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By Christopher Proudlove

Edward William Godwin “The Greatest Aesthete of Them All”


was at prep school in 1959, so I missed out on the sale of the contents of the old Victorian Gothic Eaton Hall, near Chester, home of the super-wealthy Grosvenor family. Had I been around and collecting antiques at the time, I might well have put a bid on this imposing rosewood cabinet. Sadly, when it comes up for sale next month it’ll be way out of my reach. What sets it apart, that is aside from it being one of Eaton’s long-lost gems, is that it was designed by Edward Godwin, the genius responsible not only for some of the most revolutionary buildings in the country, but also the equally remarkable objects and decorations that furnished them. The fact that he designed the town hall in my home town only adds to my regard for him.

The Eaton Hall cabinet, circa 1878, designed by Edward Godwin and made by Collinson & Lock. Yours for a bid of £30,000-50,000

The Waterhouse Eaton Hall, demolished in 1961

A close second to owning the cabinet would have been the opportunity to explore the old Eaton Hall estate. Apparently it COST £600,000, had more than 150 bedrooms, massive stables and similarly huge kennels, all set in around 11,000 acres, or just over 17 square miles. It was designed for the first Duke of Westminster by Alfred Waterhouse, who also built Manchester Town Hall. Edward William Godwin (1835-1886) would have been perfectly at home there. He was born in Bristol, the son of a wealthy leather craftsman. After a formal education in London, he returned to Bristol where he was articled to a surveyor and civil engineer there. With no resident architect, Godwin, who was largely selftaught, took it upon himself to take responsibility for the practice’s architectural commissions at a remarkably young age. After setting up his own practice in 1854, he was commissioned to design the Guild Hall in Northampton in 1861, followed by Congleton Town Hall in Cheshire, Dromore Castle and Glenbegh Towers in County Kerry and extensions to Castle Ashby, also in Northamptonshire, all of which were in the then popular neo-Gothic style. He moved to London in 1862, where he met and became friends with Oscar Wilde, James McNeill Whistler, for whom he designed furniture and interiors, and the great mediaevalist architect and designer William Burgess. After his first wife died in 1865, Godwin began an affair with the

A walnut design designed by Godwin in the popular Moorish style. Estimate: £15,000-25,000

famous actress Ellen Terry, with whom he had two children, although he later married again, his second wife bearing him a son. Godwin was a pioneer of his day. A leader of the modern movement, he was one of the first to incorporate economy and hygiene into his furniture, his designs using as little wood as appropriate yet making the piece as strong as possible, so that even a maid could move the furniture to clean behind it, His lean lines and form were in direct contrast to the clumsy or over ornate detailing of the Victorian period and he was among the first to look to Japan, gaining inspiration from the sketches of Hokusai. Although he never visited the country, he gained his knowledge of Japanese wood construction after studying original pieces on display in museums. At the same time he could not have failed to have been aware of the massive influx of Japanese items pouring in from the boats docking in Bristol from the Far East in the 1850s and 60s. He was a master designer in many different styles but most famous for his Anglo-Japanese designs, a pure genius who truly understood the art of and function

with restraint. He wrote: “If we were asked to select the style of furniture from the new designs before us, we require first that the furniture be well lifted from the floor and second that it be as light as is consistent with real strength. But this is not all. It is essential for true domestic comfort in these high pressure nervous times, that the common objects of everyday life should be quiet simple and unobtrusive in their beauty.” These were ideals echoed by William Morris some 10 years later. He also wrote: “I look upon all my work as art work. A building to me is as a picture to a painter or a poem to a poet” while Max Beerbohm described Godwin as “that superb Architect ... the greatest Aesthete of them all”. But back to the Eaton cabinet. With the help of Grosvenor Estate’s Archive Department, it has been possible to identify the piece in an inventory carried out in 1885 as having occupied a place in the Ormand Sitting Room, in the north wing of the Waterhouse hall. The cabinet is mentioned again in a 1917 inventory in the Angel Bedroom and again in 1931 and finally in 1959 prior to the contents sale which I missed. The old hall was demolished in 1961. The cabinet’s next auction outing will be on Wednesday October 6, when Newbury, Berkshire, auctioneers Dreweatts offer it in a sale of Gothic and Arts and Crafts furniture titled “Puritan Values, Designers & Makers 1850-1950”. It is estimated at £30,000-50,000. Buy it and feel like a king.

A rare Anglo-Japanese walnut and lacquee “Pagoda” side cabinet. Estimate £7,000-10,000

An Anglo-Japanese rosewood side table attributed to Godwin and estimated at £2,000-3,000

Edward William Godwin  

Puritan Values, Designers & makers 1850-1950