To mark the centenary of someone’s death may seem morbid but to be worth noting a century later they must truly have been a significant influence. Philip Speakman Webb, who died in January 1915, certainly can occupy that pantheon of those architects who not only embraced the existing trends of their time but also acted as the transitional midwife to a new stylistic era. Though perhaps now slightly over-shadowed by his collaborators and successors, his influence can be seen throughout the UK in many fields; obviously in architecture, but also interiors and most significantly in conservation as a co-founder, with William Morris, of the Society for the Protection for Ancient Buildings.
Webb may perhaps unjustly now be seen as the quieter man of Victorian architecture; one who was avant-garde but who with little fanfare helped create a new mode of design, the influence of which can still be seen today. Considering his intellectual approach to architecture, his was more a philosophy of design that pre-dated the formal label of ‘Arts & Crafts‘. This was a symptom of his affinity for a more sympathetic approach to the care of ancient buildings combined with the adoption of an aesthetic which drew heavily on the natural world; bringing those designs which nature had already provided into a domestic context.
Born in 1831, on the turn of the Georgian period, Webb’s childhood was spent among the eclectic mix of buildings of Oxford; late Gothic next to Classical. This both gave him an appreciation of how they could co-exist but also a reaction which led him to sometimes pursue an ‘astylar‘ approach, rejecting the grand statements of columns. This inclusive approach was to prove hugely influential both his generation of architects but also their pupils who included W.R. Lethaby, George Washington Jack, and Ernest Gimson. Webb’s meticulous method also meant that he was one of the few architects who produced a ‘total design’ for his commissions, not only drawing up the plans for the house itself, but also the fixtures and fittings.
Webb’s design philosophy was based on a set of principles which he applied to all his commissions; an avoidance of vulgar flashiness, a desire to integrate a building with its surroundings, a respect for local materials and traditions, and, above all, high quality workmanship. When applied to country houses, this philosophy created a broad range of designs but were distinctively ‘Webb’ and also highly successful with owners making few changes to them. Despite his reputation and skill, Webb’s country house commissions were rare – just ten completed designs, of which nine were built. Of those, three have subsequently been completely lost, and all the others – bar one, Standen – have suffered varied changes, few of them beneficial.
Webb’s first country house was in remote Inverness-shire; Arisaig House was built for Francis Dukinfield Palmer Astley, an enlightened land- and colliery-owner. Designed in 1863 to replace an existing poorly-sited Gothick house by James Gillespie Graham, the new house was built in just 12 months despite challenges with the remoteness and the local labour. Although the design draws on local building methods it rejected the contrived ‘Scots baronial’ features so beloved by other Victorian architects. Instead, the house was, though large, a well-mannered collection of gables, recessions and projections, creating the overall effect of a house which was not seeking to dominate the spectacular location, and reflected the mountainous scenery. As a first design, it was technologically clever and the internal plan was well-thought out and showed an understanding of both the practicalities and proprieties of a Victorian country house. Sadly, it burnt down in 1935 and was rebuilt as a smaller house.
As a second commission, Church Hill House (later Trevor Hall) was more of a suburban affair. Built in 1868, it was the centrepiece to a 40-acre model estate farm in East Barnet, once rural but now absorbed into Greater London. The design showed Webb’s further exploration of the use of gables, symmetry and massing. Although influential, both due to the connections of the owner and its proximity to London, the house was demolished c.1960.
An aborted commission for Lord Airlie in 1868-69 was the sizeable project, with a budget of £50,000, to rebuild Airlie Castle. Financial pressures forced the scheme to be abandoned leading Webb to destroy all the drawings, leaving no known impressions of what would have been one of his most significant projects.
Far more successful was Joldwynds, Holmbury St Mary, Surrey, which was designed in 1870-71 for William Bowman, a noted eye surgeon and scientist. Replacing an existing, poor-quality 18th-century house, the new house took two years to build, starting in 1872. The result was a a fine, smaller country house, tucked into a wooded hillside, sheltered from the west winds but fully exploiting the views to the south and north. Drawing in the ideas of the gabled English manor house, but applied to the villa plan, Joldwynds featured a dramatic central hall which rose the full height of the house. Again, the proximity of the house to London meant that it became very influential in the 1880s and 1890s as architects and students came to see it and other later local houses by Shaw, Champneys, Lutyens and Voysey – all of whom showed influences of having seen Webb’s elegant composition. Fashion though was to condemn the house as it was demolished in 1930 – though it was replaced by one of the finest of houses of the Modern Movement, The Wilderness, designed by Oliver Hill.
Easily one of the most tragic of the losses is Webb’s Rounton Grange, Yorkshire, designed in 1871-72, which Webb’s respect for local architectural traditions and drew on the idea of the Pele tower. Originally asked by the owner of the estate, iron-master Sir (Issac) Lowthian Bell, to rework some estate offices (budget £800), Webb also produced a scheme to completely replace the existing house, a project which ended up costing £32,880. The tower-house idea meant that it could not only be seen in the well-wooded landscape but would also have views out as well. The plan of the house suggested that of a castle with a core central hall with four ‘pavillions’ [sic] or towers at the corners. Again, monumental chimneys topped the design. The design incorporated various modern comforts and the construction took advantage of whatever technical innovations Webb thought an improvement on an existing technique. Even decades after its demolition, those who had lived there remembered a beautiful but practical house, which was certainly a tribute to Webb’s skills. (Excellent history and photos here: The Rountons: Rounton Grange)
In 1876, Ada, one of Lowthian Bell’s daughters, and her husband commissioned a house which was to be the core of a horse-breeding estate. Smeaton Manor was unsurprisingly on a much more modest scale that Ada’s father house at Rounton Grange but Webb produced what could be classed a ‘neo-Georgian’ design, a re-working of the traditional manor house but in a Classical style. The emphasis was on creating a bright interior so instead of heavy panelling, there was wallpaper (almost entirely Morris & Co, obviously) and all the woodwork (bar the staircase) was painted white. Smeaton Manor was again influential with other architects praising specific features or just admiring the overall effect of this light-filled house. Subsequently, although some alterations have taken place, the house survives – and was offered for sale in 2014 for £2.5m.
Webb’s largest, grandest country house commission was also his most successful; Clouds, Wiltshire, designed 1877-80 for the aristocratic Honourable Percy Wyndham, younger son of Lord Leconfield of Petworth. The design took three years to agree due to the ambitions of the clients for a large house not quite being matched by an equivalent budget. This difficult start continued with difficulties finding a builder though construction finally started in 1881 and was completed in 1886. Sadly, in 1889 the central block of the house was completely gutted by fire and it took another three years to restore it – though it was compliment to Webb that this followed almost exactly his original plan.
Clouds became one of the most celebrated and innovative houses of its era. This, in part, was due to the noted and aristocratic guests whom the Wyndhams regularly hosted so generously (who became known as the Souls), but also because the house successfully balanced the need for practicality with that of the now en vogue informal entertaining – Percy Wyndham described as it as the ‘house of the age‘. The exterior of stone on the first two storeys, with brick on the upper level, featured the now typically Webb-ian mix of gable, bold chimneys, and a pleasing rhythm of recession and projection. The interior could be thought to pre-figure the Modern movement of 20 years later – it was mostly white, with hints of decoration from Morris & Co products. Sadly, crippling death duties – Wyndham, his son, and his son’s heir all died within 3 years – eventually forced the sale of the house in 1936 after which it it suffered various truncations before settling into an institutional role as an addiction treatment centre which it still holds today.
Webb’s seventh country house was commissioned in 1886, back in Surrey. Willinghurst is an attractive, practical home which took various ideas Webb had explored in previous houses and concentrated them into a smaller plan. The house is firmly in the tradition of ‘Surrey vernacular’ – gables, clay hung tiles, warm red bricks – but with an attention to detail in the beautiful plasterwork and fireplaces. Again, the house was subsequently dramatically altered with the central section demolished and the now separate principal part of the house and the offices becoming individual houses.
For what was to be a holiday home, Webb’s next commission was also to be one of his major houses. The job of designing Standen, Sussex, was given to Webb in 1891 with the intention that the house was not to be grand, to instead be somewhere that the wealthy owner, solicitor J.S. Beale, could accommodate his large family plus guests. Webb’s first design was rejected as being too large but the house as built is still substantial – over 200ft wide on the south front. The styling is purely local and takes its cues from the original tile-hung farmhouse which was on the estate. The tower created a focal point to the design – a high-point when viewing the house, but also useful as an observation deck, rather than just being purely decorative. By this point in his career Webb had largely abandoned decoration, the house achieves a pleasing contrast internally through the use of varied rooms with large windows flooding light into the white-painted interiors.
Standen, as a large country holiday home, was a success with the family remembering it as comfortable and delightful, requiring almost no changes. Certainly it was one of his most picturesque designs and continued to influence architects for decades after it was completed. Considering the vicissitudes of Webb’s other country houses, it’s a relief that Standen has survived almost exactly as it was intended by Webb. This is largely due to it remaining in the Beale family until 1972 when it was bequeathed to the National Trust in whose care it remains, making it one of the few Webb houses which can be visited.
Webb’s last country house, Hurlands, Surrey was designed in 1897 and built over the following two years. To my view, the north entrance front is unfocused and lacks the unifying qualities shown in his earlier houses. The large chimneys are still there but one is attached to the outer wall, giving the impression that it’s trying to escape. That said, the south front has a wonderful classical quality with the ground floor arcading being gently echoed in the window surrounds, whilst upstairs a typical Webb covered walkway gives a pleasing variety to the first floor. The house survives but has been divided up.
This survey of Webb’s country houses provides a limited view of the broad skills and interests of someone who was at the forefront Victorian architecture. His belief in the idea of ‘total design’ was rare but hugely influential. Similarly, was his passion for historic vernacular buildings and their conservation which led to his co-founding of the SPAB. In looking back from the centenary of his death, we should appreciate not only his gifted development of an architectural style we now call ‘Arts & Crafts’. That said, Webb would, at the time, would simply recognise as good architecture which respected local traditions to create well-built houses which their owners loved. If only that could be adopted as a mission statement by modern mass house-builders we may be able to achieve a more harmonious solution to the challenge of designing houses for today – something Philip Webb would certainly support.