E W Godwin has lived in the shadows of architectural history since his death in 1886. This is despite the important role he played in the lives of many eminent Victorian artists (Oscar Wilde, Ellen Terry, William Burges and J M Whistler) and the fact that, for a while, he seemed destined to become one of the major British architects of the nineteenth century. This neglect has now been put right by the publication of an extremely well-produced and illustrated collection of essays. Although conceived as a catalogue to accompany an exhibition in New York of Godwin's furniture, it is now the definitive study of the man and his work.
Godwin is, in turns, a highly attractive and strangely repulsive character. Born in Bristol in 1833, and immensely ambitious, he displayed a precocious talent for design and a passion for the theatre. By 1860 he had established what appeared to be an ideal home for himself and his new wife in a house in Portland Square, Bristol, which also served as his office. But within a year his young wife was dead - her life having ebbed away to the refrains of a Bach prelude played by Godwin on the family organ.
This death seemed to both liberate and unhinge Godwin. His career took off and he grew close to the 15 year-old actress Ellen Terry, who was transported by the house and later wrote in her Memoirs of 'its sense of design in every detail (which) was a revelation to me.' But this passion for Godwin's house did not, it seems, lead to an immediate passion for his person. Terry was swept away to London where she soon made a disastrous marriage to the 51 year-old painter G F Watts.
Godwin immersed himself in the writings of Ruskin, and gained a triumph in 1861 when he won the competition to design a new town hall for Northampton. If not the first essay in Ruskin-inspired Venetian Gothic, this building is certainly one of the best, with all details - including furniture - designed in fine style by Godwin and executed by his small group of trusted craftsmen.
This triumph was followed in 1866 by the commission to design a country home for the Earl of Limerick in the form of a romantic castle. Godwin found a beautiful lakeside site and created a highly picturesque mock- medieval fantasy in the manner of Burges' Cardiff Castle. The earl was delighted - even if the main gate was too low for his carriage to enter. But soon the castle started to leak with water driving through the walls. 'No English architect should ever build in Ireland because it is too damp,' was Godwin's considered comment.
As for Terry, Godwin was largely responsible for her acrimonious separation from Watts, and he set up home with her in 1872. But his career started to falter - no doubt because powerful private and institutional clients found his private life a little too scandalous for their liking.
Having subsequently abandoned Terry in 1875, Godwin made theatre and furniture design his main concern and entered the far less critical Bohemian world of London's artists and rich artistic hangers-on. These clients granted Godwin what was virtually a second architectural career as he designed for them a series of well-lit and ingeniously planned studio homes - the White House in Chelsea for J M Whistler (1875), for example, which has been hailed (with little reason) as a precursor of Modernism and (with more reason) as a pioneering move away from historicism.
Godwin's artistic output is now difficult to assess because much of it was ephemeral (his set designs and theatre costumes) while many of his buildings have been long demolished (notably the White House) or much altered. This book probably goes as far as it is now possible towards reconstructing his life's work.
The essays are of very high standard, with those by Catherine Arbuthnot and Susan Soros being particularly informative and revealing. Soros tackles Godwin's furniture in great detail and - albeit unintentionally - reveals much of it to be painfully derivative and dependent on an alarmingly wide spectrum of precedents. Godwin was a puzzling man and an occasionally brilliant, but more often greatly flawed, artist. This magnificent book does him more than justice.
Dan Cruickshank is an architectural historian