In commissioning Marcel Breuer to work for him, Crofton Gane was making a radical departure from the traditions of his company P.E. Gane’s 100-year history.
For over a century, the Gane firm was at the heart of Bristol’s retail landscape. The business could trace its roots to the early years of the nineteenth century as C and W Trapnell and Co. By 1851 it had established a solid reputation supplying well-made domestic furniture to the city’s affluent classes and was sufficiently successful to be represented at that year’s Great Exhibition. In 1880, Caleb Trapnell took on Philip Endres Gane as a partner, becoming Trapnell and Gane Ltd and finally in 1903, P. E. Gane Ltd.
Philip Endres Gane (1848-1933) was described as the businessman balancing Trapnell as the designer. He was a Wesleyan and closely involved in Community affairs in Bristol serving as a councillor, on the fire brigade committee and on the Bristol University College Council. He is commemorated today by a houseboat moored in the City Docks at Mud Dock on The Grove. The Endres Gane was launched in 1936 as the fire float for Avonmouth Docks (sister to Pyronaut now part of the M-Shed museum’s fleet) and named in his memory as Chairman of the Fire Brigade Committee.
By the early 1900s P. E. Gane Ltd was producing furniture in a range of historicist and contemporary designs from Jacobean through to Neo-Classical, Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts at its two factories and retailed primarily through its three shops in Bristol, Cardiff and Newport. It was in the 1930s though under managing director Crofton Gane that it was to see its most significant achievements.
The business continued to go from strength to strength until 1940 when enemy action destroyed its factories and flagship Bristol showroom. Unable to recapture its pre-war dynamism and with more competition, the company closed in 1954.
Crofton Gane (1878-1967) was a pioneer of Modernism in Britain. Born in 1878, he had joined the family firm in 1896. A lifelong Quaker, after serving in the Friend’s Ambulance Service during the war, he became a founder member of the Bristol branch of the recently formed Design and Industries Association. The DIA was an influential organisation which was championing the ideals of the emergent Modern Movement.
The DIA organized trips to Europe and with them Crofton visited the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, an experience that he found inspirational. He ‘saw at once that a new and vital idea was expressing itself in furniture, decoration and colour, and he felt the unmistakable call to introduce it to his own city and the West Country.’ (W.H. 1954, A Swan Sings. The House of Gane: 1824 to 1954. Bristol, Crofton E Gane)
In 1927 Crofton persuaded his father Philip Endres Gane to allow him to put on a small exhibition of contemporary furniture in their Bristol showrooms. Despite Philip suggesting that such stock would bankrupt them, Crofton was building in confidence. Philip died in 1933 and Crofton became managing director. Under his leadership the business was gradually transformed into a showcase of Modernism.
Through his involvement with the DIA, Crofton was part of the network of people who were on hand when Walter Gropius and the other émigré designers and architects from the Bauhaus arrived in Britain. The group had helped Gropius leave Germany for London in 1934 and Marcel Breuer arrived in England the following year. Within months Gane had commissioned furniture, interiors and a display pavilion from Breuer for his company at the 1936 Royal Agricultural Show in Ashton Court just outside Bristol. After Breuer left for the USA, Gane continued his mission seeking out new partnerships with the architect Wells Coates and furniture designer and manufacturer Gordon Russell. The blitz brought everything to an abrupt stop in 1940.
Crofton Gane followed in his father’s footsteps when it came to serving the community. When his furniture business finally closed, Crofton Gane took £100 and set up the Gane Trust in 1954. Still fully active, its aims are to support art, craft, design and social care primarily in the South West and South Wales, where Crofton had his businesses. The idea came from his passion for the visual arts and their potential for enhancing people’s lives, a Bauhaus philosophy which as a Quaker he found highly sympathetic.
Thanks to Chris Fewtrell (https://bristolcitydocks.co.uk) and Andy King (Senior Curator – Social, Industrial & Maritime History and Working Exhibits Bristol Culture, M Shed Museum) for additional information on the fire-float Endres Gane.