Ambrose Heal

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Sir Ambrose Heal (3 September 1872, Crouch End - 15 November 15 1959, Beaconsfield) was an English furniture designer, and businessman in the first half of the 20th century.

Heal was the great-grandson of John Harris Heal, the founder of the Heals furniture manufacturing and retail business. He attended Marlborough College and the Slade School of Fine Art [1] before a two-year apprenticeship to cabinetmakers Collier and Plucknett in Warwick followed by six months working for Graham and Biddle, furnishers, of Oxford Street.

In 1893 he joined Heal & Son, working in the bedding factory, but in the mid-1890s he began designing simple, sturdy furniture, often in plain oak (in contrast to Heals' standard "Queen Anne" and "Old English" styles). Although initially his designs were not popular with sales staff, who called them "prison furniture", they found a place at exhibitions of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society and soon became so successful that prejudices were overcome. He exhibited special pieces at Arts and Crafts exhibitions for more than thirty years but more significant was his contribution to making simpler, well-designed, well-made furniture available to a broader middle-class public. Undoubtedly influenced by the teachings of Ruskin and William Morris, he was however more forward looking and embraced the use of machinery where appropriate. His simple, no frills designs, created around 1905, appealed particularly to the inhabitants of the new Garden Cities and Suburbs. He had already patented (with Hamilton Temple Smith) a unit furniture system in 1915 when he became a founding member of the Design and Industries Association, which campaigned for "Fitness for Purpose" in industrial production.

In 1913, on the death of his father, he was elected chairman of Heals, using this position to champion artistic design within furniture manufacture and marketing. In 1933, he was knighted for raising standards of design, and in 1939 was appointed a royal designer for industry.

Although Heals continued to produce beds and mattresses as its staple, Heal diversified its range to include ceramics, glass, and textiles, as well as products in Art Deco style. He established an art gallery at the Tottenham Court Road premises showing works by Picasso, Wyndham Lewis and Modigliani. Artists such as Claud Lovat Fraser designed the company's posters, and its catalogues contained essays by influential art critics. The overall effect was to promote Heals as an iconic brand.

Heal's influence over the company diminished in the mid-1930s, when one of his sons became managing director. Although considering retirement, he stayed as chairman during World War II, finally retiring in 1953.

Apart from work interests, he collected London historical ephemera, mainly from the 17th and 18th centuries, including records of tradesmen, goldsmiths, calligraphers, signboards and furniture makers.

Heal was married twice: in 1895 to Alice Rose Rippingille (d. 1901), and in 1904 to Edith Florence Digby Todhunter (d. 1946). He also had affairs in the 1920s with Prudence Maufe and Dodie Smith.

His Times obituary describes him as "one of the great artists and craftsmen of his time". The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by Alan Crawford describes this as "very wide of the mark" and accounts of his life and work as prone to hagiography, "but it showed what a powerful image he had created for his shop, and thus for himself".

An English Heritage blue plaque commemorating Heal was placed at The Fives Court on Moss Lane in Pinner, London, in 2013.[2]


  • Sir Ambrose Heal An Outstanding Craftsman, The Times, London, Nov 17, 1959.
  • Alan Crawford, "Heal, Sir Ambrose (1872–1959)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 12 Aug 2007
  1. ^ ODNB as above
  2. ^ "HEAL, SIR AMBROSE (1872-1959)". English Heritage. Retrieved 4 May 2014. 

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