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.

The book-ends of Webb’s career as an architect are his best-known houses, both owned now by the National Trust: Red House, built for Morris in suburban Bexleyheath in 1859-60, and the larger Standen of 1892-94, outside East Grinstead. Standen is presented today as a country house, but since it is without a landed estate it is really a commuter’s home, like Red House. The point is more than snobbish. Most of Webb’s houses – he was largely a domestic architect – were built for men like Morris and James Beale, the owner of Standen, who got their money from industry, business and the professions and had no roots in the land, however vocal their attachment to it. At the start of Webb’s career there was still hope for a revival of farming and country life. It was to be dashed by the long agricultural depression from the 1870s and the endless flight to the towns. A few clients did employ him to improve their estates and farms in the old way – he built handsomely, for instance, at Brampton in Cumberland for the aristocratic Howards. But that ran against the grain.

The question which Webb and his contemporaries faced was how in a deracinated society they could root their houses and their owners – how they could make them real. Since Elizabethan times, the yardstick of architectural excellence and reputation in England, as nowhere else in Europe, has usually been not the public building but the private house. There are episodic deviations from this norm; we are in the middle of one now. Another took place between 1840 and 1870, when every English architect ached to build churches, and Goths such as Street held sway. There was no agreed idiom for domestic architecture as there was for churches: Classicism had lost its prerogative, and English houses had been lurching along since the Regency in a fog of stylistic confusion. Reform was urgent.

Salvation seemed to lie in vernacular building materials and techniques. When in England, follow national and regional traditions; when in Scotland (Webb’s first big house was at Arisaig in the West Highlands) do the same. Webb was not original in embracing the vernacular. The idea had been around as long as Romanticism, though at first architects had been hesitant to apply it as freely to mansions as to cottages. But it only took them some way. Literal imitation was impossible, even if desirable; building technology had altered irrevocably, while household habits had become particular and luxurious. What local vernacular might be right for Bexleyheath anyway? In fact, Webb and Morris did stick a few Kentish hints into Red House, but the visitor would be hard put to spot them. Mixing new with old was unavoidable, and Webb, no reactionary, never flinched from it. The solution therefore turned on the care and artistry with which the mixture was concocted.

The years between Red House and Standen were marked by wrenching changes in national history and culture, as in the interpretation that Morris and his intimates brought to them. The architectural trend of the times, as Britain’s empire grew, was from Gothic to Classical. A subdued version of that evolution can be traced in this book, though Kirk is reluctant to admit a definite direction to Webb’s trajectory. It is most striking in interiors. Set the gawky ceilings and settles of Red House against the suavity of the Standen drawing-room, with its white-painted panelling and genteel Georgian furniture, and you witness the change in sensibility from Ruskin to Pater or from Dickens to Henry James. Yet from start to finish Webb never plumps for a clear style. Standen’s elevations are anything but Classical, and Red House is not really Gothic, though it emerges out of a line of middling-sized houses by the Goths Webb most admired – Pugin, Street and Butterfield. Most of these houses boast spreading plans, high roofs, tall chimneys and fenestration wilfully dotted around. But they also have the sash windows and matter-of-fact proportions of the plainer Georgians. The mixture might be called eclectic, except that this suggests only a selection of different elements, not their fusion into the sober intensity that is Webb’s hallmark.

The clue to that fusion is relentless concentration on the means of building. Webb’s houses are masterpieces, if the term is permissible, of specification and construction. Every material is detailed according to its nature, looks and practicability. Just as a composer must know the capacities of each instrument he writes for, so an architect should know every characteristic of each type of brick, beam, slate and so on. Should know, but seldom has done, since the division of labour tore designing apart from making. In this respect Webb is the consummate domestic orchestrator. A typical Webb drawing is a score en route to performance. Kirk reproduces, for instance, a sheet he made for a plan-chest. It’s dull at first sight because there is no vestige of showing off about it. But armed with its data, no half-decent joiner could err, or misconstrue its mastery of timber joints and profiles.

By working time after time through details of that sort and their juxtaposition, Webb hoped to fuse modes of expression and fabrication, old and new, into a modernised vernacular architecture. The result was a personal response to the plea for sound or ‘commonplace’ building which Webb alone thought possible. It was part of Webb’s quarrel with style that his answer should have no name. Kirk calls it his ‘national vernacular’ manner. Nowadays his architecture is often known as ‘Arts and Crafts’. That is to conflate successors with pioneers and to imply a sweetness that his buildings defiantly avoid. Many have an angular nobility which Norman Shaw called Webb’s ‘liking for the ugly’.

A better label, if there has to be a label, might be ‘realism’. The term has been applied to 19th-century art in manifold ways, meaning always some sort of struggle to present the truth. With Webb, reality has less to do with truthful construction in the sense in which architects define the term, though that mattered to him within limits, than with such loving respect for materials that they embody psychological and moral confidence. In this regard the difference between Webb and his friendly rival Norman Shaw is revealing. Something of an unintended fall-guy in Kirk’s book, Shaw used vernacular features in his houses for the joy of effect. A banker might get half-timbering for his entrance gable or a baronial double-height hall. It is usually fun, because Shaw, like Nash before him and Lutyens after him, was a designer of fertility and charm who liked to give clients what they wanted, but it never feels far from sham. Shaw too came to feel it so, and duly altered his style. Webb the puritan was untempted by such exuberant mendacities. He never had to change, because he traded only in reality.

It follows that Webb preferred to build only for those who understood. Domestic architecture at the highest level is an intensely personal business, best pursued by architects who respond to the challenge of friendship but are prepared to risk it for the sake of their art. Since Webb refused to publish or exhibit, he relied for his clientele on word of mouth. He was lucky in having access via the Morris circle to customers who were moneyed, progressive, cultured and on the whole exceedingly trusting. A number of the earlier ones were painters, such as Spencer Stanhope, George Howard, Val Prinsep, G.P. Boyce and G.F. Watts, for whom Webb created an unusual house on the Isle of Wight, now destroyed. Victorian painters made good money, and Webb was the main pioneer of the studio house, which involved linking small rooms with a large, north-facing space, often high up in the house. Though never unmindful of the minute conventions governing Victorian domesticity, his layouts were eccentric by the standards of the day. Kirk offers excellent plans and analyses of nearly all the houses, but shows few sectional drawings, without which the assemblage of these intricate machines for living cannot be wholly understood.

On the next level up were houses for the severely rich, like the demolished Rounton Grange for the ironmaster Lowthian Bell, and the surviving though damaged Clouds for the socialites Percy and Madeline Wyndham. Clouds, destined for house-parties, was the costliest thing Webb built and, Kirk says, ‘probably the only 19th-century house of its size in which every detail, whether inside or out, important or insignificant, was designed by one man’. Having burned down soon after completion, it was rebuilt in almost identical form.

The wonder is that Webb, independent to the verge of truculence and following Morris into revolutionary socialism as Clouds inched upwards in the early 1880s, should have had the patience to fritter his art on rich men’s playthings. Morris and Webb were acutely aware of the contradiction. It was on Lowthian Bell, as liberal and faithful a patron as they ever had, that Morris while superintending decorations at Rounton famously turned ‘like a mad animal’ and burst out about ‘ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich’. Webb was less demonstrative. He was courteous but blunt about the terms of his employment, and neither gave nor expected undue deference. The dilemma of building only for the wealthy was painful to him, but he could not escape it. Temperamentally averse to committees and institutions, he had to rely on such old-fashioned, trickle-down patronage as the philanthropy of Colonel Gillum, a one-legged Crimea veteran who got Webb to add to his farm-school for destitute boys at East Barnet and to build a row of cottages in Shoreditch, happily extant. Socialism for Webb began not with street agitation but with a job well done and respect for fellow workers. He was relieved, he confessed, when the ‘trying times of socialistic display’ came to a close after 1890. ‘As a real socialist, I have some ideas on the “Theory of Life”,’ he wrote, but ‘I do not think these “ideas” are detrimental to my considered way of mixing mortar.’

Webb’s ideal of comradeship between architect and client generated a series of friendships by correspondence that persisted long after the house in question was completed. In a golden age for this literary subgenre, his letters are treasures of mordant wit, for Webb was as exact and laconic a writer as he was a builder. One such exchange was with his fellow puritan William Hale White, alias the novelist Mark Rutherford. Hale White came to Webb on the recommendation of Ruskin after asking for someone who could build him a small suburban house that was not a ‘blotch’. To save money, Webb unusually did not supervise the details. They remained fast friends, and when the architect retired in 1900, Hale White did his best to return the compliment by offering to build him a cottage. At the end of their lives they were debating the relation between art and reason. ‘John’s Apocalypse is madman’s work I grant,’ Webb wrote,

but it is also saner than the work of a modern political economist. Blake was a very fine madman; he did not descend to earth but lifted it up to himself. The long list of madmen is a voucher for their pure sanity – St Francis, Shakespeare, Keats, Carlyle, Ruskin, Morris, Burne-Jones, Handel, Beethoven, &c, &c, were all decidedly cracked.

Webb succeeded in keeping his emotional life private, and Kirk is sensible enough not to waste words on lengthy speculation. Probably there was an attachment to Kate Faulkner, one of the women who designed and painted for Morris’s firm, but for whatever reason they decided to ‘live solitary’. Money may have come into it, while Kirk thinks also that Webb noted the pain in the Morris and Burne-Jones marriages and decided to stand aloof. There is often a streak of frigidity among architects. Work, art and friendships, mostly but not invariably male, were Webb’s tramlines; so long as he stuck to them he was safe. There were occasional lapses into despondency and illness. Foreign travel, too, was a rare and dangerous disturbance. Though he reacted vividly to the stimulus of his sole Italian trip, he admitted that he was glad to have designed Clouds before he went, because ‘if there be any part of it bearable no one will be able to say that the good of it came of my seeing Italy.’ Concentration for Webb entailed limitation. How different the art and architecture of today, leaping from one global enticement to the next.

Throughout her study, Kirk has to contend with the shade of W.R. Lethaby, Webb’s greatest disciple, and one of the few Englishmen who tried to come to true terms with the stampede towards a more ruthless architectural realism in the early 20th century. A book in the Boswellian tradition but with an elegiac quality of its own, Lethaby’s Philip Webb and His Work is eighty years old, but remains the most reflective architectural biography in the English language. Until now it has inhibited a successor. What Lethaby could not do, given the limitations of interwar publishing, was to match his insights with a full record and visual testimony to Webb’s stature. When talking about architecture is over, it must still be seen and experienced. In so far as that is possible from the armchair, Kirk and her photographer have managed it with as much love and care for detail as Webb himself would have employed. There is much that is unfamiliar in these pages, along with a few brand-new discoveries. Lethaby’s Webb will remain a classic, but from now on the two books will have to be read together to get a handle on the elusive, puritanical genius of a profoundly English architect.