Francis Alfred Skidmore was born in Birmingham in 1817, the son of a jeweller. His family moved to Coventry in 1822 and Francis learned metal working during a seven year apprenticeship.
In 1845, father and son registered as silversmiths under the name F. Skidmore and son. Their early work as silversmiths consisted primarily of church plate. The earliest known examples of Skidmore’s work includes three silver chalices made for St John the Baptist Church, Coventry (1845), St Giles’ Church, Exhall (1845) and St Alkmund’s Church, Derby (1846).
Skidmore exhibited Church plate at the Great Exhibition of 1851, including a silver gilt and enamelled chalice which is now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
With the recognition received from the Great Exhibition Skidmore expanded his business to include other Church fittings, including items in iron, brass and wood.
In 1851, he also received a commission to produce gas lighting in St Michael’s Church, Coventry. Skidmore’s firm also installed gas lighting in St Mary’s Guildhall and Holy Trinity Church. At Holy Trinity Church, some of his ironwork, wooden pews and gas lamp standards are still in situ.
It was also in the 1850s that Skidmore met Sir George Gilbert Scott, a prominent architect, designer and proponent of Gothic Revival. Although Skidmore produced works for a variety of people, it was his long lasting, working relationship with Scott which resulted in several notable commissions. Skidmore worked with Scott on the Lichfield, Hereford and Salisbury cathedral screens and the Albert Memorial in London. It is said that Scott refused to use anyone other than Skidmore when he wanted decorative metalwork.
The Hereford Screen, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, was made by Skidmore in 1862. Before installation at Hereford Cathedral the screen was shown at the International Exhibition of 1862 where it was hailed as a “masterpiece.”
In 1967 the screen was dismantled and removed from Hereford Cathedral. The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum bought this magnificent monument, saving it from possible destruction.
Paul Maddocks, our Chairman recalls “When I worked in the design office in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum there in the corner of the room was an “Angel with a harp”. It stood about a metre high. It had come from the ‘Hereford screen’. The great choir screen made for Hereford Cathedral and one of the monuments of high Victorian art and a masterpiece in the Gothic Revival style. The Museum had bought it in the 1960’s and it had been in many wooden crates in the Museum industrial store in Falkland Close in Till Hill.
“We In the design office had taken the ”Angel’ out of its crate. It was a lucky dip and we had chosen one of the smallest crates to have a look inside to get an impression of what it looked like and to see what condition it was in. We were thinking about where the screen could be put on display.
“In 1980 the Transport Museum opened and the industrial store was emptied of all the transport items, which left only a few other items such as sewing machines, telephones, radios and a few aero engines plus the wooden crates with the Hereford Screen in. The store had to close to save money. The aero engines went to different museums the other things went to the Whitefriars Monastery store and the Hereford Screen was given to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1983. It has now been restored at a price of about £800,000 and takes pride of place in the V&A.”
During his lifetime, Francis Skidmore created works for 24 cathedrals, over 300 parish churches, 15 colleges and a number of public buildings. The project closest to his heart, the pulpit in St. Michael’s Church, the old Cathedral, was destroyed in the Blitz in November 1940.
Skidmore was always revered in Coventry because at the time of the weaving crash in about 1860 he deliberately employed weavers in his art metal company.
However his consummate skill was also his undoing, as his quest for perfection led him to throw away thousands of pounds worth of work he considered sub-standard. His lack of business acumen also contributed to his business failure.
Near the end of his life, Skidmore’s eyesight began to deteriorate and he was disabled after being hit by a carriage in London. Returning to Coventry, and unable to work, Skidmore was forced to rely wholly on his freeman’s pension to support his family. In 1894 the Mayor of Coventry Sir Henry Acland, and several local clergy and gentlemen, formed themselves into a committee to assist Skidmore in his ‘declining years’. Enough money was put together to ensure that, along with the weekly sum he received under the freemen’s pension scheme, he was able to sustain himself and his family, albeit in severely reduced circumstances.
Skidmore died on 13 November 1896 and was buried in London Road Cemetery, near to the Anglican Chapel. His grave is today in a rather sorry condition. In 2000, a memorial plaque was installed at the site of Skidmore’s Alma Street factory in Hillfields.
Francis Skidmore was the greatest craftsman in art metal of his age and we should perhaps do more to keep his name alive in Coventry.