The wonderful Webbs of Wightwick

The Lion drawing by Philip Webb

In 2013 Wightwick acquired 4 drawings by Philip Webb for display, bringing them back to Wolverhampton for display. Find out what was so special about these 4 pictures and why Wightwick was their perfect home.

A lifelong friendship

When William Morris entered the architectural practice of George Edmund Street  in Oxford in 1856 at the age of 22, he little suspected that Philip Webb, Street’s chief assistant  who was assigned responsibility for his tutelage, would become both one of his most significant friends and life-long collaborators.

Webb had been born in Oxford and from a young age pursued his interest in drawing, being tutored by a Mrs Richardson, a local botanical artist. His later drawings show an aptitude for natural history, notably for birds and animals.

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

Although great friends, Morris and Webb were entirely different in temperament—Morris passionate and rebellious, Webb measured and restrained. It was not long before Morris abandoned architecture in favour of life as an artist and designer, but both men shared many of the same values, including Socialism, which was to sustain their partnership over the next forty years. Webb’s stabilising influence on Morris should not be underestimated, often bringing practical solutions to Morris’s sometimes headstrong and impulsive ideas.

The apogee of their collaboration is perhaps Red House, which was built for Morris in 1859-60. The creative energy expended on Red House and the artistic effort between friends to produce a unified interior, encouraged the founding of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861 with Webb as one of its partners.

'The Forest' Tapestry

When the company was dissolved and re-formed in Morris’s sole ownership Webb continued to work for Morris until the latter’s death in 1896. Amongst the enormous output of wallpapers, textiles and other items produced by Morris & Co. during this period was a tapestry known as ‘The Forest’, woven at Merton Abbey in 1887. The design incorporates five animals (peacock, hare, lion, fox and raven) set against a narrow plane of swirling acanthus leaves and with a foreground of native flowers, reminiscent of those found in medieval tapestries.

" The beasts that be in woodland waste, now sit and see nor ride nor haste"
- Words embroidered on the Forest Tapestry

Individual drawings of each animal were produced by Webb with great accuracy in pencil and watercolour in c.1886. 'The Fox' and 'The Hare' demonstrate Webb’s familiarity with native flora with accurate depictions of the Wild Tulip, Daisy and Corn Camomile. Webb’s gentle humour is also evident - 'The Fox' includes a sketch of a small fox running away with a goose in its mouth—the traditional fare for Michaelmas Day, the date on the drawing itself.

The tapestry was exhibited in 1890 at the London Arts & Crafts Exhibition and soon purchased by Aleco (Alexander) Ionides (1840-98), the son of a Greek textile magnate and patron of the arts. Webb had enlarged and remodelled the Ionides family home in London between 1879 and 1883; it was subsequently decorated by Morris & Co. in collaboration with Walter Crane. 'The Forest' tapestry was eventually sold to the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1926.

Whilst the tapestry found a buyer relatively quickly 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 and  a collector with a particular interest in the Kelmscott Press, for £100 in 1900.

The Hodson Connection

Between 1895 and 1896 Hodson appointed Morris & Co. to refurbish his family estate, Compton Hall, on the western outskirts of Wolverhampton. He also commissioned several important works from the company. These included three tapestries from Burne-Jones’s 'Quest for the Holy Grail' series in 1895. Morris had clearly considered him such a significant client that he named his final wallpaper design ‘Compton’ in 1896.

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 and were exhibited at the Morris Centenary Exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1934.

Philip Speakman Webb, The Hare, watercolour and pencil on paper, 1886-7 / NT 2900066.2
Close up detail of the Hare by Philip Webb
Philip Speakman Webb, The Hare, watercolour and pencil on paper, 1886-7 / NT 2900066.2

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 the National Trust honours its 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 these drawings by Philip Webb is in particular 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.

This is an extract from an article in the National Trust's ABC bulletin

ABC Bulletin Winter 2013-14 (PDF / 1.4736328125MB) download