Many design historians have credited him with introducing the principles of modernism in design e.g. ‘form follows function’.
Lethaby’s influential contribution to medieval art historiography remains largely unexplored.
His ‘Primitives’ series produced for the Burlington Magazine between 1905 and 1918 using pioneering techniques of scientific connoisseurship placed Lethaby at the forefront of groundbreaking medieval art historical scholarship in the early years of the twentieth century.
Lethaby’s innovative methods were put into practice in the exhibition ‘British Primitives’ held at the Royal Academy in 1923. The exhibition committee was made up of influential personalities from the Burlington magazine including:- D.S. MacColl, Sir Martin Conway, Lionel Cust.
The relationship between Lethaby’s articles, the British Primitives exhibition and the market value of English medieval painting merits further detailed inquiry.
• Was apprenticed to Richard Norman Shaw for ten years (1879-1889)
• He became closely involved in the SPAB and was friends with Philip Webb
• In 1884 he was instrumental in the foundation of the Art Workers Guild (the core of the arts and crafts movement) and was closely involved in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society which grew out of it in 1888.
• He set up a furniture firm with Ernest Gimson in 1889 which closed down in 1892.
• Appointed Surveyor to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey in 1906
• He was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the London County Council Central School of Art and Craft in1896 where he stayed until 1911.
• In 1900 he became the first professor of design at the Royal College of Art (1900-1918)
• He served as art master for one term at the Art Workers Guild in 1911.
• He was a strong advocate of promoting craft values in industrial design and helped to found the Design and Industries Association in 1915.
• He published widely in journals and periodicals including Archeaologia, the Burlington Magazine and produced several monographs on a range of subjects including medieval art, craft and architecture, Westminster Abbey, Byzantine architecture, Philip Webb and design and architectural theory.
Julia Snape, August 2014
Illustration: William Richard Lethaby, by Noel Rooke, wood engraving (Central St. Martins Museum and Study Collection). Noel Rooke was a student of Lethaby’s. This engraving depicts Lethaby with the silhouette of Westminster Abbey in the background.
The Burlington Magazine ‘Primitives’ series by William Richard Lethaby
1. Vol.7 (28) July 1905:
‘English Primitives: The Painted Chamber and the Early Masters of the Westminster School’, pp.257-261+263-267+269
2. Vol.29 (158) May 1916:
‘The Broderers of London and Opus Anglicanum’,
3. Vol.29 (161) August 191:
‘English Primitives I: Master Walter of Colchester, “The Incomporable Painter”, c.1180-1248, and the Master of the Chichester Roundel, pp.189-191+194-196
4. Vol.29 (163) October 1916:
‘English Primitives – II: Master William of Westminster, the Beloved Painter (c.1200-1280), and Early Works of the Winchester School
5. Vol.29 (165) December 1916:
‘English Primitives – III: The Master of the Westminster Alter-Piece, pp.351-353+355-357
6. Vol.30 (169) April 1917:
‘English Primitives – IV: The Westminster and Chertsey Tiles and Romance Paintings, pp.133-135+137-140
7. Vol.31 (173) August 1917:
‘English Primitives – V: Matthew Paris and Friar William, pp.45-49+51-52
8. Vol.31 (174) September 1917:
‘English Primitives – VI: Master Richard, Monk of S. Albans (c.1220-1280) and His Father, Master Simon, Painters
9. Vol.31 (176) November 1917:
‘English Primitives – VII. The English School in Sweden and Norway, pp.192-195+198-199
10. Vol.31 (177) December 1917:
‘English Primitives – VII (2): The English School in Sweden and Norway (conclusion), pp.233-235
11. Vol.33 (184) July 1918:
‘English Primitives – VIII: Master Walter of Durham, King’s Painter c.1230-1305, pp.3-5+7-8
12. Vol.33 (188) November 1918:
‘English Primitives IX: Master Walter of Durham, Kings’ Painter, c. 1230-1305 (2), pp.169-172
13. Vol.45 (257) August 1924:
‘English Primitives’, pp.78+80-81
14. Vol.53 (307) October 1928:
‘English Primitives: London Painters and Opus Anglicanum, pp.173-175+177-178
15. Vol.54 (315) June 1929:
‘English Primitives: The Ascoli Cope and London Artists, pp.304+307-308.