Harry Hems was a world-renowned architectural and ecclesiastical master sculptor and wood carver who ran his thriving business from a workshop on Longbrook Street and was a larger-than-life character in the parish of St Sidwell’s.
Carver not Cutler
Born in London in 1842, the son of an ironmonger and cutler, he began his working life as a cutler. It evidently wasn’t the career he had in mind so he served an apprenticeship to a wood-carver in Sheffield, before seeking inspiration in Italy. After his travels ended badly (he was arrested as a spy) he returned to England penniless and found work at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter in 1868. He clearly felt at home in Exeter, staying for the rest of his life and founding his company, The Ecclesiastical Art Works, here.
The Lucky Horseshoe Studio
As his company flourished, he outgrew his original workshop and commissioned a large new building from architect Robert Medley Fulford in 1883. Sited in Longbrook Street, he called it ‘Ye Luckie Horseshoe Studio’. The premises included a showroom and offices as well as a large open plan workshop built to maximise the light. The showroom is now a restaurant named ‘Harry’s’ and still has the original frontage, including his lucky horseshoe which he found on his way from Exeter railway station and took to be a good omen. Hems and his large family (he had eight children) lived next door to the workshop at 82 Longbrook Street.
A Big Personality
Hems was a memorable, flamboyant character. He was extroverted and reputedly bad tempered: once being arrested for fighting with one of his employees. He deemed any publicity a great marketing opportunity and was a skilled self publicist. After a run in with the tax office he organized a big auction of weird and wonderful items, including a life-sized statue of St Matthew the Taxgatherer, to raise money for the tax man.
He also kept huge scrapbooks of all the newspaper cuttings relating to his work. Hems had a social conscience and was an active philanthropist. Amongst other charitable work, he held Christmas lunches in his workshop for the elderly poor of Exeter every year.
Hems was a collector and, as a practitioner of the Gothic Revival style, he accumulated a large collection of original medieval wood carvings, which he displayed in the workshop as inspiration to his craftsmen. This nationally-important collection is now in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter .
From Friends to Rivals: Hems v Read
Hems was a workaholic with extremely high standards and expected a lot of his employees. All work had to be checked by him and long hours were standard. His motto was I Excel, and ‘IXL’ can sometimes be seen inscribed on his carvings. It’s not surprising, considering Hems’ exacting standards and the expectations he placed on his employees, that one of his managers, Herbert Read, left his company and set up in competition around the corner, founding St Sidwell’s Artworks.
Hems and St Sidwell’s
St Sidwell’s was Hems’ local church and he was active in the life of the church and parish. He became a churchwarden here in 1895. He donated two of his statues to St Sidwell’s in the 1880s which stood either side of the chancel arch. After the Blitz they lay forgotten in the garden for many years until they were rediscovered and moved back to the chapel. One statue is of St Sidwella and the other of St Boniface, sculpted out of Caen stone.
At the company’s peak, after 1895, Hems employed over a hundred craftsmen, and also had staff in London, Oxford and Ireland. Hems was commissioned to produce work for many churches and several cathedrals across England, and in America and Australia. His work won medals at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, and was exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1878. He also won prizes at the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and the Antwerp Exhibition in 1894. His award- winning rood screen took honours at The Great Exhibition in Chicago in 1893 and Hems expressed a wish that the screen be placed in the chancel of St Sidwell’s Church. However, this never happened.
After Harry died on the 5 January 1916 and was laid to rest at Higher Cemetery, Exeter, the business was carried on by two of his sons. The firm continued until 1938.