William Richard Lethaby was an important contributor to the Arts & Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th century, though his name is hardly a household word. Tomorrow, Thursday, will be the eighty-fourth anniversary of his death.
Lethaby’s entrance to the architectural profession might have assured some degree of notoriety. Originally on track to enter the office of William Butterfield—the mid-century Victorian that we love to hate—he was articled instead to Richard Norman Shaw, slightly younger and more directly connected to the Arts & Crafts, where the young Lethaby earned his credentials working on “Cragside,” a Northumberland country house that may be Shaw’s most renowned commission. My friend Marilla Thurston Missbach and I visited “Cragside” about twenty years ago, a treasured memory for its strategic convergence of person, place and an iconic summer afternoon. I was ignorant of Lethaby’s connection at the time; a return engagement seems required.
His own office opened in 1889 but Lethaby’s architectural output was limited to just six buildings, each of them idiosyncratic. I’ve seen just one: the diminutive church of All Saints, Brockhampton-upon-Wye, near the Welsh border; indeed, I’ve seen it twice and would happily return to learn more from its deceptive simplicity. With only five other works to his credit, you might wonder about Lethaby’s significance.
Even while he worked with Shaw, Lethaby joined the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, where he encountered William Morris and the inner circle of the Arts & Crafts; Philip Webb became a close friend. Writing some years later, he credited Webb especially for an important insight: “The happy chance of close intimacy with Philip Webb the architect, at last satisfied my mind about that mysterious thing we call ‘architecture.’ From him I learnt that what I was going to mean by architecture was not mere designs, forms, and grandeurs, but buildings, honest and human, with hearts in them.”
Conceiving an architectural point of view and writing about it is one thing. But Lethaby put his theories into practice more intensively at London’s Central School of Arts & Crafts, where he had received an appointment in 1902. Coupled with his teaching at the Royal College of Art and a role as Surveyor of Westminster Abbey, he strode into the thick of theorizing in the early years of the 20th century
I found that quote—about Philip Webb’s influence—twice today, thinking about William Richard Lethaby and his passing in the early years of Modernism, and took solace from it; that architecture is about buildings, “honest and human, with hearts in them.” What do you suppose Lethaby would have made, for instance, of Villa Savoye, so different from the crusty irascibility of, say, a residential project like Melsetter House,” Lethaby’s magnum opus in the Orkneys.
There is so much left to learn; my time is running out.