Papers relating to Benjamin Fletcher, Head Master of the Leicester Municipal School of Art

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Papers of Benjamin Fletcher, Head Master of the Leicester Municipal Art School, including correspondence, particularly with William Richard Lethaby; drawings of architectural and ornamental subjects; printed copies of speeches on art education; and writing on cast iron and gesso decoration. Also research on Benjamin Fletcher, including photocopies and transcripts of correspondence with playwright Gordon Bottomley and Frank Pick, President of the Design and Industries Association, and photographs of drawings.

Administrative / Biographical History

Benjamin John Fletcher was born in Ironbridge, Shropshire, on the 13th March 1868. At the age of 11 he started work as an errand boy at the local Coalbrookdale Iron Company. It appears that he also undertook lessons in art, for by the age of 17 he was advanced enough to have a part-time teaching post at the Coalbrookdale School of Art under Principal Augustus Spencer.

In 1888 Spencer was appointed Head Master of the Leicester School of Art and brought Fletcher, then 20 years old, to be his Deputy. When Spencer left in 1900 Fletcher was made Head Master. His impact on the School was immediate. He travelled in Europe to study art and design teaching, in particular their relationship with industry. On his return he began to foster close links between the School and local industries.

In 1905 Fletcher visited European cane manufacturers and made extensive notes on their designs and technique. He began to experiment with creating furniture with the assistance of a local basket weaver. Fletcher believed that Leicester could produce cane furniture to rival the best Austrian and German manufacturers and in 1907 persuaded his friend, local bookseller Harry Hardy Peach, to create a manufacturing company, Dryad furniture works. Fletcher designed most of the early Dryad output, working to principles of fitness for purpose, truth to materials, sound construction and comfort. Later, other Dryad designers were graduates of the Leicester School of Art and the School ran classes for all Dryad employees who were taught design in keeping with Fletcher and Peach’s philosophy that the maker should be the designer. By 1914 almost all designs produced by Dryad were created by the workers themselves.

Fletcher persuaded John Sidney Reeve to establish a department of art metalwork and jewellery design at the School of Art. This was an immediate success and one of the students, William Pick, went on to establish Collins and Company to produce a range of silver, jewellery and metalwork in Arts and Crafts styles. Pick was an excellent designer but not a businessman, and Fletcher convinced him and Peach to go into business together, Peach providing the business know-how. The result was Dryad Metal Works. Fletcher had a great interest in jewellery and metalwork design and provided ideas for the company, as did other staff and students at the School. As with Dryad Furniture Works, staff at Dryad Metal Works were allowed to attend classes at the School to improve their design and manufacturing skills.

In 1920 Fletcher accepted a position as Principal of the Birmingham School of Art. He retired in 1934 and moved to Sapperton in the Cotswolds, living in a cottage designed by Ernest Gimson. He died in September 1951 aged 83. He was married to Margaret Joan Reynolds and had two daughters, Ursula (born 1903) and Helen (born 1906).

William Richard Lethaby is often mentioned in this collection. Lethaby was born in Barnstaple in 1857. He studied drawing at the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institute before becoming articled to a local architect, Alexander Lauder, at the age of 14. He won the Royal Institute of British Architects Soane medal in 1878-9 and decided to move to London, gaining a place as assistant to prominent architect Norman Shaw. In 1889 he set up his own architectural practice, where his designs showed the strong influence of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1896 Lethaby became Director of the newly established Central School of Arts and Crafts, recruiting distinguished crafts practitioners as teachers. He remained there until 1911, from 1900 also working as professor of the School of Ornament and Design, Royal College of Art. From 1906 to 1927 he was also the surveyor of fabric at Westminster Abbey, making several discoveries about the medieval building. Lethaby was a prolific writer of books, articles and lectures on design, arts and crafts who is now considered to have had a formative influence on twentieth century design in Britain. He was a close friend of both Benjamin Fletcher and Harry Hardy Peach.

Conditions Governing Access

Available for general access. External researchers are advised to contact the Archivist to make an appointment.

Note

Biographical information on Fletcher was drawn from the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society website and the Ernest Gimson and the Arts and Crafts movement in Leicester website.

For a study of Harry Hardy Peach and the establishment of Dryad see Harry Peach: Dryad and the DIA by Pat Kirkham (The Design Council, 1986).

Information on Lethaby from Fiona MacCarthy, 'Lethaby, William Richard (1857-1931)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008.

Archivist's Note

Catalogued by Katharine Short, Archivist, May 2013.

Related Material

Please see committee minutes, press cuttings, annual reports and prospectuses for information relating to Fletcher's time as Head Master.

Papers of Harry Hardy Peach are held at the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Archive of Art and Design at the Victorian and Albert Museum. Papers of William Lethaby are held at the Royal Institute of British Architects.