Sir Aston Webb, by Benjamin Stone. A platinum print
of 24 March 1908, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930), whose slight appearance belied his leadership qualities and energy, was widely considered to be one of the Victorian period's most "talented, successful and significant architects" (Allinson 248). Born in Clapham, then a part of Surrey, on 22 May 1849, he had a difficult start in life: his mother Anna died in the year following his birth, and his father Edward, an engraver and water-colourist, died in 1854. Nevertheless, he thrived. He was sent to a small private school in Brighton, and soon began to show his abilities. In 1867 he entered the office of Banks and Barry (i.e. Robert Richardson Banks and Charles Barry Jr), winning the Pugin studentship of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1873. The Times obituary of Webb describes this award as "a travelling studentship intended to promote the study of medieval architecture in these islands, a study which gave his designs an impress visible even in his works of avowedly classical style."
After serving his articles, Webb set up his own practice, but from about 1882-1909 worked closely with Edward Ingress Bell (1837-1914), consulting architect to the crown agents for the colonies. Bell had worked in the office of George Gilbert Scott during most of the 50s. The two complemented each other well: "Bell was a skilful planner and a rapid draughtsman, but had a retiring disposition, in contrast to Webb's taste for public life" (Dungavell). In London alone Webb was responsible for the main Cromwell Road entrance front of the Victoria and Albert Museum (1891); the Royal College of Science (1900–1906, only part of the eastern wing of which survives today); the Royal School of Mines (1909-1913, now housing Imperial College's Department of Earth Science and others); the architectural elements of the Victoria Memorial (1911); Admiralty Arch at the east end of the Mall (also 1911), and the well-known façade of Buckingham Palace (1913), shown above right, which replaced the "dingy meanness" of the previous frontage with exceptional speed and aplomb (Times obituary). A smaller work, in which Webb nevertheless took special pleasure, was the French Protestant church in Soho Square (1891–1893), with its school building (1897).
Outside London, the two architects won the competitions for the Birmingham Law Courts (1886–1891), which was their first major work together, and which has been seen as "perhaps the outstanding civic structure of the 1880s" (Dixon and Muthesius 176); the new Christ's Hospital near Horsham, in Sussex (1894–1904); the impressive main buildings of the University of Birmingham (1906–1909); the Royal College of Science, Dublin (1906–1907), on which Webb collaborated with the Irish architect, Thomas Manley Deane (1851-1933); and the Naval College at Dartmouth (1899–1904). Webb was also responsible for restoring Burford church, near Tenbury (1890), and the quaint Norman church of St. Bartholomew the Great, at Smithfield (1886–1893). At one time, according to Ken Allinson, Webb "had the largest practice in the UK" (250).
Webb received great recognition in his own lifetime. He became president of the Architectural Association in 1884, even before his breakthrough with the Birmingham Law Courts, was awarded the RIBA gold medal in 1905, and became president of the Royal Academy (1919–1924), only the second architect to be so honoured, after James Wyatt in 1805. From 1902-1904 he was president of RIBA. In 1904 he was knighted, and he received further honours, including an honorary LL.D. from Cambridge in 1923, culminating in the G.C.V.O. (Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order) in 1925. He was celebrated abroad too, becoming the first recipient of the American Institute of Architects' gold medal in 1906, and being nominated to the Royal Academy of Sweden in 1924. It was a glittering career, although not without some disappointments, and even tragedy: he and his wife Marian lost their younger son Philip in the First World War. After his death, which was hastened by a traffic accident, his elder son Maurice took over the practice.
Looking back, the Times has an interesting discussion of Webb's achievements as an architect:
If we ask ourselves if Sir Aston was a great architect from the artistic point of view the answer must be doubﬁul. The more cultivated among his brother architects do not put him on an level, for instance, with Street, and he certainly exercised no such artistic influence as Bodley and Norman Shaw. The fact is that he was almost too successful. His work was so vast that he had to surround himself with clerks — people say, 50 at the least — so that his office became more like a Government Department than the studio of a man who had time to think and draw. But thinking and drawing are essential to fine architecture, and they cannot be deputed. The wonder is, not that work of a man with 50 clerks sometimes fell short of the highest artistic standard, but that in Sir Aston's case it was so good as it undoubtedly was, and that his personal touch was impressed throughout every design for which he made himself responsible.
In later architectural histories, the verdict has sometimes been less favourable. Reginald Turnor, for example, suggests that his Victoria and Albert Museum frontage is probably inferior "from any architectural point of view" to Alfred Waterhouse's Natural History Museum next door (93). Perhaps a more significant comparison would be with works by Sir Edwin Lutyens who, twenty years his junior, could also adapt a fundamental classicism to great effect, but without the ornamental elements that make Webb's buildings distinctly showy. The younger architect's purer, more distinctive, more original vision, would carry British architecture into the future. This was acknowledged at the time, in that Lutyens received the one honour that had eluded Webb, the OM, in 1942. — Jacqueline Banerjee
Allinson, Kenneth. Architects and Architecture of London. Oxford: Elsevier, 2006.
Dixon, Roger, and Stefan Muthesius. Victorian Architecture. 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.
Dungavell, Ian. "Webb, Sir Aston (1849–1930), architect." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 18 November 2018.
Obituary: Sir Aston Webb. The Times. 22 August 1930: 12 (Issue 45598). Times Digital Archive. Web. 18 November 2018.
Turnor, Reginald. Nineteenth Century Architecture in Britain. London: Batsford, 1950.
Created 18 November 2018