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|An Eminent Victorian
by Stanley Abercrombie
|The 19th-century novelist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm called Edward William Godwin (1833-1886) "the greatest esthete of them all" -- and that was at a time when there was a lot of competition for such an honor.
Godwin is currently the focus of an exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York, on view Nov. 18, 1999-Feb. 27, 2000. BGC director and founder Susan Weber Soros curated the show, which includes 150 architectural drawings, furniture, ceramics, wallpaper, textiles and costume designs.
Godwin, the son of an English painter and decorator, first practiced architecture in his hometown of Bristol. In 1861, at the age of 28, he won a competition for the design of the Northampton Town Hall (now called the Guildhall). Ruskin's Stones of Venice was required reading for a young architect in those years, and it's no surprise that Godwin's scheme was in the Italian Gothic style.
With this early success, Godwin moved his practice to London. There he began experimenting with other styles of architecture. He designed interiors and furniture, theater sets and costumes. He also started writing art and theater criticism. In his private life, he was the lover of actress Ellen Terry, the most adored figure of the Victorian stage. One of their two children was Edward Gordon Craig, the visionary set designer and the lover of dancer Isadora Duncan.
Godwin seems to have been a terrible businessman, and his firm never prospered. Even so, his client list was a roster of London artistic society at the time. He designed a sculpture studio in Kensington Palace for Princess Louise (one of Queen Victoria's daughters), a Chelsea painting studio for his friend James McNeill Whistler, and a house and costumes for actress Lily Langtry. Near the end of his career he designed interiors for the house of Oscar Wilde, who waxed rhapsodic, "Each chair is a sonnet in ivory; the table is a masterpiece in pearl."
Wilde's response gives some idea of the subtlety of Godwin's colors. In his own house, the palette was yellow, cream and gray, and his collection of blue and white Japanese vases was displayed on straw matting. His furniture design was similarly serene. In the fashion of the day, Godwin's influences were myriad, including Japanese (a particular enthusiasm), Greek, Jacobean, Queen Anne, Gothic Revival and Egyptian Revival. From this eclectic grab-bag, however, he made highly selective choices, and the results were often admirably - and for their time, unusually -- austere. He was a design reformer as well as a designer.
Accompanying the exhibition are two handsome new books about Godwin, one of them written by and the other edited by Susan Weber Soros. Both are published by Yale University Press.
The larger and more comprehensive of the two is E. W. Godwin, Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer. In addition to a checklist of the exhibition and a chronology of Godwin's career, it contains 13 scholarly essays, including Soros on Godwin's interior design and furniture, Victoria & Albert textile curator Linda Parry on his textile design, Joanna Banham (chair of England's Wallpaper History Society) on his wallpaper design and theater historian Fanny Baldwin on his stage sets.
The second book focuses more narrowly on The Secular Furniture of E. W. Godwin. Because the only precedent for these two books seems to be Elizabeth Aslin's 1986 E. W. Godwin, also devoted exclusively to furniture and interiors, they are welcome indeed, as is the exhibition.
STANLEY ABERCROMBIE is editorial director of Interior Design magazine.
In the bookstore:
E. W. Godwin: Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer by Susan Weber Soros
The Secular Furniture of E. W. Godwin by Susan Weber Soros
Form & Decoration: Innovation in the Decorative Arts, 1470-1870 by Peter Thornton