21: Lethaby’s Legacy

One of our tasks at the Museum is to show off the products and creativity of North Devon people, and to inspire young people now to go out into the world and create wonderful things like the pottery and furniture made at Brannams and Shaplands in the past.  In our new extension we will be able to display many more things, and tell many more stories about living and working in North Devon.  We hope the building itself, with its terracotta tiles and copperwork, will shout out to the people of Barnstaple and encourage them to come in and be inspired by our town’s history in the development of design and manufacturing, especially during the Arts and Crafts period from about 1880 to 1914.


W.R.Lethaby is probably the most significant individual that Barnstaple has ever produced, and he deserves to be better known in the town.  He was an inspirational and pioneering architect and educator who was at the centre of the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th century. He is celebrated with not just one, but two blue plaques in London, at the Central School of Arts and Crafts on Southampton Row, and at his house in Calthorpe Street.

William Richard Lethaby, the second child of Mary and Richard Pyle Lethaby, was born in Grosvenor Street, Barnstaple on 18th January 1857.  His father, originally from Filleigh, was a skilled and successful carver and gilder and a lay minister for the local Bible Christian chapel. Lethaby’s education reinforced the strict teachings of his home life. He was sent to the Plymouth Brethren school in Grosvenor Street, and then to the Grammar School at St. Anne’s Chapel run by Rev Johnson. Lethaby struggled at school and played truant several times to escape teachers who did not inspire him.


At the age of 11 Lethaby joined the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institution – the forerunner of our museum – as a second class quarterly member, paying around 3 shillings a quarter. Later he became a yearly member. He also enrolled in the Institution’s art classes under local Architect (and potter) Alexander Lauder.  Having seen his talent, Lauder took the 14 year old Lethaby on as an apprentice in 1871.  Shortly afterwards Lethaby left Barnstaple to work for architects in Derby, later joining Norman Scott’s practice in London. The Barnstaple boy was on his way.

lethaby booklet


Lethaby gradually evolved into one of the most significant figures in the history of British architecture, the appreciation of historic buildings and practical design and craft  education.  You can read much more about him in the booklet we created with the North Devon Athenaeum to accompany our exhibition celebrating his 150th birthday in 2007.


As an ARCHITECT Lethaby produced a small number of very significant buildings, including Brockhampton Church, his last major work, which is now considered a triumph, and the epitome of an Arts and Crafts Church. At first glance, the thatched, red-brick building is reminiscent of many of the medieval churches throughout England. However, underneath the very traditional looking exterior is a massed concrete structure. The entire roof is made from poured concrete.


As a DESIGNER he created furniture for another of his buildings, Melsetter House in Orkney, and was one of the five founder members of the Art Workers Guild, setting up the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society which spread Arts and Crafts design and making principles throughout the world.


As a CONSERVATIONIST and HISTORIAN he recorded and published buildings like the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, he was keeper of the fabric of Westminster Abbey for many years, and started the system of Listing buildings which still exists today.  He was an important member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, with William Morris.

As an EDUCATOR Lethaby wrote many books and was the founder and first Principal of the Central School of Art and Design, as well as the first Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art.  His emphasis was always to encourage the practical training and development of workers who were actually making buildings and their contents.

Lethaby loved his home town. He researched its history, gave prizes to its Art School, helped care for its buildings, and bequeathed drawings and writings to the North Devon Athenaeum. This quiet, modest man turned down the highest honour offered by the Royal Institute of British Architects, but he accepted the Freedom of the Borough of Barnstaple.

Among Lethaby’s papers in the North Devon Athenaeum is William Frederick Rock’s business card.  Rock, 50 years his senior, had founded the Literary and Scientific Institute where Lethaby first discovered his love of learning, and encouraged the younger man in his career.  Our extension aims to continue the work of these two men, and help North Devon people continue to make a difference in the world.

Many thanks to the North Devon Athenaeum for images from the Lethaby archive.

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