Designed by Edward William Godwin (English, 1833-1886)
Made by William Watt (English, 1834-1885)
Sideboard, c. 1876
Ebonized mahogany with glass, slivered brass
71 1/2 x 100 1/2 x 19 3/4 in. (with leaves extended)
Restricted gfit of Robert Allerton, Harry and Maribel G. Blum, Mary and Leigh Block, Mary Waller Langhorne, Mrs. Siegfried G. Schmidt, Tillie C. Cohn, Richard T. Crane, Jr. Memorial, Eugene A. Davidson, Harriott A. Fox, Florence L. Notter, Kay and Frederick Krehbiel, European Decorative Arts Purchase, and Irving and June Seaman endowments; through prior acquisition of the Reid Martin Estate, 2005.529
Celebrated shortly after his death in 1886 as the "poet of architects and architect of all the arts" as well as "the greatest aesthete of them all," Edward William Godwin was aman of wide accomplishments. In a professional career that spanned more than thirty-five year, he was an architect of civic, domestic, and ecclesiastic buildings; an innovative interior decorator and designer of furniture, textiles, and theater sets; and an articulate critic of art and architecture. Godwin's aesthetic was informed by Asian art, in particular that of Japan, which he encountered at the 1862 London International Exhibition and also in the private collections of friends such as the Gothic revivalist William Burges.
Personal necessity acted as the catalyst to Godwin's emergence as an innovative designer of inexpensive domestic interiors beginning with his own in 1867, shortly after he moved his practice from Bristol to London. In these, he came to explore new solutions to modern living based on affordability, hygiene, ease of upkeep, and simplicity and flexibility of form. Godwin first designed his ebonized sideboard, of which this is a variant model, for his own dining room in 1867 and subsequently reconsidered the form in examples produced over the next two decades.
In its appearance, the sideboard represents a turning away from the weight of contemporary Gothic-revival aesthetics in which Godwin trained, and a move toward a reductivist sensibility expressed through the balance of solids and voids, which are suspended by a network of horizontals and verticals. The sideboard was and remains the most important distillation of Godwin's genius, and this spare style gained Godwin some notable contemporary clients, among them James McNeill Whistler and Oscar Wilde, for whom Godwin designed, respectively, a house (1877) and interiors (1884).
In his 1904 study The English House, the perceptive critic Hermann Muthesius wrote that Godwin's furniture, including this sideboard, foreshadowed the more modern look that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. While calling Godwin's creations "wildly picturesque," Muthesius concluded that the overall effect was "one of elegance." That remains even more evident today, over one hundred years later.