Harry Hems was a master stone sculptor and wood worker who came to Exeter from London to work on the museum building in 1868. On arriving in Exeter he found a ‘lucky horsehoe’ in the street, and kept it as an omen of good luck. He soon developed a thriving business in the city and established a workshop in Longbrook Street. At its peak his firm employed over 100 craftsmen. His workshop still survives in Exeter as Harry’s restaurant, and features his ‘lucky horsehoe’ still hanging over the front door.
Much of Hems’ daily work was to restore medieval churches, and his restoration and replica work can be seen in numerous buildings in Exeter and throughout the country. Through this work he salvaged many pieces of medieval woodwork. He displayed these items in his workshop as inspiration for his craftsmen, as examples of decoration, style and technique.
The Harry Hems collection
Following his death many of his personal belongings were sold. With the assistance of the National Art Collection Fund, this museum purchased over 480 items from his medieval woodwork collection. The collection includes numerous roof bosses, angels and bench ends, fragments of church screens and font covers, chest panels, a misericord and even a door. Unfortunately no records survive to show where each piece was acquired from, yet it remains one of the largest and most important collections of medieval woodwork held in a museum in Britain.
Explore the Hems collection online
There are lots of ways you can learn more about Harry Hems and his collection online:
- We have a selection from our Hems collections on our South West Collections Explorer website. Why not have a look and leave a comment?
- You can watch a video interview with Alun and Lisa Sands at the Harry Hems Centre
- Learn how to read a church and look for Harry’s handiwork amongst the carvings with Church Detective
- Harry Hems worked on many commissions in Exeter. The Harry Hems trail guides you around a selection of his surviving works. The trail is optimised for tablets and smart phones.
- In the video Tom Cadbury describes RAMM’s Hems collection