Rediscovering Godwin: The Patron Saint of Stokes Croft?
Stokes Croft is, as you will know from the sign in the central reservation at the southern end of the street, twinned with St Ives. I wonder whether Tite Street in Chelsea might be a better match? On first glance the connections may not be entirely obvious. Tite Street, is a beautifully appointed, utterly spotless avenue in Chelsea boasting a collection of pristine, imposing Victorian villas. It is also, along with Stokes Croft, the only street in the world to possess more than one building by the extraordinary Victorian architect and designer E.W.Godwin, Edward William if you’re feeling less formal.
Godwin’s reputation has never quite recovered from the rather snooty obituaries that followed his death in 1886. While he was considered a peer of the stars of Victorian visual culture, like Augustus Pugin and William Morris, he almost disappeared from the historical record for a century. Max Beerbohm the novelist and caricaturist described him as “the greatest aesthete of all”, yet the V&A turned down the opportunity to stage a brilliant retrospective of his works in 2000; MOMA thankfully obliged putting on E.W.Godwin: Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer.
That exhibition and the accompanying book demonstrated the amazing range and creativity of Godwin’s output. In a single working life he progressed through neo-gothic and Italianate architecture to wildly romantic country houses and castles before concluding with the proto-modernism of his late white-walled London villas. Along the way he designed ceramics, furniture and wallpaper that flew off the shelves of Liberty’s and was the leading figure in the incorporation of Japanese design into Victorian Britain, yet still found time to write a stream of articles for the architectural press and construct amongst the most extravagant theatre sets and costumes of the era.
Godwin’s work on Stokes Croft and Tile Street neatly bookend his working life. Born in Bristol in 1833, he was running an architectural practice in Portland Square in the 1850s, trying to break into the otherwise closed oligarchy of Bristol’s established architectural firms. His surviving work in Bristol includes: a rebuilt corner of the courtyard of Wesley’s chapel in Broadmead; an extension to Cotham Parish Church; and on Stokes Croft, No.104 Perry’ Carriage Works and the two gabled gothic shops at No’s. 74 and 76. As these buildings were completed in the early 1860s Godwin was leaving town; having won a prestigious and lucrative competition to design Northampton Town Hall he moved to London where he restablished his architectural practice.
The direction and distance of travel in Godwin’s life becomes clear when one compares the young Bristol goth on Stokes Croft with the London aesthete of the 1870s and 1880s on Tile Street. Godwin’s first building in Chelsea was the White House (later demolished, but shown below), built for his friend and client the painter James Whistler. He went on to design and build No. 44 for the painter Frank Miles, the Tower house at No.46 and designed the interiors of No.16 for Oscar Wilde.
All of this is more than a matter of just architectural history and interest. One wonders, if Parry’s Carriage Works had been designed by Morris or Pugin, whether it would have been allowed to decline into such a disgraceful state? Similarly, one wonders, had a developer proposed to symbolically ransack and architecturally defile one of their buildings, whether it would have got anywhere near any planning committee at all?