Philip Webb: Pioneer of Arts & Crafts Architecture by Sheila Kirk, published by Wiley-Academy

There has not been a full-length biography of Philip Webb for 70 years, since William Lethaby’s Philip Webb and his Work in 1935, but the omission has now been handsomely remedied by Dr Sheila Kirk, “a freelance architectural historian” as she describes herself who has been researching Webb’s life and work for 25 years. The result is a magnificent book of 336 pages, in which she acknowledges her debt to John Brandon-Jones, author of many works on Webb and other Arts & Crafts architects, who commented helpfully on her PhD thesis in 1990.

The book, published to coincide with the International Arts & Crafts exhibition recently at the V & A, includes many splendid new colour photographs specially taken by Martin Charles, who was the photographer for the monographs on Lutyens’s Goddards and Lethaby’s Melsetter House, published together with Philip Webb’s Red House in one volume by Phaidon in 1999.

Philip Webb (1831-1915) was an architect ahead of his time. Though the Red House at Bexleyheath, Kent, looks slightly quaint and vernacular now, it was startlingly different from the Victorian Gothic of its day when it was built in 1859-60, just as his highly influential Kensington townhouse and studio at I Palace Green for the Hon. George Howard (later the 9th Earl of Carlisle) ushered in the Queen Anne Revival even though it was being built by Webb in 1868 -70 when Lutyens was born.

In her book, Dr. Kirk says Webb’s ideas were developed further by some of his followers, notably Lutyens and Jekyll, “who admired Webb’s work greatly and knew some of it well.” They certainly did. At the time of Webb’s death, Lutyens wrote in Country Life on May 8, 1915: “The freshness and originality which Webb maintained in all his work, I, in my ignorance, attributed to youth. I did not recognise it then to be the internal youth of genius, though it was conjoined with another attribute of genius — thoroughness.” They were, of course, traits that Lutyens and others recognised in his own work.

What is sad is how few of Webb’s works remain in anything like their original state, apart from the Red House. Dr. Kirk catalogues 91 works, not all of which were built, but 12 were completely demolished and many others were comprehensively altered, with most or all of Webb’s fittings removed, as at 1 Palace Green, where the Crown Estate not only removed everything when the building was converted into flats in 1957 but also inserted some new windows.

Fortunately, the Red House and Standen, the country house near East Grinstead he built in 1892-94 for landowner and solicitor James S Beale, are now properties of the National Trust. Sheila Kirk notes that the entrance hall and main staircase at Standen are very like the ones Lutyens designed almost a decade later at Marsh Court. Webb’s largest house, Clouds, built in 1881-86 at East Knoyle, Wiltshire, for the Hon. Percy Wyndham, younger son of the 1st Lord Leconfield of Petworth, and a favourite meeting-place of the Souls, was partly demolished and heavily altered in 1937 after it had been sold. Today it is an alcohol and drug dependency treatment centre.

Another important Webb house, Joldwynds at Holmbury St. Mary, Surrey, built in 1872 -74 for William Bowman, was demolished in 1930. It is of some comfort that its replacement designed in the International Modern style by Oliver Hill, was built in 1930- 33 for Wilfred Greene (later Lord Greene) and is now listed Grade II by English Heritage (who say the client was Wilfred Grove). In this absorbing book, members of the Lutyens Trust will find much to enjoy, especially the Arts & Crafts interiors of houses such as Exning House at Newmarket, Forthampton Court near Tewkesbury and Great Tangley Manor near Guildford, which must have been known to Lutyens.

Michael Hanson

This review reproduced by kind permission of The Lutyens Trust.