The Arts and Crafts tradition established deep roots in Birmingham during the nineteenth century, resulting in masterpieces such as W.R. Lethaby’s Eagle Insurance being built across the city and the towns and settlements of the Black Country.
In this blog, Andy Foster – author of the newly revised Pevsner guide to Birmingham and the Black Country – introduces readers to the work of Holland Hobbiss and the architects whose buildings inspired him, including Lethaby and the ‘key architect’ of the Arts and Crafts movement: Philip Webb.
Andy Foster writes…
In January 1961 John Betjeman stayed with his Birmingham friends, the scientist Solly Zuckerman and his wife Joan. Writing to thank Joan, he mentioned …‘the conversation with Mr Hobbiss with his memories of Norman Shaw and Collcutt – he really should be induced to write down his recollections’. Holland Hobbiss, one of the finest late Arts and Crafts architects of Birmingham, was then eighty. Perhaps Joan Zuckerman spoke to him, because the Birmingham and Five Counties Architectural Association’s ‘Green Book’ for 1962–3 includes Hobbiss’s ‘Recollections and reactions’.
After taking evening classes in Birmingham, Hobbiss had moved to London and worked for A.T. Bolton, head of the Architectural Association school, and went to lectures there. He recalled many leading architects of the day, including Norman Shaw (‘the great ideal for many of us’), and W.R. Lethaby, who ‘turned architects’ minds into the correct uses and finishes of materials and applied crafts. He did more than anyone else to quieten the flamboyant tendencies of the period and led up to the work of Lutyens, Lorimer, [Giles Gilbert] Scott and Comper.’ This is Lethaby as a kind of purging agent, stripping young architects’ minds of flamboyance and simplifying their work. But his simplicity came from an older man, the ‘key architect’ of the Arts and Crafts, in Julian Holder’s phrase: Philip Webb (1831–1915).
Webb is one of the most important architects of the nineteenth century. His Red House of 1858 at Bexleyheath near London, built for his friend William Morris, was called by Hermann Muthesius ‘the very first example in the history of the modern house’ (Das englishe Haus, 1904). He was a reticent man whose work was not widely known in his own lifetime. The Builder and other Victorian architectural periodicals have nothing by him. Young architects influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement sought out his work, or went on trips to his houses organised by Hugh Stannus, secretary of the Architectural Association: probably, therefore, including Holland Hobbiss.
Webb’s influence appears quite early in Birmingham: first with J.L. Ball, who became the first director of the city’s School of Architecture. In 1880, aged twenty-eight, he designed his first major work, the Handsworth Wesleyan Theological College. Its entrance hall has a rear half-roof with a tie-beam arrangement like the south aisle at Webb’s St Martin, Brampton, Cumberland, designed only two years before. Ball trained in London in the 1870s, so perhaps he had contact with the circle round Webb then.
Webb, though, is much more than motifs. His work has an unusual, perhaps unique character. He had little time for conventional rules of composition, and even less for the conscious imitation of past styles. Lethaby wrote of Webb’s wish to be part of a ‘common tradition’ of building, his love of craftsmanship, his liking for the ‘commonplace’, and his attitude that ‘roofs, chimneys, and walls were sacred’. He settled the plans of his houses, and the elevations followed. They are often concatenated, and can look at first sight disjunct.
Much of this describes Lethaby’s approach too, and Lethaby is the link between Webb and Birmingham. Half of Lethaby’s buildings are or were in Birmingham or for Birmingham clients, such as Melsetter in Orkney. His The Hurst, Four Oaks, of 1892 (demolished in the 1950s), started the austere Arts and Crafts domestic tradition in the city, followed by the local architects W.H. Bidlake, C.E. Bateman, and others. Lethaby’s Eagle Assurance offices in Colmore Row of 1899–1900, done in collaboration with J.L. Ball, was called by Pevsner ‘one of the most original buildings of its date in England’. Lethaby lectured twice at the Birmingham School of Art in 1901, so his main influence was on the younger generation of Arts and Crafts architects who were training then.
Hobbiss’s work after his return to Birmingham has a Lethaby-influenced simplicity and directness. His very domestic-looking Norton Memorial Hall in Saltley, 1906–7, and his now much-altered cottages in St Margaret’s Road, Ward End, 1907, are plain and almost undecorated. His houses of 1908 in Greenhill Road, Kings Heath are similar, though their porches have almost organic curves. Hobbiss’s mature work, however, returns to stylistic traditions: Early Christian for most of his churches; classical for Pitmaston, his offices of 1930 in Moseley; and a host of styles for his pubs, from Tudor revival to Moderne. All very un-Webb-like; but the more one looks at the buildings, the less style seems to matter. Holy Cross, Billesley Common, of 1937, has pointed arches but is a brick basilica; it can’t be called Gothic Revival. St Mary Magdalen, Hazelwell, which he extended in 1936, has a remarkable west doorway with Gothic buttresses supporting a classical pediment, filled by an angel’s head and wings. Yet everything seems natural and in place. The structure and materials define the design, especially the brickwork, with slightly rough-textured bricks always laid in his signature English garden-wall bond with three rows of stretchers. The decorative features – carefully calculated, attractive, often original – are always subjugated to the essence of the design, its masses and volumes. These designs have been through Lethaby’s refining fire.
The relation of those masses, however, brings us back to Webb. Hobbiss’s buildings often have the concatenated, even disjunct, appearance characteristic of Webb’s work. The College Arms pub, Kingstanding of 1930 is apparently Neo-Georgian, with big Doric doorcases, but has an almost random composition. It’s an unlikely child of Webb; but the influence is there. Pitmaston, also of 1930, is in a Late Georgian or Regency manner, almost symmetrical. Each element is treated separately from its neighbours, in a Neoclassical way; but again this introduces disjunction into the design. The same approach can be seen in Hobbiss’s finest church, Christ Church, Alum Rock, of 1934–5. Nave and aisles have a German flavour: a Westwerk tower, and the nave spanned by semicircular brick arches with a distinctly European pattern of voussoirs against the rendering. The chancel, however, is completely different: a plain rendered box with a cambered timber roof above tie-beams supported on tapering brackets. I remember taking the late Geoff Brandwood into Christ Church in the 1990s, and at first he refused to believe that nave and chancel were of the same date, by the same architect.
There’s nothing new in architecture about the primacy of the plan. But this particular method of design, with its apparent disjunctions, is a continuing thread in Birmingham architecture. It goes on beyond Hobbiss, into the 1960s: John Madin’s Post and Mail building, Graham Winteringham’s Repertory Theatre. Philip Webb’s influence in the city was reticent, like the man himself, but long and fruitful.
Birmingham and the Black Country
“A tirelessly comprehensive book…[This is] a city of rich oddities and pleasingly bewildering contrasts.” — Jonathan Meades, The Oldie