Edward William Godwin

Edward William Godwin
Birth and death
1833 - 1886
Related place
Alistair Grant

Life beyond Elmbridge

Born in Bristol, Godwin was articled to William Armstrong to be trained as a civil engineer. Armstrong was the city surveyor for Bristol, and a friend of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The emphasis under Armstrong was very much on civil engineering. Indeed, so little priority was given to architecture in the office that Godwin was largely self-taught, and at an early age became responsible for any architectural commissions undertaken by the office. Creatively frustrated by Armstrong's focus on engineering he set up his own office in 1854, and went to Ireland to assist his brother, also a civil engineer, in designing a railway bridge.

In 1858, he met and became good friends with William Burges, the Gothic revivalist. They visited Ireland together in the 1860s when Godwin began work on Dromore and Glenbeigh Towers. In this early period Godwin's designs for Congleton Town Hall, Dromore Castle, Glenbeigh Towers and the additions he made to Castle Ashby were all inspired by the European Gothic tradition. His first major commission was Northampton Town Hall in 1861, which was inspired by Ruskin's 'Stones of Venice'.

In the 1860s his designs for furniture and interior decoration were carried out by Green & King in London, and his stained glass designs by Heaton, Butler & Bayne. During this period, J.P. Seddon, Peter Paul Pugin, H. Crisp, (his partner from 1864 to 1871), R.W. Edis, M.B. Adams and J.M. Brydon were among his circle of friends and partners. Following the 1862 exhibition in London, Godwin began collecting Japanese objects, and thereafter became very influenced by Japanese design. He pioneered an Anglo-Japanese style, designing angular unadorned furniture, which was intended to be cheap to manufacture. In the late 1860s and early 1870s his work included furniture designs for the Art Furniture Co, and later William Watt, W. Smee, Gillow's, Waugh & Co, C. Greaves, James Peddle, and Collinson & Lock, who retained him from 1872 to 1874. He designed wallpapers for Jeffrey & Co, fabrics for Warner & Ramm, ceramics, and tiles for Brownfield, Minton, Hollins & Co, and Wilcock & Co.

Godwin had been widowed in 1865, and in 1868 he began an affair with the famous actress Ellen Terry, whom he had met some years before in Bristol. Through Terry, he became involved in stage and costume design for the theatre. His costume for Terry in the role of Tatiana in A Midsummer Night's Dream replaced corsets and attempted to bring modern design onto the staid Victorian stage. During their affair, Terry retired from acting for six years and retreated to a house called 'Pigeonwick' at Harpenden in Hertfordshire. Terry was still married to George Frederick Watts and did not finalise her divorce until 1877, so they were unable to marry and their affair provoked scandalous gossip. Godwin and Terry had a daughter called Edith in December 1869, and a son, named Edward Gordon in January 1872. The children were given the surname Craig in an attempt to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy. Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) became an important actor, designer, director, and critic in early 20th century European theatre. Godwin and Terry's relationship faltered in 1874 amid financial difficulties, and Terry returned to her acting career. He separated from Terry in 1875. During the affair, Godwin wrote a series of articles on theatrical scenery and costume, and became increasingly interested in dress design.

He worked for Liberty's dress department from 1884. He also wrote articles on Japanese art, Celtic and Saxon architecture, and contemporary architectural issues for 'British Architect', 'The Architect', and 'Building News'. After Godwin left Ellen and their two children in 1875, he married a young designer in his office called Beatrice/Beatrix Birnie Philip (1857-1896) who bore him a son. She later became a pupil of his friend James McNeill Whistler. Godwin collaborated on furniture designs with Whistler for the I878 exhibition, and he designed the controversial 'White House' at Tite Street in Chelsea for his friend. In spite of objections by The Metropolitan Board of Works (local planning authority) 'The White House' was completed, but Whistler's bankruptcy in 1879, following the famous libel trial with the art critic Ruskin, forced the sale of the house along with all its contents. The subsequent buyer of the house, an art critic, made alterations that Whistler and Godwin deplored. In a final act of desecration, The White House was demolished in the 1960s. In 1881, he designed the entrance to the Fine Art Society, and in the same year redecorated the gallery for Whistler's sensational exhibition of Venice pastels. Whistler was just one of several famous clients in the latter part of Godwin's career, including Princess Louise, for whom he designed a studio at Kensington Palace. He also decorated Oscar Wilde's house in Tite Street in 1884. After Godwin's death in 1886 Beatrice married Whistler. Today there are designs by Godwin in the V&A, and a black cabinet he designed for Collinson & Lock is on display at MoMA in New York.

Life in Elmbridge

During the 1860s, Godwin made metalwork designs for Messenger & Co, Jones & Willis, and for Cox & Sons at their foundry in Thames Ditton. He was heavily influenced by Japanese design at this time.

It is also likely that Godwin and Ellen Terry visited Esher to attend social gatherings with her friends Tom Taylor and the Duff Gordons.


  • 'Architect-Designers from Pugin to Mackintosh', exhibition catalogue of The Fine Art Society with Haslam & Whiteway Ltd., (London,1981).
  • 'Arts & Crafts Textiles in Britain', exhibition catalogue of The Fine Art Society with Francesca Galloway, (London).
  • Richard Dennis & John Jesse, 'Christopher Dresser, 1834-1904', exhibition catalogue of The Fine Art Society (London, 1972).
  • James Joll, 'A Judicious Eclectic' in Times Literary Supplement, London, 24th December 1999.
  • Lionel Lambourne, 'The Arts & Crafts Movement: Artists, Craftsmen & Designers', 1890-1930, exhibition catalogue of The Fine Art Society (London, 1973).
  • Gillian Naylor, 'The Arts and Crafts Movement: A Study of Its Sources, Ideals, and Influence on Design Theory' (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971).
  • Susan Weber Soros, (ed.) 'E. W. Godwin: Aesthetic Movment Architect and Designer' (New Haven: Yale UP, 1999).
  • Susan Weber Soros, 'The Secular Furniture of E. W. Godwin' (New Haven: Yale UP, 1999).
  • Robin Spencer, 'The Aesthetic Movement and the Cult of Japan', exhibition catalogue of The Fine Art Society (London, 1972).
  • Adrian Tilbrook, 'Truth, Beauty, and Design: Victorian, Edwardian, and Later Decorative Art', exhibition catalogue of Adrian J. Tilbrook and Fischer Fine Art (London, 1986).
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