Attributed to Philip Webb (1831-1915)
Manufacture attributed to Morris & Company (1861-1939) c. 1875
This unusual settee appropriates the basic shape of the so-called “Knole” sofa – made popular by an illustration in Charles Locke Eastlake’s 1868 book, Hints on Household Taste, but lightens and modernizes that medieval form, reinterpreting it in the Japanesque taste – an aesthetic that first appeared in early 1860’s furniture designed by Webb. This distinctive piece may have been designed by the architect Philip Webb (1831-1915) and made by Morris & Company. A clue to this attribution is the fact that the settee is accompanied by an en suite adjustable-back armchair (#B 122), whose functional form and bamboo turnings are associated with Webb. He designed furniture for Morris & Company and was responsible for developing their typical adjustable-back armchair based on a vernacular precedent discovered in 1866. With its bobbin turnings, Webb’s chair was somewhat medieval in appearance. It is interesting to note, however, that he had previously designed a lightweight, ebonized armchair with distinctive diagonal bracing which the Morris firm exhibited at the 1862 International Exhibition. That chair drew praise from Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) and – while still somewhat vernacular – recalls the early influence of Japanese design which would soon appear in the work of E. W. Godwin (1835-1886) and others.1
Godwin’s earliest domestic furniture, including some with Japanesque influence, dates from 1867. Like Webb, Godwin’s focus on function and utility rendered massively constructed furniture anathema and lightweight construction – “as light as is consistent with the strength required – became the leitmotif of his furniture design.” The diagonal framing and supports on the present settee simply and efficiently support its arms, legs, back and base. Susan Soros has written:
When lightness made a piece seem flimsy, Godwin added inventive supports. An armchair that was ‘extremely light in appearance was “rendered more than unusually strong by carrying the support of the arms down to the lower rails, thus obtaining for what is commonly the weakest part of an armchair, two points of support and attachment instead of one.” 2 To provide extra support for heavier pieces sitting on thin legs, Godwin often added elegant angled or elbow-shaped braces to join the legs to the framework.3
The simplicity of design and straightforward approach to the articulation of form in the present settee is remarkable. Quite clearly, its design evolved from Japanese influences, while the elegant structural arrangement of its components attests to the architectural sensibilities of its presumed designer.
[En suite with Japanesque Adjustable-Back Armchair, item 559-I-CH.]
1 Kirk, Sheila, Philip Webb: Pioneer of Arts & Crafts Architecture. Great Britain: John Wiley & Sons, 2005, p. 51.
2 Godwin Diaries, Victoria & Albert Museum, AAD 4/2-1980, 3 June 1876, p. 353, as quoted by Soros, Susan Weber, The Secular Furniture of E. W. Godwin.
3 Soros, Susan Weber. The Secular Furniture of E. W. Godwin. New York: The Bard Graduate Center and Yale University Press, 1999, p. 55.