Ambrose Heal at Home: a glimpse into the private collection of the famed furniture designer

Words: Cross Nelson

Sir Ambrose Heal is a name that is very much associated with London, especially since Heal and Son has been at the same address on Tottenham Court Road since 1818. However, when he was not in London Heal could be found in the Buckinghamshire countryside at his home, Baylins Farm. A world apart from the bustle of Tottenham Court Road, Baylins Farm is a 15th-century farmhouse that was converted by Heal into an Arts and Crafts style haven in 1919. It is tempting to imagine what the private space of a furniture designer might look like, and what sort of objects he might surround himself with, and thankfully, the house has been almost perfectly preserved to give us a look into the private collection of Ambrose Heal. Today, the house is still lived in by Heal’s grandson, Oliver Heal, but it is not open to the public, so these photos provide a window into the collection of furniture and art that makes Baylins Farm such a remarkable home.

Baylins Farm

View of the front of Baylins Farm, with the inlaid brick ‘H’ for Heal

Heal bought Baylins Farm in 1919 with his wife, Edith, and together the couple made the renovation of the house a collaborative project. To mark their ownership of the home in a truly medieval way, their initials ‘A’ and ‘E’ can be found cast on the front rainwater hoppers on the exterior, and an ‘H’ was inlaid into the bricks next to them, as seen in the photo above. Not only was the project a collaboration between the two of them, but also a collaboration with other contemporary craftsmen and artists all working in the Arts and Crafts style. Heal was a follower of the Arts and Crafts movement, which was rooted in the return to the handicrafts of the medieval age as a reaction against the advanced industrialisation replacing human made art with machine made art. Considering how influential the Arts and Crafts philosophy was to the design of Heal’s furniture, it is no surprise that he wanted to live in a space which exemplified that very philosophy. By renovating a medieval farm house into his home, he was quite literally reviving the medieval period to exist in the 20th century. Baylins Farm dates from 1450, with an addition of a first floor in 1563, and when the house was renovated, the architects were able to preserve the original timber frames. One of the most Arts and Crafts features of the home are the 1563 timber beams on the parlour ceiling, which were painted with multi-colored, gilded designs by the artist MacDonald Gill in 1920. Hand painted ceilings were a traditional medieval practice, yet this was a very avant-garde choice on Heal’s behalf since painted ceilings were by no means a 20th-century fashion. Fortunately, the ceiling still remains in the same manner today, timeless over a century later.


View of the parlour with the 1920 painted ceiling by MacDonald Gill

Just below the ceiling is another one of Heal’s creative embellishments to the room, a fireplace decorated with painted tiles showing the signs of the zodiac and the four winds surrounding the sun. These tiles were painted by Minnie McLeish, who designed textiles for Heal and Son, and so they represent yet another important collaboration between Heal and contemporary artists of the time. The collaboration on these tiles goes even further since Heal actually corresponded with the Directors of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Kew Observatory, and the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich, to ensure they were executed accurately. It is this acute attention to detail that made Heal and his designs so successful.

Detail of the astrological fireplace tiles designed by Minnie McLeish

Next to the parlour is the dining room, furnished with a dining table and chairs, both designed by Heal himself. What is especially remarkable about Heal using his own furniture in the home, is that models of these pieces were also sold at Heal and Son on Tottenham Court Road. His mission was to create well designed furniture that was available to everyone, and the fact that he furnished his own home with this furniture guarantees how much he believed in his products. Another important layer to the history of this dining set is that Heal showed both of these products at the Arts and Craft Exhibition, the table in 1912 and the chairs in 1916. By displaying these pieces at a design trade show like the Arts and Crafts Exhibition demonstrates that Heal not only saw his furniture as commercial products, but also as thoughtfully designed pieces of art.

Dining room

The chestnut dining table and chairs designed by Ambrose Heal

Standing just across from the dining table is another exceptional piece of Arts and Crafts furniture that was a collaborative project between Heal and the furniture maker Sidney Barnsley. Barnsley was one of the leading furniture makers of the Cotswold School, a group of craftsmen who produced handmade furniture using traditional vernacular techniques and local woods of the Cotswold district. Their similar Arts and Crafts approach to furniture design lent itself well to a collaboration, and in 1923, Heal commissioned Barnsley to make him a sideboard for the dining room at Baylins Farm. The commission was an interesting one, because rather than Barnsley designing the sideboard on his own, a series of letters between the two craftsmen reveals that they sent drawings back and forth until they arrived at a final design together. In the end, Barnsley sent the sideboard to Baylins Farm, and so the project was completed without the two craftsmen ever meeting. Like the dining set and the timber beams, the sideboard is also still used by the family to this day, exactly a century later.


Oak sideboard designed collaboratively by Ambrose Heal and Sidney Barnsley

While there are numerous other pieces of furniture to discuss, the final piece that will be mentioned is one of the most mysterious objects in Heal’s collection. In the living room, underneath the painted ceiling sits an equally colourful, painted wooden chest. While there is no documentation by Heal of how he obtained this chest, a clue to where it comes from is painted on the lid. On top of the chest is painted, ‘Paris’ and ‘1900’, indicating that it came from the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. Heal and Son had their own booth at the Paris Exposition, and so it is most likely that Heal brought this chest back with him from Paris after the exposition closed. Labels inside the chest written in Swedish reveal that it was made by Gustaf Flinta, a furniture maker from Hedemora, Sweden, who displayed this piece in the Swedish Pavilion at the exposition. It is unclear how or why Heal selected this chest to bring back to England, or if he even met Gustaf Flinta, but it is known that he was an admirer of Swedish design. Only a year earlier, Heal received one of the first commissions of his career to design furniture for the Standard Hotel in Norrköping, Sweden, and this sparked his lifelong admiration for Swedish design. Even at Baylins Farm the chest is not the only Swedish object, and there is a cylindrical Swedish tile stove that Heal had imported from Uppsala in what was originally the children’s playroom. So, it may be assumed that he wanted this chest as both a souvenir of the Paris Exposition and a symbol of his love for Swedish decorative arts. Regardless of the reason, the chest and the Swedish stove add an international layer to his collection, expressing the idea that he wanted to synthesise both domestic and foreign objects that were all united by their Arts and Crafts qualities.


Lid of the Swedish painted chest by Gustaf Flinta

From the ceiling, to the dining room, to the chest, these are just some examples of the many important works that decorate Baylins Farm. Each object seems in dialogue with the other, creating a feeling of thoughtful interior design, but more importantly, thoughtful collecting. The entire house feels distinctively Heal, in that it is an extension of the principles of Heal’s business model to blend modernity with tradition, united by the timelessness of high quality craftsmanship. It is a rarity that such a well preserved Arts and Crafts interior still exists today, and the fact that Heal’s own family still lives in the home over a century later shows that he was not only designing for his generation, but for the future.

Swedish tiled stove by E.G. Aspland imported from Uppsala, Sweden (image: Jo Baldwin)

*For further reading on Ambrose Heal and the history of Heal and Son, please refer to Oliver Heal’s book, Sir Ambrose Heal and the Heal Cabinet Factory 1897-1939. For further reading on Heal’s designs for the Standard Hotel in Sweden, please refer to Oliver Heal’s article in the 2004 Furniture History Society Journal, ‘Ambrose Heal in Sweden, 1899.’

All images are taken by the author or Oliver Heal except where noted.