78 Derngate Archive

Good for Godwin

6 Jan
Rob Kendall
Northampton Guildhall – showing all three phases including the original by E. W. Godwin at left.

Since 78 has been open, a number of visitors to the house also take a look at other buildings of note in Northampton and I have often been asked about the architect of the Victorian Gothic building at the beginning of Derngate In St. Giles Square. The Guildhall was principally designed by Edward Godwin, a Bristolian, who won the competition to design the Guildhall in 1861, when he was 28 years old. The Guildhall was eventually completed in 1864 and is a fine confection of Victorian Gothic with its Interior design and sculptured cornices and arches owing more to the Aesthetic Movement, of which Godwin was part. (The Guildhall was later extended using sympathetic designs by Matthew Holding and Interior work by A. W. Jeffery and also extended again in more modern times for council offices). The original Council Chamber in Godwin’s build is bold and medieval in form. This room, at first floor level, is now a committee room named after Godwin and the current Council Chamber, to the west of the building, is a Holding addition.

Godwin was a multifaceted man, for as well as being an architect and water colourist, he was a theatre costume designer, talented musician and antiquarian. His friends and clients included William Burges, James Whistler and Oscar Wilde. He almost brought Whistler to financial ruin when building the White House for him in Chelsea, (shades of CRM and going over budget). Apparently Godwin claimed in his defence that he was an artist not a businessman! He was also a lover of the actress Ellen Terry, whom he had met in 1861, shortly after his marriage to Sarah Younge. His first wife died after one year of marriage and he was to live with Terry for seven years from 1868 ( the year CAM was born) after she had run away from her husband, the painter: George Frederick Watts. Their relationship was considered somewhat scandalous but nevertheless Terry bore him two children, Edith and Edward. Edward in adult life becoming known as theatrical designer Gordon Craig, who in turn was the lover of dancer, Isadora Duncan.

Godwin lived with Terry in Taviton Street, London, and designed the interior acknowledging the strong influences of the day regarding Japanese decorative art. Natural fibre rugs were used and heavily ebonised furniture and Terry was encouraged to wear Japanese flowing styled kimonos rather than the more conventional Victorian attire. The interior that Godwin designed for Oscar Wilde in Tile Street, in 1884, also echoed this theme. Incidentally Wilde also pleaded with Godwin to keep the costs down.

Godwin received many commissions during his lifetime but of those buildings that were constructed many have been demolished, including Whistler’s White House in 1960.  A studio building, The Tower house, also in Tite Street, still exists. So, in some ways Northampton’s Guildhall, is very much a monument to and a memorial of, Godwin’s early talent. Godwin died in October 1886 at the age of 53, apparently in Whistler’s arms with Beatrice Philips at his bedside. Godwin had left Terry in 1875 and it was Beatrice who had taken her place and subsequently married Godwin. Whistler knew that Terry still had a passion for Godwin and sent a message to her about the death that, upon receiving, devastated her.

Terry continued to make a name for herself on the stage, and it is through this that there is a connection back to 78 Derngate. Not that she came here but that she was a friend of George Bernard Shaw and had acted in the 1900 production of Shaw’s Captain Brassband’s Conversion, a play that Bassett-Lowke may have seen. But more importantly, when she herself died in 1928, Ellen Terry’s collection of correspondence to Shaw revealed what she thought about Edward Godwin, for she wrote of him, “They tell me he had his faults, I know of only one, dying too soon, he left his best undone,” and Shaw had replied, “Only on paper has mankind ever yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue, and abiding love.”

First published in February 2007 in The Friends of 78 Derngate Newsletter Issue 45.
Author: Rob Kendall
Transcribed 2019: Barbara Floyer