January 13: William Morris, Intern Architect

2016/01/13 § Leave a comment

During this month in 1856 William Morris articled himself to  architect George Edmund Street.

For Arts and Crafts people, this event holds the sanctity of the day all those fishermen threw down their nets and decided to go off with Jesus.  But that’s all hindsight: at the time, nobody knew that Morris (1834-96) would become the big huge deal that he did (well, maybe Mummy Morris did), although some people were already pretty interested in his master, Street (1824-81)–and that’s who Clio is really going to write about here (she promises, Morris will more than have his due).

Street maintained an office in Oxford where he had already made a reputation through some really solid Gothic churches and by contributing to the general intellectual/aesthetic fervor/excitement for this new manner of architecture, in its serious stoney manner (as above) or in the jollier Streaky Bacon Style.  That porcine moniker refers to the more properly described constructional polychromy in which alternating bands of masonry (brick and stone) animate a building’s facade with the meat of its structural materials, rather than “tacked-on” ornament, which was believed to be frivolous and capricious.  All of Street’s buildings reveal this approach, part of his quest for principles from which to develop modern English architecture.  He was adamantly opposed to the use of additive ornament seen in Italian Renaissance-inspired design of many of his peers that he censured, specifically in his early publication, Brick and Marble in the Middle Ages: Notes of a Tour in the North of Italy (London: 1855; you can read all 287 glorious pages here).  In the Preface he explains how the medieval architecture of northern Italy fulfilled his mission for contemporary architecture:

I should wish . . . in all my studies of foreign architecture, to confine myself to those buildings in which there appear to me to be the germs at least of an art true and beautiful in itself, and of service to us in our attempts to improve our own work. . .  My own feeling is, that, as in the pointed arch we have not only the most beautiful, but at the same time incomparably the most convenient feature in construction which has ever been, or which, I firmly believe, ever can be invented, we should not be true artists if we neglected to use it.

Street echoed the admiration that John Ruskin had enunciated in his Stones of Venice (1851-53), adding to the literature that supported contemporary English Gothic architecture.  Ruskin and Street articulated similar ideas about naturalness, materiality and the relationship of structure and ornament begetting a “truthfulness” (not to be confused with “truthiness”*) in architectural design.  Street found inspiration in

The true Gothic architects of the middle ages [who] had, in short, an intense love of nature grafted on an equally intense love of reality and truth, and to this it is that we owe the true nobility and abiding beauty of their works; nor need we in this age despond, for, if we be really earnest in our work, there is nothing in this which we need fear to miss, nothing which we may not ourselves possess if we will, and nothing therefore to prevent our working in the same spirit, and with the same results, as our forefathers.

If you’ve read, studied, gazed at and pined after Morris (and if you haven’t, you should), you see how important Street was to his development.

But wait, it gets better: In 1856-57, Street’s senior clerk was a young chap named Philip Webb, who would start his own practice of architecture in 1858.  In the next year, Morris married that ginger stunner Jane Burden and asked Webb to design a house for them in Bexleyheath where the priest and his muse could commune in an appropriate shrine.  And if you don’t know what that is, you need to read more, or at least stick around.

*And now Clio is wondering, what is the architectural manifestation of Mr. Colbert’s term?

Image: St. John Evangelist Church, Whitwell-on-the-Hill, G. E. Street: 1858-60 (from this source)


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