“I think when you go into a room it ought to give you a sort of total impression…of colour or light and shade or of charm and lucid order.” - Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer
Robert married exterior with interior in the spirit of William Morris. In his lecture on Morris (1897), he described him as “the pioneer, the brave man who found the arts sick unto death but resolutely set to get things moving again.” Morris was seen as the leader of the holistic Arts and Crafts architects and strove to broaden the definition of art to include furniture, embroidery, stained glass, jewellery and pottery. His congregation of craftsmen worked together to align each piece, each detail, to form a complete and harmonious whole. Robert embraced these principles, inspired by the collaboration and creativity of his family and their craftsmen at Kellie Castle. He was further encouraged by his teachers Rowan Anderson in Edinburgh and George Bodley in London, who was one of the first architects to commission stained glass from Morris & Co.
The tendrils of the Vine Room at Kellie grew into the exquisite plaster ceilings of houses such as Ardkinglas, designed by Robert and hand modelled by Thomas Beattie and Sam Wilson. Beattie and Wilson worked with Lorimer for thirty years, beginning when Robert first opened his practice in 1893. Their virgin plaster ceilings were chipped and restored and then cloaked in smoky fires, uniting the new interior with the ancient stones of the exterior.
Ardkinglas was designed for Sir Andrew Noble who was over seventy when he commissioned it; the stairs are beautifully gentle and the door handles are pushed down not turned due to his arthritis. Ardkinglas was designed not only for a particular setting on Loch Fyne, but for a particular family.
The Vine Room Ceiling (c.1878), Kellie Castle, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
Ceiling (c.1907), Thomas Beattie, Ardkinglas, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
Ceiling (c.1907), Sam Wilson, Ardkinglas, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
Door Handle, Goddess Diana (c.1907), Ardkinglas, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
Sir Robert Lorimer’s journeys with Sir William Burrell were quests of collection. When Burrell, a wealthy shipping merchant, became engaged to Connie Mitchell, Robert wrote, “Wants me to be best man. I’m awfully pleased about it. He’s rolling in money and 38 so its time he was spliced and she is extremely pretty, most refined girl, with a quite angelic temper. I should think it knocks our foreign trips on the head, these delightful three trips. I look back on them with such huge pleasure.” Robert counted ninety antiques shops that he visited with Burrell across Europe in France, Germany, Belgium and Holland. John wrote that his younger brother “had a very powerful expression in his eye, which probably meant that he was extraordinarily observant. This helped his gift for collecting. He would go into some small dealers where another could see only rubbish, and with an eye like a hawk fix on some one thing worth having.” William James Lorimer, Robert’s grandson and Senior Director of Estates, Appraisals and Valuations at Christies, reflected that what made Robert a truly great collector was that he would sell pieces in order to buy better ones.
It is unsurprising that Robert told his son “You will find something to collect in Burma” when Christopher set off to work for Steel Brothers & Co. in Rangoon. On 2nd March 1942, a Japanese attack immanent, Christopher wrote “I have left my collection of Burmese weights with San Myint with instructions to bury them if necessary, or put them down his well. As my collection is I believe the best in Burma I hope it will be safe.” Buried treasure, the collection of seventy-six weights was saved and travelled to Scotland. It was donated to Durham Oriental Museum “as a tribute to Burma and Burmese Art.”
Royal Burmese Animal Shaped Weights (16th-18th century), Collected by Christopher Lorimer, Durham Oriental Museum, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
The Elephant with the Petal Star
The Elephant with the Petal Star (2016), Collection of Christopher Lorimer, made by Charle Lorimer, his granddaughter, narrated by his son David Lorimer, with drawings by his great great uncle William Wyld.
Oriental Art History of Art Module, Durham University, © Charlotte Lorimer
Dutch furniture captured Robert’s imagination; he became “entwined” with Holland. His furniture is both beautiful and useful with extendable tables and adjustable shelves for bookcases. He replicated his tables “in half Gothic and half Dutch manner being made with twisted legs” and had one at his home in Edinburgh, writing to a friend that “bacon and eggs taste tip-top off it.”
The chairs surrounding it would have been his designs, shown in his brother John Henry’s painting ‘Grandmother’s Birthday.’ Robert had struggled to find “chairs with cane backs and stuffed seats” so commissioned them from William Wheeler. Wheeler began as a maker of carts and wheels and was encouraged to make furniture by Robert’s father during the restoration of Kellie Castle. He went on to receive orders which were exported to India, Africa and Australia.
In all his work, “it was the spirit of the Gothic […] the Gothic of the craftsmen” that Robert was after. He had enormous respect for his craftsmen. When James Richardson tried to use the brother carvers William and Alexander Clow, he wrote “The drawings were full size. You could carve straight from my drawings.” This was his mistake. Robert gave the imagination of the Clows the freedom it deserved. His trust in them was exchanged for their loyalty: the brothers worked for him almost exclusively for thirty years.
“I wish I could draw a lifelike portrait of the brothers Clow to whose genius in carving Lorimer owed so much. On the upper floors of a gaunt Edinburgh mansion one comes upon them out of a dark passage, surrounded by a garden of wooden flowers: two identical middle-aged men looking, in their long gray overalls, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee grown spare and kindly. To this day I do not know which is W. and which is A. for they have long since become a single personality.”
- Christopher Hussey, The Work of Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer
The Clows carved the angel and pelican of the cot, designed by Robert for his first son Christopher, a simpler version of the cot made for his friend William Burrell. His sister Alice also commissioned several pieces, including a settle similar to the one designed for Robert MacKenzie and his wife Jessie at Earlshall. Both the body of the cot and settle are believed to have been made by Whytock & Reid. As with the Clow brothers, Robert trusted the skills and creativity of the Whytock & Reid craftsmen. The furniture developed through discussion rather than intimidating detailed sketches, leading to problems of attribution. Sketches were often given on the back of envelopes.
The furniture embodies the words of William Morris, quoted by Robert: “use the most beautiful wood you can get hold of and use it in such a way as to show its utmost beauty of grain and texture.” The oak, coromandel, ivory, boxwood, partridge wood and holly of the Earlshall settle was crafted together to form the swans, deer and little robin, which Alistair Drennan reflected may refer to its designer, the young Robert called Robin by his family.
Table, designed by Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, Private Collection, Photo: © Alistair Drennan
Letter to Robin Dods, sketch of bedside table, Photo: © University of Edinburgh
Bedside Table, designed by Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, Private Collection, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
Chair, designed by Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, made by William Wheeler, Private Collection,
Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
Letter to Robin Dods, sketch of cot, Photo: © University of Edinburgh
Cot (c.1904), designed by Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, carved by William and Alexander Clow, made by
Whytock & Reid, Photo: Private Collection
Settle, designed by Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer for Robert MacKenzie at Earlshall Castle, Private Collection,
Photo: © Alistair Drennan
Robert Lorimer sought stained glass which “sings and sparkles and vibrates with pure and gleaming colour.” The empty windows of Earlshall were filled with the young Robert’s designs. His choice of Psalm 133 “Behold, how good a thing it is, and how becoming well, Together such as brethren are in unity to dwell!” anticipated his circle of stained glass artists who came together to create the stunning stained glass of the Thistle Chapel and the Scottish National War Memorial.
Louis Davis, who met Robert in 1896 and often stayed at Kellie, worked with him on commissions for eighteen years, including Ardkinglas. Karl Parsons was introduced to Lorimer by Davis and first worked with him on the upper windows of the Thistle Chapel. The loveliness and simplicity of their angels, Davis at St Colmon’s Church and Parsons at the Thistle Chapel, embody Lorimer’s words for his article Country Life on Stained Glass (1915); they “hold the spectator spellbound.”
The Scottish committee of the Thistle Chapel allowed Davis, the only artist not living in Scotland, to do the main windows but chose Aberdonian Douglas Strachan to do the central panel of Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. Strachan and Lorimer became great friends and together discussed and built up the details of the Scottish National War Memorial, for which Strachan designed fifteen glorious windows.
Stained Glass Window (1894), Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, Earlshall Castle, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
Cathart Family Crest (c.1906), Louis Davis, Ardkinglas House, Photo: © Ardkinglas House
Detail of 'The Nativity' Stained Glass Window (1908), Louis Davis, St Colmon Parish Church Photo: © St Colmon Parish Church
Transcept Stained Glass Window (1911), Karl Parsons, Thistle Chapel, Photo: © Saul Gardiner
St Andrew Stained Glass Window (1911), Douglas Strachan, Thistle Chapel, Photo: © David Allan
Stained Glass Window (1927), Douglas Strachan, Scottish National War Memorial,
Photo: © Antonia Reeve
The pencils of the brothers and the needles of the sisters wove the furnishings at Kellie Castle. Robert’s window design for Earlshall became an embroidery, worked by his sister Hannah, known as Lorrie. John, who also designed furnishings, painted his older sister working at her embroidery which his mother described as “a charming one of Lorrie by lamplight in her black satin and pretty gold necklace embroidering the great crimson silk bedcover of yr bed at Bruntsfield” in a letter to her daughter Alice. John wrote that “In the Vine Room, [Robert] designed the fine bed hangings, bed-spread, and window curtains which were worked by our sister Miss Louise Lorimer and the Postmistress.” The bed-hanging depicts the Lorimer family motto: Upward Onward.
Robert continued to design furnishings and to value the skills of embroidery. He criticised the Summer Weaving School, set up by Robert MacKenize who commissioned the restoration of Earlshall, for promoting the idea that skilled craftsmanship could be obtained in a few weeks when it took years to refine and perfect such techniques and traditions.
Hannah Lorimer Embroidering a Tapestry (1885), John Henry Lorimer, Kellie Castle, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
Embroidery (1894), Hannah Lorimer, Kellie Castle, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
Bed-hanging, designed by Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, worked by Louise Lorimer, Private Collection,
Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer
The Vine Room with bed-hanging, designed by Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, worked by Louise Lorimer, Private Collection, Photo: © Charlotte Lorimer