The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Sir Ambrose Heal and the Heal Cabinet Factory, 1897-1939

Oliver S Heal (Oblong, 324pp, £58)

Reviewed by Alan Powers

Oliver Heal gave one of our autumn lectures in 2012, when the theme was ‘The Big Store’. He remarked that his grandfather, Sir Ambrose Heal, always insisted that a store was where you kept things, and that what he ran was a shop. About a year later, a smaller C20 Society group visited Oliver and his wife in the farmhouse in Buckinghamshire that Ambrose Heal bought and converted in the 1920s. We arrived to find two magnificent inter-war cars standing on the gravel, family favourites that had simply stayed there, along with much of the furniture and decoration inside.

The cars do not appear in Oliver’s book, which is a pity, but there is a great deal else to attract the eye and answer questions about the family business. This was sold by the Heals themselves to Storehouse in the 1980s, and it has subsequently changed hands twice more, but, thanks to the influence of Ambrose, it is a strong enough brand to retain much of its original identity, not least in the form of the Tottenham Court Road building (the site of the business started in 1810 by John Harris Heal, which sold beds and bedding for most of the 19th century). Built exactly a hundred years ago, the majestic stripped classical elevations – by Ambrose’s cousin and mentor Cecil Brewer with his partner Dunbar Smith – epitomise the Heals style of reasonable English modernism with sprightly accents of colour and decoration. In 1985, the Thirties Society argued at a public inquiry against the removal of curved 1930s anti-reflective windows from the colonnade. Although we lost, we were able to insist that the original design of vertical glazing was correctly reinstated in their place.

It is a common characteristic of business history that around the third generation, inspiration strikes. Ambrose Heal developed instincts as a furniture designer that made the company famous. He remodelled the printed promotional material in collaboration with Harold Curwen of the Curwen Press, a fellow member of the Design and Industries Association and himself a third-generation design reformer. In the choice of items for sale from other manufacturers, British and overseas, a key figure was Prudence Maufe, the wife of the architect of Guildford Cathedral, whose original eye ruled over key parts of the stock. With the new building came the Mansard Gallery, which was the location for daringly avant-garde art exhibitions in the early years. The research is amazingly detailed, yet the excellent design and production help to make every page a pleasure to read, and the family insights are irreplaceable. Issues about the calibration of the scale between Arts & Crafts and modernism are treated with a rare lucidity and balance. The second half of the book goes into detail about the complex web of design and supply, some but not all of the furniture being made in the Heals workshops, while other designers on the staff were sometimes responsible for the models.

Ambrose Heal lived until 1956, but the book ends in 1940, when he two sons were already playing a major role and introducing Modern Movement design. This arrived in the ‘Seven Architects’ exhibition in 1936, which included room settings with furniture prototypes by Marcel Breuer, Christopher Nicholson, Raymond McGrath and Christopher Heal. It would be wonderful if Oliver Heal could write a companion volume on the forty years that followed, when Heals changed in many ways but was still a significant player in the formation of public taste.