Philip Webb at Red House
Known to have only two weaknesses, “...good tobacco and Italian Leather Boots...” Webb was the modest and unassuming member of Morris’s circle of friends. However, he was by no means any less creative, and has been referred to as “The Father of Arts and Crafts Architecture”.
Webb was one of 11 children, born to an Oxford GP. Webb harboured ambitions to become an artist, but the death of his father when Webb was only 17 made Webb chose a career in architecture instead, presumably because it seemed a more stable career path. He attained a position as a junior assistant for the Gothic Revivalist architect, G.E. Street, before moving to London in 1858 to found his own firm.
Webb and Morris
Webb met Morris, whilst working for Street in Oxford. Where Webb was quiet, considered and modest, William Morris was ebullient, gregarious and outgoing. The two were a perfect foil for one another and became close friends.
Webb and Morris shared a love of the countryside and old buildings, and in 1858 took a holiday to the south of France, where they were inspired by the medieval chateau and gothic churches of the region. When they returned, Morris gave Webb free reign to design his house in the village of Upton. It was Webb’s very first independent commission.
The project at Red House was all-encompassing, and alongside the building itself, Webb was responsible for designing furniture, tiles, stained glass, glassware and metalwork, hinting at his early ambitions to become and artist himself.
Webb was one of the founding members of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. and made a significant practical contribution to the firm. Famously, Webb drew the birds in Morris’ early wallpaper designs, such as Trellis, because Morris felt him to be the superior artist when it came to depicting birds.
As Webb and Morris matured and developed their thinking around the design and preservation of traditional craftsmanship, Webb’s architectural experience also came to bear an influence.
The Victorian era saw a flurry of ‘restorations’ to old buildings, usually of a destructive nature and with the individuality and uniqueness of the spaces replaced with an idealised vision of how the space should look.
In 1877, Webb and Morris founded The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), to promote the preservation of the building’s entire history. Today, the organisation still upholds these values and promotes the conservation of historic buildings.
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Although Webb later referred to Red House as “...work of my gothic days...” his talent was obvious and many others sought his services for similar commissions. Webb was particular about whom he accepted commissions from and had to get along with the client. This meant that the number of studio houses and country houses that he built were designed with a clear vision in mind and present a unified design aesthetic. The National Trust’s very own Standen House, was Webb’s last commission, and with its Morris & Co. designed interiors, is a harmonious design, outside and in.
This principled approach to selecting commissions though, meant that Webb spent his final years in poverty, unable to indulge his love for tobacco and Italian leather boots without help from his friends. The modest and retiring Webb had however, inspired incredible loyalty from his circle of friends, and they ensured he had a roof over his head until his death in 1915.
The combined success of Morris & Co. and the high profile of Webb’s clients led to a flourishing of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and Webb’s treatment of building materials and a distinctly British take on architecture in rejection of neoclassical designs, led to him being the inspiration for many architects at the end of the nineteenth century, when the movement flourished. Webb therefore has a good claim to the title of “Father of the Arts and Crafts Architecture”.