HEAL, Sir Ambrose (1872-1959)
Plaque erected in 2013 by English Heritage at The Fives Court, Moss Lane, Pinner, HA5 3AG, London Borough of Harrow
Furniture Designer and Retailer
Applied Arts, Commerce and Business
Sir AMBROSE HEAL 1872-1959 Furniture Designer and Retailer lived here
The furniture designer Sir Ambrose Heal was a pioneer of modern design, introducing the use of simple, practical lines in furniture and making quality craftsmanship accessible to the middle classes. On his death in 1959, Heal was described by The Times as “one of the great artists and craftsmen of his time.”
Sir Ambrose Heal, the great-grandson of John Harris Heal who founded the family’s furniture business "Heal’s", was born in Crouch End in 1872. He entered the family business as a designer in 1893, after having attended classes at the Slade School of Art and being apprenticed to a cabinet-maker in Warwick.
Heal used his position to make his designs a reality and was soon producing simple, practical, wooden furniture for the shop. They were met by less-than-enthusiastic responses from the sales staff, who apparently dubbed them ‘prison furnishings’, as they were used to selling more elaborate pieces. This did not stand in the way of Heal’s success however: he began exhibiting his work and won a silver medal at the 1900 Paris Exhibition for a bedroom suite. Gleeson White, editor of the Studio magazine, remarked on the beauty of his furniture in ‘A note on simplicity of design of furniture for bedrooms,’ an essay he wrote on Heal’s design principles.
By 1913, when Heal succeeded his father as Chairman of the family business, ‘Heal pieces’ had gained popularity among collectors. Over the next forty years, he widened the scoped and reputation of the firm, which had previously dealt predominantly in beds and mattresses. In 1916 Heal opened a new shop in Tottenham Court Road – which had been designed by his cousin, the architect Cecil Brewer – and was able to offer more departments, including an art gallery which sold works by artists such as Picasso and Modigliani. The style of furniture initially reflected Heal’s own preference for Arts and Crafts went on to embrace Art Deco and Modernist designs. The ideals of what he wanted to provide were encapsulated in the name for the 1934 range - ‘Better Furniture for Better Times’. He was knighted in 1933 and being appointed a royal designer for industry in 1939.
Heal championed the values of the Arts and Crafts movement and in 1915 helped to found the Design and Industries Association (DIA) in 1915, which aimed to encourage greater design values within industrial production. He devoted his spare time to collecting furniture and trademen’s cards and published several scholarly works, such as The London Furniture Makers from the Restoration to the Victorian Era, 1660-1840 (1953). Heal died in Buckinghamshire in 1959, having retired as Chairman of the family firm six years earlier. Twice married, he was father to five children.
Heal's blue plaque is installed at the Grade II listed Fives Court in Pinner. It was while living here that that Heal began to put his stamp on the family firm. The house was designed by his cousin, Cecil Brewer, and built in 1900-01 on a plot of land opposite his father’s house. Unsurprisingly, at a time when he was becoming more assertive in his tastes and expanding the range of goods sold in the shop, The Fives Court reflected Heal’s architectural and aesthetic preferences and the white wood-panelled interiors in the house provided the ideal setting for his collection of furniture. The interesting name came from his love of the game of Fives and the fact that a court was incorporated into the building. He moved to Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire in 1917, but kept a flat in central London, within five minutes of the shop in Tottenham Court Road.
The plaque was unveiled on 27 February 2013 at 2.30pm by Sir Ambrose’s grandson, Oliver Heal. The date marked 120 years exactly since Heal joined the family firm.
Oliver Heal said:
It is so appropriate my grandfather should be commemorated at The Fives Court with a blue plaque; the time he was living there, before the First World War, was the most crucial period of his life. Not only did he complete his most significant work during these years but it was also when the most important landmarks in his personal life took place. One hundred years after he became chairman of the Heal’s business it’s wonderful that our generation can salute his memory through this plaque.
Dr Susan Skedd, Blue Plaques Historian, said:
Heal was a visionary retailer, who pioneered modern design in every aspect of the business, from the typography used in advertisements to the architecture of the new shop premises in Tottenham Court Road. During his lifetime, Heal did a great deal to bring good design to the middle class household, and his name has, of course, been kept alive through the continuing success of the family shop.