Edward William Godwin (1833-1886) Architect, designer, interior decorator, theatrical producer, antiquary, writer, reformer and critic. That’s a bit of a list
Today he has been relatively forgotten.
But he remains an important figure in nineteenth century modernism.
“One of the most artistic spirits of this century” said Oscar Wilde describing Edward William Godwin.
Wilde employed Godwin to design the interior of his house.
Godwin exhibited furniture in some of the great international exhibitions of the nineteenth century including Vienna in 1873, Philadelphia 1876 and Paris 1878 after which he received commissions as far a field as Connecticut and Vienna.
He worked for some of the leading furniture manufacturers. Collin son and Lock, William Watt and Gillows amongst others.
Some of his completed work are now thought of as, beacons of design.
The Anglo-Japanese sideboard of 1867 was far ahead of its day.
The spindle legged coffee table that he designed for William Watt was one of the most copied designs in the 1870's and 1880's.
I first came across Godwin's work in The Sudley Art Gallery. (Before the current director ruined it). His table almost looked strange..... Too many legs but that was the uniqueness of the piece. This table made by William Watt and illustrated in Watt's Art Furniture could be bought in Walnut for £7.7s. 0d or in ebonized wood for the higher price of £7.15s.0d. Brass shoes for added stability for an extra £1.10s.0d.
Art Furniture and Designs by E.W Godwin, F.S.A and Others, with Hints and Suggestions on Domestic Furniture and Decorations was published in 1887 and reprinted 1878. Allowing the public to ponder over his designs and influence on modern taste.
He designed wallpapers and floor coverings and fabrics often coming up with new ideas how to hang curtains and decorate walls.
He designed ceramics for W. Brownfield and Sons, Cobridge and tiles for Minton and Hollins.
He played a leading role in aesthetic taste in Britain pioneering the use of plain distempered walls with plain wood floors covered simply by Indian matting or perhaps an Oriental carpet.
He wrote some 450 articles for architectural and building journals along with other publications that saw his influence reign over a country ready for changing styles.
He encouraged others to do the same.
He was eclectic in his choice of influence.
A.W.N Pugin in the 1840's had exclusively designed in Gothic.
Attempting to fuse historicism with modernity at a time Britain saw itself as the Empire nation that imported a vocabulary on design that it felt, with a brash arrogance, could do better.
The bringing together of the world into a British style.
Britain’s internationalism was also part of its superiority complex and the middle classes were rich enough to be able to aspire to the new found evocation of their need to be ahead of the rest and furnish their homes with all sorts of new exotic designs with inspiration from the world.
After the first Japanese delegation arrived in Britain in 1862 and Japanese goods were shown at the international exhibition Japanese creativity became the influence of a new dawn on British design.
Designers such as Godwin were thought of as innovators rather than cross-references of eastern art.
His modular furniture designs was far ahead of the mid 20th century happening. The coming together of the need for built in furniture and hygiene combined with simplicity.
Most people would not put the era of the 1860's and minimalism together.
He was the architect of Herbert McNeil's Whistlers house in Tite Street that he named The Whitehouse.
A paired down style at a time when ornamentation was king.
Though other styles came into play, Japan was his main inspiration which is hardly surprising whith the influx of artefacts from Japan that came to the attention of the west when the Japanese opened up their trade links, after a little bit of gunboat diplomacy.
The fashion for ebonised furniture and dark weighty heavy pieces saw him move into a simple style of designing that now seems way ahead of its time.
Minimalism with maximum effect.
This was a time of aesthetic movement, a new romantic of the 1870's where people could, as Oscar Wilde would, wander round town in velveteen, reciting poetry, smelling gardenias.
Where new movements such as the Pre-Raphealites would declare.... the end of art is the new beginning......
A modest provincial upbringing in Bristol. His father was a leather dresser who died young, but before he died he had Edward apprenticed to a sober architect by the name of William Armstrong.
William knew his calling was London and eventually his aspirations took him there.
His attentive mind saw him involved, or interested in all aspects of design.
He was a Theatre critic for a while.
One thespian that did not like his review turned up at his house. Where Godwin was dressed as Henry V in fine hose and was subsequently chased with a horsewhip by the disgruntled actor.
He was influenced by the Italian Gothic revival led and held in such high regard by John Ruskin, who championed it.
Being an architect Godwin said, “You were the mother of all arts.” For that reason he wanted to design everything right down to the knives and forks that came out only for dinner.
Beauty above truth........... The aesthetic movements clarion call was a vocation meant to run through all aspects of ones life.
He belonged to a club without membership. This entertainment for the masses was portrayed in print in the publications of their day, for all to see.
He kept a journal and would write about pretty chambermaids at every inn he stayed while out studying medieval architecture in Cornwall.
He married 1850 to his first wife who was the daughter of an independent minister.
They enjoyed many interesting visits to historic buildings together.
He was living in Bristol when he went to the International Exhibition of 1862, the follow on of the great Exhibition. There he discovered the art of Japan and went on to decorate his house in the new taste with Japanese prints on the wall.
Ellen Terry was 14 when she visited Godwin then still living with his first wife.
He designed a dress for her. Later on she described how impressed she was with the house he had designed, and with him.
She at 16 married G.F.Watts but she became somewhat unhappy with a man 30 years older than her and she always had a fondness for Godwin, and he stole her, she eloped with him.
She was famous, a serious actress in the 1860's. The scandal ensued. They had two children out of wedlock.
He was a philanderer and while living in Hertfordshire he would visit ladies in London.
He was obstinate in his ideals and did not want to listen to his clients more often than not he would do things his way. The pair had a bit of a tough time financially but went to London to straighten out finances where his head was turned again. They split and it was not long before he met Beatrice an architectural student who he taught.
He and Whistler were forever involved this was a period of excitement and change. The 20th century was just around the corner.
His students were thankful for the time he spent with them helping them.
But he was also known as a selfish person greedy to do lots of things.
A biography in the Spectator Review “The conscious stone” by Dudley Harberin around 1914 said.
“Few people will be familiar with the name of Edward Godwin this proud and disappointed man was the victim of providence's most malevolent tease for he was endowed with a immeasurable fertility of mind and a contrasting lack of creative ability. But the plain truth is his artistic output was exiguous and unimportant and Godwin was a man of eccentric and violent prejudices that he never hesitated to express in the most uncompromising and dogmatic terms. He was moreover almost always in the right. Such people are of course disagreeable to live and work with, and his relations with his wives, colleagues and clients show him to be a little bit of a cad, and dare we say it crook.”
He was not a man of that time.
He was a man of Gothic time of Victorian sturdy ornamentation. But the second half of the 20th century saw us looking back to the inspiration for modernism as well as modernism itself. We now know more about the man then we did then.
One of his complimentries said he was “ an architect who had no compeer in England and a designer on consummate skill”.
The later obituaries say that he was a man unfulfilled who didn’t achieve his full potential.
They captured the spirit of an age. The vivid colours of the interiors and the white furniture, which now seems lost in the scourge time, were ahead of its day.
Did he inspire the Mackintosh Glasgow interiors?
He won many architectural competitions showing artistic vision.
He had a yearning for the middle ages and was obsessed with accuracy in costume design.
Truth before beauty was the benchmark for his historical costumes for the theatre. This was a reversal of the motto of the aesthetes. He also produced plays.
Along with Lady Archibald Campbell the great Grey Lady. The great aesthetic muse of the day. They decided to put on Shakespeare in Coombe Forest........... As You Like It.
The play was performed as if they were really living in the woods with forest men carrying deer over their shoulders. Godwin dressed as a monk in one play.
He had an ambition and wanted to be a Theatre producer and built a studio flat in Tite Street where he could entertain his ambition.
Godwin was often called The Wicked Earl.
He married Beatrice 1876 but he never built much after.
He was buried in 1886 in an unmarked grave in his early fifties after a kidney operation that went wrong.
His wooden casket was carried on a farm cart and it was said that Beatrice, Whistler and Lady Campbell ate a sandwich on top of the coffin.
An account said the widow was in a white fur lined coat and wild gypsy hair. The second in a yellow Ulster with turquoise tam-o-shanter and a third in a French grey sailor blouse and hat. Rustics shouldered the coffin.
Lady Archibald Campbell said that at this precise moment she saw the first flirtation between Whistler and Beatrice. They soon became husband and wife.
Godwin and Beatrice's son Teddy designed the angels around Whistlers grave.
For a long time he was forgotten.
Roger Fry wrote about Godwin’s style as “a horror genuine modern style as yet which has no name, a period of black polished furniture with spidery lines”.
Nicholas Pevsner’s first edition of Pioneers of the Modern Movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius had no mention of Godwin at all.
Though Maurice Adams described him as a genius, but considered his career a failure.
C.F.A Voysey admitted his work owed much to earlier architect-designers such as William Burgess, E.W Godwin A. H MacMurdo, Bodley and others.
1945 saw Dudley Harbron write a scholarly essay on Godwin for Architectural Review.
He highlighted this five-page article with line drawings.
Three years later Pevsner praised Godwin's wallpaper designs.
Harbron in 1949 published a small biography with many inaccuracies but the work saw a turning point in the understanding of the forgotten man.
Letters between Oscar Wilde and Godwin were found and in 1952 the Victoria and Albert Museum highlighted Godwin’s influences in the first museum-based exhibition of his work.
The 1950's and 60's saw a steady appreciation of his place in the 19th century.
In 1960 the third edition of Pevsners Modern Pioneers of Design sealed his placement on the steps of design.
The 1970's saw numerous exhibitions including one at the Royal academy named Victorian Decorative Art that showed the collection of Charles Handley-Read that included four pieces of Godwin Furniture.
1976 saw Bristol Museums staged a show of Marcel Breuer and Godwin furniture two designers with links to Bristol this accompanied a bequest of fourteen pieces of furniture from Godwin's daughter Edith Craig.
In 1978 William Watts Art Furnishers catalogue was reprinted.
The 1980's saw more Godwin pieces appearing on the market and being snapped up by institutions.
The over decorated Victorian period has been thought of as a period of design as ebonised as much of the furniture that was created, back then.
Much of Godwin’s output was retailed though Liberty & Co to an avant-garde clientele that included Godwin’s close friends.
Godwin himself complained in the foreword to the 1877 William Watt trade catalogue Art Furniture that an ebonised side table, designed in 1867 and made by Watt in the late 1860s and 70s, had been regularly copied without authorisation.
These look-alikes find a ready market today, at around £100-150, the fraction of the price of a William Watt made Godwin original.
There is also a distinction to made between the designs Godwin produced - both earlier in his career and for more conservative clients - which are grounded in traditional Victorian design and the more desirable stark geometric forms for which he is most admired.
There were many plagiarised copies of his tables.
But along with Christopher Dresser there seems to my mind a thorough examination must be taken of the enduring modernism of this Great Victorian.