Edward William Godwin Biography

The Formative Years of Edward William Godwin

Edward William Godwin, born in Bristol in 1833, perhaps by a happy accident of fate, found himself in an environment ripe for cultivating his eclectic passions. In the hothouse environment of a rambling garden on the banks of the River Frome, a bustling urban architect's office, the columns of The Western Daily Press, and one of the busiest shipping hubs for Oriental artifacts, Godwin nurtured his interests in journalism, costume design, theatrical production, architecture, interior design, and all things Japanese.

Godwin was raised in an aspirational family of social climbers. His father, a thriving leather merchant, moved the family to the suburban Earl's Mead Estate. Their new home, boasting the largest gardens in the neighborhood complete with its own decaying church ruins, created a perfect symbiosis of form, space, and bygone mystique. Confronted with such evocative subject matter and armed with a sketchbook, the young Godwin felt compelled to translate these mesmerizing medieval forms onto paper, setting his sights on a career as a professional architect.

E W Godwin's Early Career and Architectural Ventures

Godwin cut his teeth as a self-taught draughtsman, copying illustrations from J.R. Planche's 'A Cyclopaedia of Costume or Dictionary of Dress' and sketching views in his garden. This skill proved invaluable as he received little hands-on training under the tutelage of Bristol Architect William Armstrong. Despite this, he served his apprenticeship and by the 1850s had earned his wings with a commission for a school in Easton. His sojourn in Ireland in 1856, where he designed laborer's cottages and a modest church, also allowed him to indulge in critical writing for the Derry Journal. However, 1861 marked a significant year with his first competitive success in designing Northampton Town Hall, a Ruskin-inspired design featuring embellished Gothic forms and mural decorations.

E W Godwin's Prolific Period and Japanese Influence

With a growing architectural practice, Godwin's life took a turn in the mid-1860s. After the passing of his first wife, Sarah Yonge, he moved to London and began the most prolific and creatively charged period of his career. His love affair with Japanese decorative arts had developed long before this move. Bristol's port, a hub for imports from the Far East, provided ample inspiration, likely where he acquired his prized copy of Hokusai's 'Mangwa' and many artifacts that furnished his home, making him the first in England to decorate in the Japanese style. Godwin's passion for Japanese arts was not just a hobby but a devotion, influencing his furniture design, textiles, ceramic tiles, and wallpaper. His connections with like-minded individuals like William Burgess and James McNeill Whistler further nurtured his vision, which was based on a fusion of Oriental and Western elements in an innovative Aesthetic style known as 'Anglo-Japanese'.

E W Godwin's Legacy and Aesthetic Contributions

Godwin, a true pioneer of his day and a significant leader in the influence on domestic design, was one of the first to incorporate economy and hygiene into his furniture designs. His approach to design was to use as little wood as necessary while ensuring strength, making furniture easy to move for cleaning, and avoiding dust-attracting areas – crucial in an age where disease was rife. His disbandment of clumsy or over-ornate detailing leaned toward line and form in a purely Japanese style. A master designer in many different styles but most famous for his Anglo-Japanese designs, Godwin's philosophy was in line with William Morris's ideals, emphasizing simplicity and functionality in design. His belief that a building was as much a work of art as a painting or a poem, and his understanding of art and function with restraint, marked him as a leading figure in the Aesthetic Movement.

Researched and written by Tony Geering

Shop Edward William Godwin on Puritan Values