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Christchurch’s gentleman craftsman

Peter Blake reveals the life of poet, social reformer and furniture maker Arthur Romney Green

ARG in craftsman mode

ARG in craftsman mode

On the afternoon of 5 February 1945, Arthur Romney Green was cycling back to his home and workshop in Bridge Street, Christchurch. It was his first trip out since an attack of bronchitis in early January. He was a familiar site around the town on an unusual Dursley Pedersen bicycle, trailing pipe smoke behind him as he went by. Around 5.00, he was cycling up Stour Road, but as he reached the junction with Barrack Road, no doubt deep in thought and paying little attention to his surroundings, he was in collision with a motor coach. The driver swerved, but ARG hit the bus, fell and hit his head.
He was taken to Boscombe hospital, where he died of a cerebral haemorrhage without regaining consciousness on 21 February. He was 73 years old; his birthday had passed on 16 February, while he was still unconscious. Witnesses at his inquest stated that he had not halted at the stop line, but carried on, oblivious to what was going on around him. There were no traffic lights at that junction in those days, the Coroner remarking that the presence of such lights may well have prevented the accident.
Arthur Romney Green, ARG or Romney Green to his friends, was born in 1872 in Wandsworth Common, London. His brother was William Curtis Green, an eminent architect who designed London’s Dorchester hotel amongst other work. At an early age, ARG developed a love for woodworking, particularly furniture making and boat building. After spells teaching, ‘this dull business’ as he called it, he decided to set up as a woodworker. In 1919 he came to Christchurch while on a cycling trip, and in August that year he moved into 25 Bridge Street. A run-down Victorian grocer’s shop, it had been empty for some years, and therefore fairly cheap to acquire. Nowadays it is very different, Bridge Street was renumbered in the 1930s, and ARGs workshop is now number 3 Bridge Street, and occupied by Prezzo Italian restaurant. A blue plaque on the wall, put up in 1997, is a reminder of ARG’s time there.

The Bridge Street workshop, once a disused grocer's is now an Italian restaurant

The Bridge Street workshop, once a disused grocer’s is now an Italian restaurant

He set up home with Bertha Murray, for whom he had left his first wife, Florence, in 1909. ARG and Bertha married in 1928, after Florence agreed to divorce him. They lived in a flat above the workshop, with a view towards Hengistbury Head, and mooring at the rear for his boats, sailing being one of the great loves of his life. In this workshop he developed his views on woodworking, art, culture, and social reform. ARG used his knowledge of geometry and mathematics to create his furniture designs, as seen in the truncated octahedron at the top of the uprights on the prayer desks in Christchurch Priory.

A detail from a prayer desk in the Priory shows how every element of ARG's work mattered

A detail from a prayer desk in the Priory shows how every element of ARG’s work mattered

He used the same method of geometrical design in his boatbuilding, ‘small sailing boats designed and built from solid equations’ as he described them. He ran the workshop more as a community than a workplace, with regular meetings with his staff to discuss all aspects of the business. As a social reformer, he believed that small scale workshops such as his were part of the answer to problems of unemployment, and during the 1930s he supervised workshops for the unemployed in depressed areas under the auspices of the Rural Industries Bureau, and during the war years he took on ex-soldiers who had been invalided out of the Army.

With staff and apprentices in front of his Christchurch atelier

With staff and apprentices in front of his Christchurch atelier

ARG believed that having a social conscience was also compatible with running a sound business, although his business was not immune from suffering during the hard times during the Depression. He was highly regarded by his workforce, and such was the good grounding an apprenticeship with him provided, many went on to set up as master craftsmen in their own right. He was happy to take on boys who had educational difficulties, helping them to learn a trade, increase their self-esteem, and to improve their literacy skills.
Away from the workshop, ARG was also prominent in the artistic life of Christchurch, which had a Bohemian feel to it in the 1920s. He held essay readings and discussions at his flat, which were attended by such people as Eric Gill (who on one occasion described Christchurch as ‘absurdly beautiful’), Bertrand Russell and Francis Macnamara, who was Dylan Thomas’ father-in-law. He also lectured at Christchurch Adult School, on such topics as the poetry of William Morris.
In 1926 ARG had a book of poetry published, entitled Twenty-one Sonnets, to warm reviews, in the TLS for example. He went on to form the Christchurch Poetry Society, which flourished for a few years until key members moved away and the society disbanded. ARG carried on writing poetry for the remainder of his life. He also found time to write on other topics, becoming a regular contributor to New English Weekly, a journal that advocated an enlightened approach to agricultural and financial reform. He regularly corresponded with John Maynard Keynes on economic matters.

ARG's unmistakeable chunky geometric-design chairs in the Priory

ARG’s unmistakeable chunky geometric-design chairs in the Priory

It is for his furniture, however, that ARG is most remembered. Made out of timber mainly supplied locally, from Lights in Fairmile, he sold direct to the customer, rather than through retailers. There are a number of pieces on public display still; along with the prayer desks at Christchurch priory mentioned above, there were ceremonial chairs and moveable altar rails at the same location. The Red House Museum in Quay Road has an ARG gallery, set out as a 1930’s family dining room, containing a number of pieces of his furniture, all easily identified by their geometrical designs. There must be a large number of pieces still held in private hands as well.

A similar theme, but a different execution, also in the Priory

A similar theme, but a different execution, also in the Priory

Interestingly, ARG lost an order for furniture for the Priory when he confessed to the then Vicar, Canon Gay, that he and Bertha were not then married, illustrating that his unorthodox private life was not to everyone’s liking. Happily, the Church later had a change of heart, and acquired a number of pieces of ARG’s work.  There are other examples of his work in other parts of the country, for example All Saints Church, Catherington in Hampshire, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Form and function in this moveable altar rail at Christchurch Priory

Form and function in this moveable altar rail at Christchurch Priory

ARG was buried in Christchurch Cemetery on 24 February 1945 with his wife Bertha, who had died in 1942. His obituary in the Christchurch Times stated: ‘A great loss has been sustained by his friends in the artistic world, and the Borough generally, by the death, following a cycle accident, of a sailor, poet and craftsman, Mr Arthur Romney Green, of 3, Bridge Street’.  Characteristically, ARG had designed his own stone monument, a tapering obelisk mounted by a trademark truncated octahedron. Now complete again following vandalism, the octahedron is incised with geometrical patterns. The monument is unique, and a striking adornment to a pleasant cemetery.

 ARG's striking memorial, restored after vandalism

ARG’s striking memorial, restored after vandalism

ARG is not widely known, which is a shame, as his furniture is aesthetically pleasing, with simple strong lines augmented by geometric designs. The influence of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement is evident. Those who do appreciate his work will have to pay to acquire it though, as his pieces range from the mid-hundreds to mid-thousands when they become available, a refectory dining table on offer recently for just under £6000 for example.
He was a man who cared deeply about his work, and the plight of those who were struggling to survive in a difficult world, and wanted to help them to help themselves, and to develop culturally, educationally, socially and through doing meaningful work. A somewhat romanticised article by Vera Denis-Earle, which appeared in Homes and Gardens, three years after his death, described ARG as ‘a man who loved the lovely’. While I think he would have appreciated the sentiment behind the comment, it is evident that there was a lot more to him than that, and that he was a man who was prepared to work hard, and inspire others, in order to ensure that ‘the lovely’ could appear. Although in monetary terms, he was not successful, he enriched the life of those around him, and no finer tribute can be made. ◗

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