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  Philip Speakman Webb (1831–1915), by Charles Fairfax Murray, 1873 Philip Speakman Webb (1831–1915), by Charles Fairfax Murray, 1873
Webb, Philip Speakman (1831–1915), architect, was born on 12 January 1831 at 1 Beaumont Street, Oxford, the second among the eleven children of Charles Webb (c.1795–1848), physician, and his wife, M. Elizabeth Speakman. His parents moved c.1834 to 15 St Giles', the former Oxford home of the dukes of Marlborough.

Education

Webb was a boarding pupil from the age of eight at Aynho Free Grammar School, Northamptonshire, where he gained a good education and developed a broad and independent outlook. Accompanying his father on his rounds, he grew to love the English countryside and the ancient buildings of Oxford. His father, the son of Thomas Webb (fl. 1804–1827), a renowned medallist of Birmingham, taught him to understand and sketch animals, and a Mrs Richardson, a skilled flower painter of Oxford, instructed him in drawing.

The death of his father when Webb was seventeen led him to abandon painting for architecture, which offered greater financial security. He became an articled pupil in 1849 of John Billing, who had a varied practice in Reading, Berkshire. He trained Webb in the Gothic and classical styles, and provided ample practical experience in and around the then unspoilt old market town. After his apprenticeship was completed, Webb worked as Billing's assistant for two years until 17 March 1854, when he joined Bidlake and Lovatt in Wolverhampton, and encountered the appalling effects on the area of heavy industries, which influenced his subsequent thinking about architecture. He returned to Oxford on 15 May 1854 to work at half the salary for the diocesan architect, George Edmund Street, who soon appointed him chief assistant. In January 1856 Webb met and became a close friend of the new pupil William Morris, whose training Street had put into Webb's charge.

Red House

In August 1856 Street moved his office to London, where Webb became a member of the circle surrounding the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of which Morris was an associate. According to another member of the brotherhood, D. G. Rossetti, Webb was very active within this circle. In August 1858 Morris, having changed his career to painting and being about to marry, asked Webb to design him a home, Red House (1859–70), which was built at Upton near Bexleyheath, Kent, and named after the colour of its bricks and tiles. Long considered revolutionary in plan and appearance, in fact it was a masterpiece in the so-called ‘parsonage’ style developed by Pugin, Street, and Butterfield for their small vicarages, cottages, and schools. What Webb was aiming at was a development of vernacular tradition, free of academic convention and based on good building and simplicity. Although he was influenced by Ruskin, comments in Webb's letters to close friends show that the influence was not nearly so wide as has been believed by some architectural historians. He endorsed Ruskin's view of art as the expression of man's pleasure in work, but regarded his contention that a building without ornament could not be architecture as a ‘fallacy’ (Lethaby, 132). There is not even a moulding on the exterior of Red House. Its L-shaped room-and-a-passage plan was adopted for many houses of the arts and crafts movement, of which it may even be regarded as the first example. The fittings and pieces of furniture by Webb, like his later ones for the Morris firm and for his own houses, became an inspiration for arts and craft designers. The prototype arts and crafts garden, designed jointly by Webb and Morris, was inspired by those depicted in medieval manuscripts. The future of the Red House was secured in 2003 when it was acquired by the National Trust.

Red House was an early studio-house, designed to accommodate Morris's artist friends during working weekends and holidays. Morris's designs for the interior included painted murals, embroidered hangings, stained glass, and furniture, though the last was chiefly by Webb. This informal co-operation between friends led to the founding on 11 April 1861 of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., through which Morris and his circle subsequently made well-designed artefacts to commission and for the market, and thereby greatly influenced the development of the arts and crafts movement. Webb, a founding partner, played a major role in the firm's success, being the architectural adviser, voluntary part-time business manager, and the designer of all the architectural fittings, most of the furniture, and many other products. In 1861, for example, for the stained-glass windows of two churches by G. F. Bodley (All Saints, Selsley, Gloucestershire, and St Martin-on-the-Hill, Scarborough), he arranged the general layout and designed several small lights and all the quarries. Webb was almost solely responsible for the decoration in 1866 of two prestigious interiors: the Armoury and the Tapestry Room of St James's Palace, London, and the Green Dining Room in the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum). His furniture designs for the firm and its successor Morris & Co. influenced many later arts and crafts pieces.

Independent practice

After designing Red House, Webb had left Street on 27 May 1859 to set up his own practice at 7 Great Ormond Street, London. He never had to seek work. Studio-houses were commissioned by his painter friends, including J. R. Spencer Stanhope (Sandroyd, Surrey, 1860–64), V. C. Prinsep (1 Holland Park Road, 1865), G. P. Boyce (West House, Glebe Place, 1869), and George Howard (1 Palace Green, 1868–74), the last three built in London. Through his membership of the Hogarth Club from January 1859 until its dissolution in December 1861 Webb received several commissions from non-painter members, including a terrace of combined dwellings, workshops, and shops, for craftsmen (91–101 Worship Street, London, 1861–3). He enjoyed a relationship of equality and mutual respect with his chiefly upper middle-class clients because, although he insisted on autonomy of design, he fulfilled all their practical needs. In the spring of 1864, he took chambers at 1 Raymond Buildings, Gray's Inn, where he spent the rest of his working life. He declined election to the Royal Institute of British Architects or the Royal Academy, believing them to be too much concerned with the professional and social status of members, but he joined the Sanitary Institute in order to become an expert on drainage.

Truthful and honourable, tall, slim, and handsome, Webb had a gentlemanly manner leavened by a ready wit that made him popular as a dinner guest; a man of simple tastes, he preferred a plain supper with close friends. He enjoyed concerts and the opera, but otherwise disliked grand social occasions or receiving praise or being in the limelight. He dressed appropriately for the occasion but, detesting greed, aimed ‘to consume the least possible, yet without impoverishment’ (Lethaby, 252). What little he bought was of the best, including cigars for friends and snuff for himself. He relished companionship from friends of both sexes, to whom he was loyal and supportive. By c.1870 he had become an agnostic who followed Christian ethics.

Webb was enamoured of an unidentified girl in the 1860s but he never married because, as he told his friend S. C. Cockerell late in life, he never could afford to keep a wife. Had he chosen to conduct a large commercial practice, this might not have been the case. As he explained to D. G. Rossetti, however, Webb believed that anyone who wished ‘to follow art with advantage to the world and with hope of competing with art gone before’ had to be ‘very severe in the liability of disturbance from collateral causes, such as payment, popularity—position &c’ because while these were not ‘of necessity ruinous to art’ they did ‘often ruin the workman’ (Webb to Rossetti, 21 May 1866, in the G. W. Taylor to Webb letters, V&A). Architecture itself was of overriding importance to Webb.

Apart from minor cottages, only thirty-six complete buildings, all influential, were executed to Webb's designs. The larger ones show that, as well as from the local vernacular, Webb took inspiration for his designs from some of the more significant buildings of national character constructed before c.1714, including some early Tudor courtyard houses, Elizabethan prodigy-houses, and mansions by Wren and Vanbrugh. His studio-houses in London, which reflected local seventeenth-century buildings, made him an unintentional pioneer of the so-called ‘Queen Anne’ style—an eclectic system of design—that, paradoxically, ignored local custom. Webb's most important country houses were Joldwynds, Surrey (1872–5; dem. 1930); Rounton Grange (1873–6; dem. 1951–4), and Smeaton Manor, Yorkshire (1877–9); Clouds, Wiltshire (1881–6; designed 1877–81; partly dem. 1938), the largest, with influential interior ornament; and Standen, Sussex (1892–4; National Trust). His smaller houses, notably Coneyhurst (later Coneyhurst-on-the-Hill), Ewhurst, Surrey (1884–5), influenced the new category of middle-class small houses in the country. Webb, who disliked working for a committee, designed few non-domestic buildings. The significant ones are the solicitors' offices at 19 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London (1868–70), St Martin's Church, Brampton, Cumberland (1877–8), and Bell Brothers' main offices at 7 Zetland Road, Middlesbrough (1889–91; designed 1881–3).

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and active socialism

In 1877, following an earlier suggestion by Ruskin, Morris and Webb founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) which turned public opinion against current methods of restoring ancient churches. In this way and through the unobtrusive methods of repair he introduced, Webb became an important figure in building conservation history. He never had an articled pupil or published his designs or ideas; and yet, largely through the SPAB and his direct contact with its young architect members, Webb's approach to architectural design and his own executed buildings came to exercise the greatest of all influences on British arts and crafts architecture. His significance was well understood at the time, but in the mid-twentieth century his rejection of academic styles caused Webb to be seen chiefly as a modern movement pioneer. That movement's international style, however, ignored his basic pursuit of good building growing out of local and national architectural character.

Webb became a socialist in 1883, and worked actively until the late 1890s towards the violent social revolution he believed to be necessary if art were to become again a part of everyday life. He chose not to become a public figure like Morris, but worked loyally as treasurer of the Socialist League. In the long run he at least helped Morris to ensure that late nineteenth-century British socialist theory encompassed Ruskin's belief that spiritually rewarding work, art, and fellowship are essential to a full life. By 1910, however, he had abandoned revolution: he found that he preferred the ‘rule by Parliament of tongues, and seeming waste of words, to the rule of blood and thunder’ (Webb to W. H. White, 22 Jan 1910, MR10, Bedfordshire county council, Bedford).

Later years

By 1899 Webb was in poor health and losing money. His meagre savings were insufficient to build a cottage, so he accepted Caxtons, a four-bedroom sixteenth-century yeoman's house at Worth, near Crawley, Sussex, offered at a selflessly low rental by his friend William Scawen Blunt. After handing over his practice to his chief assistant George Jack, Webb moved on 4 January 1901 into Caxtons, where he spent a comfortable retirement, looked after by a housekeeper, Margaret Dickinson, whose two children also lived in the house. Rheumatism stopped him from earning by designing artefacts as he had intended, but his general health improved with physical work in the house and garden. He enjoyed walking in the nearby forest, friends' visits, reading, and trips to London to attend SPAB committee meetings. After suffering intermittent memory failure in his last years, Webb died peacefully at home at Caxtons on 17 April 1915. After his cremation at Golders Green on 20 April, his ashes were scattered on White Horse Hill, Berkshire. At his request, he has no memorial. Webb's estate was worth only £1643, but he left greater legacies in the foundation of the SPAB and in his approach to architectural design: an approach applicable at any time in any country with a heritage of traditional architecture. Examples of furniture designed by Webb are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and at Kelmscott Manor. Standen, together with much of its Morris & Co. furniture, is now owned by the National Trust.

Sheila Kirk

Sources  

W. R. Lethaby, Philip Webb and his work, new edn (1979) · G. W. Taylor, letters to Philip Webb, V&A NAL, 86.SS.57 · Philip Webb to William Hale White, Central Library, Bedfordshire County Council, Bedford, Mark Rutherford Papers, MR 10/34 · S. Kirk, ‘Philip Webb (1831–1915): domestic architecture’, PhD diss., U. Newcastle, 1990 [incl. full lists of primary and secondary sources] · S. Kirk, Philip Webb [forthcoming] [a full life and work with lists of primary and secondary sources] · private information (2004) · Webb papers and drawings, priv. coll. · d. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1915) · will, probate department of the principal registry of the family divison, London · J. Brandon-Jones, ‘Philip Webb’, Victorian architecture, ed. P. Ferriday (1963), 249–65 · E. Hollamby, Red House: Philip Webb (1991)

Archives  

BL, letters, Add. MS 46354 · Courtauld Inst., corresp. · RIBA BAL, architectural drawings and notes relating to provenance of materials in the drawings collection · V&A NAL, letters, 86.SS.57, 86. TT.13, 86.TT.16 |  Bedford Central Library, corresp. with W. H. White · BL, letters to George Price Boyce, Add. MS 45354 · BL, corresp. with Sir Sydney Cockerell, Add. MSS 52760–52767 · BL, letters to Elizabeth Weston Wickham Flower, Add. MS 45355 · BL, letters to William Morris and Jane Morris and family, Add. MSS 45342–45343, 45346–45347 · Castle Howard, North Yorkshire, letters to ninth earl of Carlisle · FM Cam., letters to Charles Fairfax Murray · RIBA BAL, corresp. and papers relating to the Village Room, Arisaig, Inverness · U. Durham L., papers relating to Brampton church and other Howard properties · V&A NAL, corresp. with Sir Sydney Cockerell · V&A NAL, corresp., mainly with William Morris · W. Sussex RO, letters to J. S. Beale


Likenesses  

C. F. Murray, sepia, c.1869, repro. in Lethaby, Philip Webb and his work, frontispiece · C. F. Murray, wash drawing, 1873, NPG [see illus.] · E. Walker, photographs, NPG

Wealth at death  

£1643 2s. 2d.: probate, 7 July 1915, CGPLA Eng. & Wales