Biography of Philip Webb

The Father of British Arts & Crafts Architecture (1831-1915)

Rear view of The Red House in Upton, Bexleyheath, Greater London
Rear View of The Red House in Upton, Bexleyheath, Greater London. icensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Philip Speakman Webb (born January 12, 1831 in Oxford, England) is often called the father of the Arts & Crafts Movement, along with his friend William Morris (1834-1896). Famous for his comfortable, unpretentious country homes, Philip Webb also designed furniture, wallpaper, tapestries, and stained glass.

As an architect, Webb is best-known for his unconventional country manor homes and urban terraced houses (townhouses or row houses).

He embraced the vernacular, choosing the comfortable, traditional, and functional instead of conforming to the ornate Victorian ornamentation of the day. His homes expressed traditional English building methods—red brick, sash windows, dormers, gables, steep-sloped roofs, and tall Tudor-like chimneys. He was a pioneering figure in the English Domestic Revival Movement, a Victorian residential movement of grand simplicity. Although influenced by medieval styles and the Gothic Revival movement, Webb's highly original, yet practical designs became the germ of modernism.

Webb grew up in Oxford, England, at a time when buildings were being remodeled with the latest machine-made materials instead of being restored and preserved with original materials—a childhood experience that would influence the direction of his life's work. He studied at Aynho in Northamptonshire and trained under John Billing, an architect in Reading, Berkshire, who specialized in traditional building repairs.

He became a junior assistant for the office of George Edmund Street, working on churches in Oxford and becoming close friends with William Morris (1819-1900), who also was working for G. E. Street.

As young men, Philip Webb and William Morris became associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, a brotherhood of painters and poets who defied the artistic trends of the day and championed the philosophies of social critic John Ruskin (1819-1900).

By the mid-19th century, the anti-establishment themes expressed by John Ruskin were taking hold across Britain's intelligentsia. The societal ills resulting from Britain's Industrial Revolution inspired the backlash, expressed by the likes of author Charles Dickens and architect Philip Webb. Arts and Crafts was a movement first and not simply an architectural style—the Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction to the mechanization and dehumanization of the Industrial Revolution.

Web was among the founders of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company, a decorative arts hand-crafting studio founded in 1851. What became Morris & Co., the anti-machine-age supplier specialized in handmade stained glass, carving, furniture, wallpaper, carpets, and tapestries. Webb and Morris also founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877.

While associated with Morris' company, Webb designed household furnishings and, no doubt, contributed to the evolution of what became known as the Morris Chair. Webb is particularly famous for his table glassware, stained glass, jewelry, and his rustic carvings and adaptations of Stuart period furniture. His interior decorative accessories in metal, glass, wood and embroidery are still found in the residences he built—the Red House has hand-painted glass by Webb.

About the Red House:

Webb's first architectural commission was the Red House, William Morris's eclectic country home in Bexleyheath, Kent. Built with and for Morris between 1859 and 1860, the Red House has been called the first step toward the modern house—architect John Milnes Baker has quoted German architect Hermann Muthesius as calling the Red House "the very first example in the history of the modern house." Webb and Morris designed an interior and exterior that was unified in theory and design. Incorporating contrasting materials such as white interior walls and bare brickwork, natural and traditional design and construction were modern (and ancient) ways to create the harmonious home.

Many photos of the house are from the backyard, with the home's L-shaped design wrapping around a cone-roofed well and nature's own garden.

The front is on the short side of the L, accessed from the backyard by walking through the rear red brick arch, down a corridor, and to the front hallway near the square stairs in the crook of the L. Webb defied using one architectural style—is it Tudor? Gothic Revival?—and combined traditional building elements to create a simplified, livable space, inside and out. Architectural ownership of both interior and exterior space would in time influence the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) and what became known as the American Prairie Style. Built-in furniture and hand-crafted, custom-made furnishings became hallmarks of British Arts & Crafts, American Craftsman, and Prairie Style homes.

Webb's Influence on Domestic Architecture:

After the Red House, Webb's most notable designs of the 1870s include No. 1 Palace Green and No. 19 Lincoln's Inn Fields in London, Smeaton Manor in North Yorkshire, and Joldwynds in Surrey. Webb was the only Pre-Raphaelite to design a church, St. Martin's Church in Brampton, 1878. The church includes a set of stained glass windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones and executed in the Morris company's studios.

The Arts & Crafts movement in the United Kingdom had a great influence on American Craftsman architecture as well as furniture makers such as Gustav Stickley (1858-1942) in the United States. Stickley's Craftsman Farms in New Jersey is considered the best example of original architecture from the American Craftsman movement.

One look at Webb's Coneyhurst on the Hill, built in 1886 in Surrey, reminds us of America's Shingle style homes—the simplicity of domesticity had become gentrified; the grandness contrasts with the small cottages inhabited by the working class. The Clouds House in Wiltshire, finished by Webb that same year, 1886, would not be out of place as a summer "cottage" in Newport, Rhode Island. In West Sussex, England, Standen House with Morris & Co. interiors could have been another Stanford White design like Naumkeag, an American Shingle Style summer home in the hills of Massachusetts.

The name of Philip Webb may not be well-known, yet Webb is considered one of Britain's most important architects. His residential designs influenced domestic architecture on at least two continents—in the US and Britain. Philip Webb died April 17, 1915 in Sussex, England.

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Source: American House Styles by John Milnes Baker, Norton, 1994, p. 70