Beautiful beasts: Philip Webb and the making of The Forest tapestry

The Lion drawing by Philip Webb

At Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton are four remarkable drawings of animals by Philip Webb, Arts and Crafts architect and leading member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle.

As curator Jane Gallagher recounts, these four studies not only exemplify Webb's skill as a draughtsman and naturalist observer; they help tell the story of his important and lifelong partnership with Arts and Crafts collaborator, William Morris.

Architect, draughtsman, naturalist

As an architect, Philip Webb (1831-1915) is chiefly known for his unpretentious and vernacular-inspired buildings. He advocated the use of local materials and traditional building methods, and was strongly rooted in the principle that form should follow function.

But Webb was also a talented draughtsman. From an early age he made drawings from nature, studying in Oxfordshire with a local botanical artist. As a boy he owned a copy of The History of British Birds by Thomas Bewick, and Bewick's influence as an illustrator and naturalist is evident throughout Webb's artistic output. Indeed, images of flowers, animals and birds in particular feature prominently in Webb's oeuvre, which includes decorative tiles, textiles, stained glass and wallpaper. 

Webb and William Morris: kindred spirits

Early in his career, Webb worked as chief assistant at the Oxford architectural practice of George Edmund Street. It was there that he first met a young William Morris (1834-1896) who joined the practice as an apprentice. Webb and Morris were kindred spirits; both were  passionate not only about architecture but about the beauty of the English countryside. They quickly became friends and years of artistic collaboration ensued.Their creative partnership took many forms, and ultimately encouraged the founding of Morris & Co., the furnishing and decorative arts firm.

" [They] had a religious love for England ... [an] affection and even worship for the very earth, trees, fields, animals, ploughs, wagons and buildings."
- W. R. Lethaby (1857-1931) recalling the shared passions of Philip Webb and William Morris

The Forest tapestry

Amongst the enormous output of wallpapers, textiles and other items produced by Morris & Co. was a tapestry known as The Forest. Woven at Merton Abbey in 1887, The Forest is reminiscent of medieval tapestries, with its filigree patterning and rich detail. It depicts five animals (peacock, hare, lion, fox and raven) set against a narrow plane of swirling acanthus leaves and a foreground of native flowers.

Text runs in two separate embroidered bands across the top of the tapestry, reading ‘The beasts that be in woodland waste, now sit and see nor ride nor haste’. The verse was later published under the title 'The Lion' in a volume of poetry by Morris.

'The Forest', tapestry woven wool and silk on a cotton warp, designed by William Morris, Philip Webb and John Henry Dearle, woven at Merton Abbey by William Knight, John Martin and William Sleath, 1887.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Forest Tapestry

The acanthus pattern was probably designed by Morris, but the animals are most certainly the work of Webb. We know this because in 1886 Webb produced a series of highly naturalistic drawings, in pencil and watercolour, of each animal depicted in the tapestry.

The animal drawings

Webb's drawings are accurately observed expressions of his lifelong affinity for the natural world. In addition to the masterful rendering of animal form, the drawings demonstrate great familiarity with native flora. 'The Hare' includes accurate depictions of wild tulip, daisy and corn chamomile, while 'The Fox' contains carefully renderings of hawkbit, Oxford ragwort and Japanese anemone. Everything is drawn with precision as advocated by the art critic John Ruskin and the early Pre-Raphaelites.

Webb’s gentle humour is also evident in the details which appear in the drawings. 'The Fox' includes a sketch of the same animal running away with a goose in its mouth—the traditional fare for Michaelmas Day, the date on the drawing itself. 'The Hare' also contains smaller images of the same creature, clearly observed from nature.

These highly finished drawings, which also incorporate Morris's distinctive acanthus leaf pattern, were interpreted by the firm’s senior weavers William Knight, John Martin and William Sleath in the manufacture of the tapestry. Traces of pencil grid lines are still visible, showing how the drawings were scaled up by the craftsmen to create the finished work.

Whilst the tapestry found a buyer relatively quickly (it was purchased by Aleco Ionides before eventually being sold to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1926), the drawings appear to have been retained by Morris & Co. until they were sold to Laurence William Hodson (1864-1933), a Wolverhampton based brewery owner for £100 in 1900.

From the Hodson collection to Wightwick Manor - the Wolverhampton connection

During the 1890s, Hodson had been an important patron of Morris & Co. He had appointed the firm to refurbish Compton Hall, his family estate on the western outskirts of Wolverhampton. In 1906 Hodson got into financial difficulties, and Compton Hall, as well as part of his collection, was sold at Christie’s. However the drawings remained in Hodson’s collection, passing to his family after his death.

In 2013 the drawings were offered for sale by the Hodson family. With the generous support of the Art Fund, the Victoria & Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund, the Monument Trust, the Mander Trust and contributions from many other donors, the works were purchased by the National Trust for Wightwick Manor.

To this day we honour our partnership with Sir Geoffrey Mander, acquiring items which reflect the Manders’ interest in William Morris, his associates and the Pre-Raphaelites. The significance of the acquisition of Webb's drawings in 2013 was due not only to their close association with Wolverhampton, which Sir Geoffrey and Lady Mander would have found highly significant for Wightwick, but also because of their very high quality and beauty.

Video

The installation of The Forest tapestry at Wightwick Manor

Watch the timelapse video to follow the installation process.