The Times/1931/Obituary/William Richard Lethaby
21 Years for the Abbey.
Mr. W. R. Lethaby's devoted work.
An Architect of Genius.
Friend of William Morris
By the death on Friday of William Richard Lethaby this country is deprived of an architect and student of antiquity who occupied a place apart by reason of his remarkable insight, his varied learning, and his unique personality.
Born at Barnstaple in 1857, the son of a frame-maker, he displayed an early talent for drawing and design which was fostered at the local Art School. and which led to employment with an architect named Lauder in his native town.
From this beginning he moved when still quite young to the office of Richard Waite, of Derby, where he made numerous drawings, including some of Wingfield Manor, which were published in the "Building News."
Pupil of Norman Shaw.
He was next at Leicester for a short time, but in 1879, having won the Soane Medal and travelling studentship at the R.I.B.A., he came under the notice of Norman Shaw, who engaged him as a paid assistant. Lethaby thus found himself in a greatly enlarged world, among congenial companions, and with the museums and libraries of the Metropolis, as well as Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral, to occupy his leisure hours.
Shaw was then the leader of the English architectural profession, and Lethaby rapidly assumed an important position in his office, in which he found himself associated with other picked assistants, some of whom have since won great distinction.
For about twelve years he was principal assistant, with ever-increasing responsibility. After the completion of New Scotland Yard, in which Lethaby had a large share, Shaw gave up his office. Lethaby then became independent. Avon Tyrrell, built for Lord Manners on the skirts of the New Forest, was his first considerable work. It was followed by a commission from Mr. Middlemore for a large house, Melsetter, in the Orkneys.
Association with Morris
At about this time Lethaby, who was from the first a steadfast disciple of John Ruskin, came into close contact with William Morris and with the group of artistic pioneers associated with him. He assisted in the foundation of the Art Workers' Guild, of which he became Master, and of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, which held its first exhibition in 1888, and of which he was a recent President. Morris died in 1896. There are still many who can claim to have shaken hands with him or to have heard him lecture.
But those who were numbered among his friends are now but a little band. Lethaby was one of those who met Morris frequently on the Committee of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and at the jovial little suppers that followed its weekly meeting. He won the older man's respect and they talked on equal terms.
With Morris's beloved associate, the architect Philip Webb, he was yet more intimate, until death parted them in 1915. Living until 1900 as neighbours in Gray's Inn, they used to thrash out artistic and political problems in discussions that lasted far into the night. In 1925 Lethaby wrote an outline of this friend's life in a series of articles in the "Builder."
Architecture in Lethaby's eyes embraced all the crafts, and he made many designs for furniture. From his youth u he was a keen investigator of the art of past ages. His inventive side led to his appointment in 1894 as one of the Principals of the newly-established L.C.C. School of Arts and Crafts, which under his enlightened rule flourished exceedingly. Subsequently he became Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art, South Kensington, where very many pupils had reason to bless him for the inspiration he gave.
Surveyor to the Abbey
It was, however, his antiquarian side which led to his acceptance in 1906 of an invitation from the Dean and Chapter of Westminster to succeed J. T. Micklethwaite as Architect and Surveyor to the Abbey. He occupied this honourable post for twenty-one years, and it was his pride and satisfaction that, whereas he had done much to preserve the fabric and to inaugurate the thorough cleaning of the monuments, he had introduced no new work to which his name could be attached. His knowledge of the whole building was unrivalled, and was partly given to the world in two notable volumes, "Westminster Abbey and the King's Craftsmen" (1906) and "Westminster Abbey Re-examined" (1925).
He had earlier collaborated with his fellow assistant in Shaw's office, Harold Swainson, in producing a valuable work on the church of St. Sophia at Constantinople. Among other books of his deserving of mention are "Architecture, Mysticism, and Myth" (1892), "Leadwork" (1893), "Mediæval Art" (1904), and a small but very stimulating primer on "Architecture" (1912).
These are besides numerous contributions on architectural and antiquarian subjects in Archæologia and elsewhere, including papers on the Parthenon and other classical subjects, which illustrate his extraordinary powers of divination and understanding. Some addresses and appears of a more general and ethical or philosophical character will also be remembered.
Wit and learning
Lethaby was a man of middle stature and spare build, moustached, of a delicate pallor, with a gentle and endearing manner. On many topics he held a strong of convictions, a little coloured by a strict evangelical training never quite outgrown. happily he was blessed with that most essential corrective, a keen sense of humour. All his life he behaved with an unswerving integrity of thought, speech, and conduct.
To sum up his qualities at short notice were, indeed, an impossible task. A certain childlike simplicity must be mentioned first. Then his nobility of outlook, his self-effacement, his learning his wit, his penetrating vision, his industry in research, his fairness in discussion, his sympathetic encouragement of young students, his general loving-kindness, and his scorn for all that is shoddy, pretentious and base.
He was fortunate in his marriage in middle life with Miss Ernest Crosby, an American lady who, with her sister Grace, shared his tastes and aspirations and greatly assisted his studies. Her death, early in 1927, was a bitter blow.
His many friends, both men and women, looked up to him with a singular admiration and devotion. By each one of them while life lasts his memory will be cherished as that of one of the rarest of spirits In their eyes he was indeed not so much the artist, the scholar, the authority on this or that, as the saint-like and peerless comrade whom they will see no more.
S. C. C.