I had to refrain

Andrew Saint

  • Philip Webb: Pioneer of Arts and Crafts Architecture by Sheila Kirk
    Wiley-Academy, 336 pp, £29.99, February 2005, ISBN 0 470 86808 2

It was Ruskin who flung down the challenge in the last of his ‘seven lamps’. The style of architecture a nation picks to build in does not matter, he says. It can be Classic, Romanesque, Gothic, anything you like, so long as it fits the climate and the temper of the people. But once a style has been chosen, it must be stuck to. So the last of the lamps is the ‘lamp of obedience’. There follows a backwash of Ruskinian pessimism. True architecture, he pursues, buildings aglow with painting, sculpture and craft, may be impossible in an age bereft of faith and tranquillity. In which case the best that can be done is to give up on style and ‘architecture’ altogether and go for good, honest building.

The ending of The Seven Lamps of Architecture vibrates through the work of Philip Webb, as of those Arts and Crafts architects who were his disciples. Austerity and self-abnegation are its hallmarks. You cannot relish Webb’s buildings without a feeling for puritanism. His was a life shot through with refusals: he would not compete, would not publish, would not join clubs and societies, would not marry, would not take fees if his work didn’t please.

In a letter to the Beales, clients for his best-known house, Standen, Webb describes how their butler fed him in their absence, but adds that ‘I had to refrain from a lovely fruit pie and strawberries and cream set out to tempt me from the path of wisdom.’ Remarking on this, Mark Girouard has written: ‘One can’t help feeling that Webb would have been a happier man and a greater architect if he had helped himself to more strawberries and cream.’ Happier, perhaps; greater, no. When the braggadocio of Vanbrugh, Nash or Lutyens and the mannerisms of Soane and Mackintosh pall, the exacting refinement of Philip Webb’s houses continues to console, revealing him as the subtlest of England’s domestic architects and its finest artist in the puritan tradition. This study by Sheila Kirk and the equally thoughtful photographs by Martin Charles that go with it at last set out the full evidence on which this claim can rest.

Webb was 18 and embarking on an obscure apprenticeship in Reading when The Seven Lamps of Architecture came out in 1849. By the time he met Ruskin seven years later, he was a friend of William Morris and the junior Pre-Raphaelites and destined for a career bound up though never identifiable with their circle. From the beginning there is a wary sobriety about Webb, at variance with the antics and impulsiveness of Morris and Rossetti. Some of that may be due to the prosaic tasks any sound architect must master – matters of exact measurement and management in which he always took pride. But it also goes back to his upbringing, one of tranquil discipline in the large family of an Oxford doctor. As a boy he loved nature as much as art, and he came to draw animals exquisitely. It was Webb who contributed the animal figures to the early patterns and glass of the Morris firm, along with furniture, household goods and ‘table glass of extreme beauty’, according to Burne-Jones’s son-in-law, J.W. Mackail, in his life of Morris. In other words, he was always a designer as well as an architect. Yet design was a term he hated, because it consecrated the divorce between the imagining of things and their making. So long as that separation remained, Ruskin’s followers believed, genuine art was impossible.

The link with Morris came through the Gothic Revival. After his apprenticeship, Webb secured the job of chief assistant to the ‘muscular’ church-builder, G.E. Street, a designer of great fluency who in the words of Webb’s successor in the post, Norman Shaw, never let his pupils design so much as a keyhole. That was a principle which Webb came also to adopt. On graduating from Oxford, Morris briefly fancied becoming an architect and put himself under Street, who handed him on to Webb. Something of the authority vested in Webb by that arrangement persisted. On the surface Webb was the acolyte, following the richer, bouncier Morris first into his decorating firm, later into his preservation campaigns and radical socialism. Look deeper, and you notice Webb supplying Morris with bottom, sparring with and restraining his ‘amusing and childlike’ friend while getting back from him the spark he needed to kindle his own ‘melancholy temperament’. While Morris egged Webb on and supported him, he learned more from him than the other way round.

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