Benson, William Arthur Smith (18541924), metalwork designer, was born at 6 Sussex Square, Paddington, Middlesex, on 17 October 1854, the eldest in the family of four sons and two daughters of William Benson (18161887), barrister, and his wife, Elizabeth Soulsby, daughter of Thomas Smith of Colebrook Park, Tonbridge, Kent. Among his brothers were , actor, and . Educated first at Darch's Preparatory School, Brighton, Sussex, and afterwards at Winchester College, he entered New College, Oxford, in 1874. In 1876 he decided to be an architect, the following year becoming articled to Basil Champneys. By chance he became acquainted with Edward Burne-Jones and his circle, through whom he also met William Morris.
Benson remained with Champneys until 1880, but it soon became clear that architecture would never be his chief preoccupation. Instead, with memories of boyhood visits to his uncle, William Arthur Smith, a great worker with his hands (W. A. S. Benson, ix), who introduced the lad to lathes and elementary mechanics, Benson began to consider a career in handicrafts. The long and short of it is, he wrote to his mother, I must make something or be miserable (ibid., xxii). With the encouragement of Burne-Jones and Morris, and a modest financial backing from his father, he established a business to manufacture domestic articles in metal to be designed by himself and made, in part, with specially constructed tools and machinery.
Benson's first workshop opened in 1880 at North End Road, Fulham, where a few men operated foot-powered lathes for turning metal. This was eventually moved to a purpose-built factory, Eyot works, at St Peter's Square, Hammersmith. The enterprise proved so successful that Benson, now nicknamed Brass Benson, established a showroom in 1887 at 82 and 83 New Bond Street. He married on 26 October 1886 Venetia Margaret, daughter of the landscape painter, . They had no children. The firm's range, much of it in combinations of copper and brass, gradually increased to include numerous patterns of gas and electric lamp fittings, furniture decorations, and tea-kettles. The business was converted into a limited liability company named W. A. S. Benson & Co. Ltd in 1901, and was sold upon Benson's retirement in 1920.
Those who knew Benson only as a rather dreamy artist were astonished upon visiting his factory (W. A. S. Benson, xxvi). This advocate of the intelligent education of the hand and eye had after all shown himself to be a resourceful manufacturer. Success lay in the fact that his products were fashionably artistic as well as affordable. Nor did Benson let indifferent health interfere with many other projects and interests. In 1884 he became a founder member of the Art-Workers' Guild. The Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which held its inaugural exhibition in 1888, came into being through his initiative. After William Morris's death in 1896, Benson also became the first chairman of William Morris & Co. Decorators Ltd.
Benson's books, Elements of Handicraft and Design, Rudiments of Handicraft, and Drawing: its History and Uses, were published respectively in 1893, 1919, and posthumously in 1925. He died after only three days' illness on 5 July 1924 at his cottage, Castle Cottage, in Manorbier, Pembrokeshire.
John Culme, rev.
W. A. S. Benson, Drawing: its history and uses (1925) [incl. memoir of the author by W. N. Bruce] · The Times (9 July 1924) · F. Benson, My memoirs (1930) · J. C. Trewin, Benson and the Bensonians (1960) · M. Collins, introduction, in M. Whiteway and P. Reeves, W. A. S. Benson, 18541924: an exhibition of his metalwork (1981) [exhibition catalogue, Halsam and Whiteway, London, 124 Dec 1981] · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1924) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.
Wealth at death
£17,385 15s. 4d.: probate, 20 Oct 1924, CGPLA Eng. & Wales