Olney and Newbury Ltd”. Francis Olney died in 1952 but he was succeeded by his son who continued to trade until 1979

(click here to see a copy of their catalogue).

Copyright: M. J. S. Price 2012 – 2022 All Rights Reserved

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