Edward William Godwin was a late 19th Century architect and furniture designer who became a key figure in the Aesthetic movement. A self-taught architect in the neo-Gothic style, he later became one of the most important figures of the Victorian Japonisme style of furniture design. Examples of his striking ebonised antique cabinets and tiered tables can be seen at the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Godwin was born in Bristol on 26 May1833. Educated in London, he returned to Bristol as an apprentice architect. He ended up teaching himself the craft, leaving to set up his own business in 1854 designing buildings in the Venetian-inspired polychromatic neo-Gothic style. Unable to find furniture and fittings to match the quality of his work, he designed those as well.
Godwin’s commissions included designing Northampton Town Hall, and alterations to Dromore Castle. As time progressed he gained a preference for Japanese design, which he began to incorporate into his interiors, as in the furniture for Dromore Castle. The style, which was coined “Anglo-Japanese”, sought to capture the clean lines and simplicity of Japanese design, while making it desirable for the Victorian domestic environment. Later, he became involved with theatrical costume and stage design while with the actress Ellen Terry, which led to commissions for Liberty.
Original Godwin designs can sell for tens of thousands of pounds. However, many of the designs for Godwin’s antique cabinets and tables were sold to other companies, and may appear under their names. As well as furniture he designed textiles, wallpapers, tiles and metalwork, and wrote several architectural books. In the last 10 years of his life, Godwin designed several stunning buildings, such as James McNeill Whistler’s Chelsea White House, and the front entrance of the Fine Art Society.
Godwin originals often turn up as heirlooms – and are potentially very valuable. In 2006 one of the antique tables at a Cheltenham sale was listed as an Eastern Walnut three-tiered piece, with an estimated price of £150 – £200. Someone identified it as the work of Edward Godwin, at which point the price was radically upgraded to £80,000.