If we know only one fact about Philip Webb, it is that he was the architect of the Red House, built in 1858-60 at Bexleyheath in Kent for William Morris and his wife Jane. In Pioneers of Modern Design, Pevsner wrote: 'Red House as a whole is a building of surprisingly independent character, solid and spacious looking and yet not in the least pretentious.' Webb's association with Morris, and Pevsner's analysis, have guaranteed his place in the history of architecture but there was more to him than this and, over the course of a professional life that extended from 1849 until 1900, he occupied a major place in the development of the architecture of his time. Sheila Kirk's comprehensive new book supplies a detailed account of this life and work.
Its structure follows a broad chronology - the first and last chapters are, respectively, 'The Early Years' and 'The Last Years'. The narrative focuses on the sequence of house designs that were the principal means by which Webb explored his preoccupations concerning the nature of architecture.
Interspersed throughout are studies of his relationship with the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, his role in the creation of The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and his adoption in 1883, with Morris, of Socialism. As an important supplement to the domestic work, a chapter is devoted to the non-domestic buildings. There is also a detailed examination of Webb's relationships with clients and contractors. At the heart of the book, a chapter steps aside from matters of description, and attempts an analysis of 'Webb's Approach to Architectural Design and its Influence'.
This adds new value to our appreciation of Webb and of his particularly special position in 19th-century architecture.
In the late 1850s, when not yet 30 years old, Webb determined to make 'modern architecture in some way genuine' by 'putting all the brains into simple but excellent building'. This demanded the rejection of 'styles' and the discovery of an architecture that, in Kirk's analysis, rested upon ideas of 'simplicity', 'truthful expression' - of purpose and plan, of construction and materials.
But these fundamentals were reinforced by Webb's response to the English Romantic writers of his day, and the influence of Vanbrugh, whose buildings Webb knew well. These and other themes are carefully demonstrated by the detailed descriptions of the buildings, supplemented by a number of images, both photographs and drawings, and some newly drawn plans (although sadly no sections, of which Webb was a master).
Much is conveyed by Martin Charles' lovely photos.
It is a pleasure to see, in addition to the masterpieces such as Clouds (1877-86) and Standen (1891-94), the studio houses designed mainly for Webb's Pre-Raphaelite friends and the relatively unknown smaller country houses.
The buildings in the north of England have an important place in Webb's output and one of the highlights is the detailed presentation of St Martin's church at Brampton in Cumbria (1874-78). Here a complex section is developed from a relatively simple plan to produce a wonderfully rich and original interior. Furthermore, the question of Webb's influence on younger architects is nicely traced and casts new light on the emergence of the mature work of the latter generation of Arts and Crafts architects.
Perhaps Lethaby's Philip Webb and his Work (1925) remains the deepest account of the subject, by virtue of its author's unique and close friendship with Webb and his acknowledged debt to the older man's work, but Kirk's assiduous research and thoughtfulness have produced what must be the standard reference for the modern reader.
Dean Hawkes is an architect based in Cambridge