Webb, one of eleven children of an Oxford GP, often accompanied his father on his rounds, developing a deep love for the countryside & the city’s old buildings. He would have preferred to be an artist, but the early death of his father, when Webb was 17, made him aware ‘there was a greater need for buildings than for art’, so he chose architecture. Soon after training Webb went to work in Oxford, for Gothic Revivalist GE Street, the architect of London’s Law Courts. It was here he met Morris.
Webb was quiet and even-tempered so acted as the perfect foil to Morris’s ebullience and they quickly became firm friends. They shared a love of the English countryside and the high principles of their upbringing. Morris’s private income was to provide Webb with his first independent commission and launch his career.
Red House, Webb’s first commission
At Red House, Webb provided Morris with a blank canvas to create the Palace of Art which his enthusiasm for all things medieval demanded. ‘More a poem than a house’, declared Rossetti when he saw it for the first time. Webb did not stop when he had designed the architecture of a house, but concerned himself with every last detail. For all his commissions he designed furniture, glassware, candle-sticks, chairs, even picture-hooks and finger-plates.
A career launched by Red House
Red House was certainly very different from most gentlemen’s houses of the period and it quickly became an icon of the fledgling Arts & Craft Movement. Although Webb came to regard Red House as ‘work of my Gothic days’ it was highly influential and word of his talent quickly spread. Several more artists’ studio houses followed, together with nearly a dozen large country houses. He designed only a single church, St Martin’s at Brampton, Cumbria, its uncluttered interior a white-painted space over whose walls the light from a dozen Morris & Co stained glass windows dances in an endlessly shifting kaleidoscope.
A lasting legacy
Standen, which also belongs to the National Trust, was almost the last of Webb’s country houses. Here he built a house from a rich tapestry of different local materials in a vernacular style. As he generally did, and in Morris’s tradition, Webb also created a garden which ‘clothes the house’.
Webb, modest & self-sufficient, died poor in 1915. Though given to melancholy, he often had, as Morris’s daughter May put it ‘the look of a smile beneath the skin’. His buildings inspired a generation of architects and left us a legacy which is a lasting testament to his genius.