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Watt, William (1834-1885)

Watt, William

Grafton Street, London; cabinet maker and upholsterer (b.1834-d.1885)

The furnishing firm William Watt of Grafton Street, London, was one of a multitude of small scale, mid-range, upholstery and cabinet making businesses located in the Tottenham Court Road area of London in the mid-nineteenth century.

Founded in 1857, Watt is best known for its long association with the architect and designer Edward William Godwin (1833-1886), many of whose most popular furniture designs were made by the firm, and it is on these pieces that William Watt’s modern reputation rests.

Little is known of the life and trade of William Watt himself due to the limited and contradictory nature of the archival material that references him. His age, place of birth, and the birthplaces of his parents and siblings are rarely consistent. What can be established with some certainty is that he was born in 1834 inthe parish of St George in the East, Shadwell, in east London. He was the youngest child of William Watt, a mariner, and his wife Charlotte. William Watt snr subsequently died and Charlotte took the family to her home country of Scotland. According to the 1851 Scottish Census, Charlotte Watt was born in Arbroath, and was at that time a widow living in Dundee with her two sons, James and William. William was an apprentice at an unspecified trade while James was a tinsmith (he later became an upholsterer in London). Sometime after completing his apprenticeship William moved back to London. Watt established his business in 1857 according to later advertisements in the British Architect in 1878 and 1879. How he acquired the expertise and the money to set up in the capital-intensive business of upholstery at the age of only twenty-three is unknown, but there is perhaps a clue in his marriage in 1861 to Mary Johnston, the daughter of a wealthy ship-owner, commission agent, and merchant based in Dundee and Abroath, Scotland [Dundee Courier, 4 October 1861]. In the mid-1850s Mary’s father Dick Johnston was an importer of timber from Canada, and likely had contacts in the furniture trade. One might speculate that William Watt’s mariner father had been an associate or employee of Johnston.

The Census of 1861 listed William Watt at 13 Grafton Street East, where his mother, then aged 61, also resided. Watt himself, aged 26, was recorded as an upholsterer. The birthplaces of both William and his mother were wrongly recorded in this Census; William was stated to have been born in the parish of St. George’s, Bloomsbury, and his mother in Ireland. By the time of the 1871 Census, Watt and his wife were resident at 58 Oakley Square near Regent’s Park. Her sister, Ellen Johnstone, aged 28, was visiting the house on the night of the Census. In the 1881 English Census, Watt was again recorded at 58 Oakley Square as an upholsterer and correctly stated to have been born in ‘St Georges in East’. However, Watt’s age and that of his wife Mary were transposed: he was in fact 46 and his wife aged 41, although the opposite was recorded. The third member of the household in 1881 was Beta Johnston Watt, aged six, Watt’s adopted daughter [all details from]. Watt’s strong links with Scotland were evidenced in his will: he bequeathed money to the Dundee Free Church Presbytery and the Dundee Sailors’ home, while his three executors were expatriate Scots living in London.

Watt’s upholstery business at 13 Grafton Street East was close to Tottenham Court Road, which was the centre of the retail London furniture trade during the second-half of the nineteenth century. The firm’s first known advertisement, in the London City Press (15 January 1859), suggests an already busy and prosperous establishment: ‘WILLIAM WATT, UPHOLSTERER, CABINET MAKER, and DECORATOR, 13, Grafton-street East, Fitzroy-square, respectfully thanks his numerous Customers, for the patronage he has received, and ventures to hope, by using the best materials and workmanship, to enjoy their future support’. The advertisement lists some of the goods on show: ‘A large Stock of improved Iron Back Spring Easy Chairs, Sofas, Settees, Ladies’ Fancy Chairs, &c., combining elegance with comfort. All kinds of Upholstery work done with promptitude’. Watt is next documented in 1862 in the Post Office London Directory as ‘Watt, Wm. Upholster. & decrtr. 13 Grafton st. ea. Totten.ct.rd. WC.” In 1864-65, in a run of advertisements in the Atlas, the firm claimed that ‘WM. WATT’S First-class DRAWING ROOM FURNITURE is the best and cheapest in London’ and promoted ‘A superb walnut suite, the very best quality, in crimson figured silk, price 22 guineas. Superior dining room and bed room suites complete. Entrance - 13 Grafton-street, Gower-street, W.C. [The Atlas, 11 June 1864 to 18 November 1865]. It may be significant for the characterisation of Watt himself, or his firm’s clientele in its first decade of operation, that the earliest advertising material was placed in reformist, campaigning newspapers. The London City Press was founded in 1857 as a weekly journal that concentrated on public welfare in the City of London. The Atlas was owned by the United Kingdom Alliance, a pro-temperance organization that sought to ban the sale of alcohol in order to improve public morals.

The comparative cheapness of the stock may have initially led E. W. Godwin to Watt’s door. A successful provincial architect from Bristol, Godwin opened an office in London in 1865, and in 1867 he moved into a rented apartment at 197 Albany Street. Not personally wealthy and wishing to decorate his new rooms cheaply in an artistic manner, Godwin scoured the city for suitable furnishings [Architect, 1 July 1876]. At this time, Godwin had existing connections with two London furniture establishments. Green and King of Baker Street had made furniture to Godwin’s designs for the Northampton Town Hall in 1865 and it is likely that Godwin bought some of his new apartment furniture from this firm, as he mentioned purchasing two tables and four chairs from an unnamed shop in Baker Street. Godwin is also known to have designed furniture for the short-lived Art Furniture Company (1867-68), founded by Charles Locke Eastlake shortly after the publication of his series of articles in The Queen, later adapted into his influential home design manual, Hints on Household Taste (1868). There are good reasons to suppose that most of the furniture of Godwin’s apartment was made by the Art Furniture Company. However, these first furniture pieces, made in cheap materials, had to be quickly replaced: ‘All the furniture for the dining-room I designed specially, but I found deal to be a mistake, and had very soon to get rid of it, and have a new lot made of mahogany, also ebonized and decorated with a few gold lines in the panels’. The replacement pieces were made by William Watt, beginning an association with the firm and its successor company, Heirloom, that would last until the end of Godwin’s life. A substantial number of the early designs made by Watt for Godwin’s personal use were later given by his daughter, Edith Craig, to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

The earliest fully documented private commission undertaken by Watt was the supply of furniture designed by Godwin for the Gothic-revival Dromore Castle, Co. Limerick, in 1869. The client was the 3rd Earl of Limerick, William Hale John Charles Pery (1840-1896). Watt’s was one of two firms who made furniture for the castle, and the work is set out in a surviving contract [RIBA, Manuscript Collection, Go E/1/7/4]. It included designs that had first been executed by the Art Furniture Company such as the Eagle chair (illus. Weber Soros (1999), Fig. 114; V&A Archive of Art and Design, 4/10-1980, fol. 87). Watt was paid £260 and Godwin received a ten percent commission. Dromore was completed in a blaze of publicity; drawings of the castle and its interiors featured in several architecture and building journals over the next twelve years, which helped to bring Watt’s firm into the public eye [e.g., Building News, 29 March 1867 & 4 April 1873; Graphic 27 December 1879]. 

Watt expanded his business in 1869, opening a second store in the City of London, which had been a major centre of furniture production in London in the seventeenth-and-eighteenth-centuries before its nineteenth-century expansion and the growth of the Tottenham Court Road area. He announced this in the Daily Telegraph of 15 October 1869: ‘WM. WATT, Upholsterer, of Grafton-street East, begs most respectfully to inform his friends and the public he has taken CITY PREMISES, 12 Finsbury-place, Finsbury. He has secured the services of Wm. Bird, late of the firm of Harding, Maddox, and Bird, Upholsterers, Fore-street, who will have the management of the Finsbury house, and hopes, by selling a good article at a moderate price, to procure patronage’. Harding, Maddox, and Bird, based at 65-70 Fore Street, City of London, had been a large upholstery firm best known for the provision of furniture to the charitable London Charterhouse in the early- to mid-1860s. The firm was forced to give up its lease because of the expansion of the Metropolitan Railway and it held a closing down sale in November 1868 [The Express, 18 November 1868]. Watt’s advertising material for the new Finsbury Place shop suggests this was a more down-market outlet than the Grafton Street establishment, stocking older and cheaper furniture. Watt aimed to ‘DISPOSE OF his OLD STOCK at such prices as will enable purchasers to effect a bargain’. Other advertisements offered ‘A handsome WALNUT DRAWING ROOM SUITE, consisting of six walnut chairs, one settee, one gentleman’s and one lady’s easy chair, with loo tables, card tables, cabinet, and chimney glass, to be SOLD a bargain… [and] POLISHED and ENAMELLED SUITES, in imitation satin, oak, and maple woods. Gothic BEDROOM SUITE, in splendid Hungarian ash, to be SOLD a bargain’ [Daily Telegraph & Courier, 15 October 1869]. Further pieces on display in the shop were pre-owned, such as ‘A splendid OAK DINING-ROOM SUITE for SALE, secondhand, a perfect bargain’, and a ‘SECOND-HAND DRAWING ROOM SUITE’ [Evening Standard, 19 October 1869; Daily Telegraph and Courier, 21 October 1869] The expanded business closed only one year later, in 1870, and Watt moved his stock back to 13 Grafton Street [Daily Telegraph and Courier, 19 October 1870].  

During the 1870s Watt continued to work with Godwin, though this was not an exclusive relationship. Godwin was under contract from 1872 to 1874 with Collinson & Lock, who paid him a monthly retainer, while Watt employed other designers, notably Richard Charles, the author of two popular furniture pattern books published in 1866 and 1868. Charles specialized in Gothic designs, then Old English or Jacobean, moving towards a restrained Anglo-Japanese style similar to Godwin’s. In 1873 Watt exhibited a cabinet by Charles at the London International Exhibition which was admired by the Building News of 2 May 1873 for its simplicity: ‘…the quietness we desire we certainly obtain, but with comparatively little else, in No. 2,642, a cabinet, by Watt, of Grafton-street. It has, in spite of almost quakerish plainness, a much more loveable look than its neighbours. It sets forth, and does not itself detract from, the effect of the objects of vertu intended to occupy its compartments, whereas the restless appearance of most of the other cabinets unfits them for shrines for any articles of value’. The following year, 1874, Watt advertised the ‘Lorne’ dining room suite which he exhibited at the Crystal Palace [Daily Telegraph and Courier, 4 February 1874]. This too may have been designed by Charles, as Godwin was still under retainer to Collinson & Lock. The name ‘Lorne’ was likely given to the suite as a compliment to Queen Victoria’s artistic daughter, Princess Louise, who in 1871 married John, Marquess of Lorne. Another of Watt’s designers in the late 1870s was Theodore Howard, who afterwards exhibited works of architectural design at the Royal Academy in 1880-81 and published his designs for the interior of the Limes, Dulwich, in the Building News, 27 January 1881. The cover and four plates of Watt’s 1877 Art Furniture Catalogue (see below) were signed by Howard: the buffet on plate 3, part of the ceiling decoration on plate 10, the ‘Queen Anne’ cabinet on plate 12 and the large painted wardrobe on plate 13. Watt also worked with architect and designer Maurice Adams (1849-1933). A ‘Queen Anne’ rosewood cabinet designed by Adams and made by Watt for the Building Trades Exhibit held at St. James’s Hall, Manchester, is documented in Building News of 20 April 1883. However, from the end of 1868, after the failure of the Art Furniture Company, until 1886, Watt produced the majority of Godwin’s furniture, and most of Watt’s known furniture was designed by Godwin. 

In 1877 the scope of their continuing professional association is documented in a sales catalogue that doubles as a style manual: Art Furniture, from Designs by E. W. Godwin, F.S.A., and Others, and Manufactured by William Watt, with Hints and Suggestions on Domestic Furniture and Decorations (1877). Lavishly illustrated with twenty lithographed plates, it contains examples of furniture in all the popular historical and vernacular styles - Gothic Revival, Queen Anne, Cottage Style and Old English or Jacobean - in addition to the Anglo-Japanese. The catalogue reproduces a wide variety of seating furniture, from lightweight chairs to elaborate daybeds and couches. It also features tables for writing, eating and playing games, display cabinets, bookcases, wardrobes and dressers as well as articles such as pianos and adjustable stools. In addition to illustrations of individual items of furniture, the catalogue displayed unified schemes of decoration for the most important public rooms of a house, with accompanying instructional notes to explain to middle-class consumers how to incorporate articles of decoration in a tasteful and coordinated manner. Ceiling decorations, stained and painted glass, and wallpaper decorations manufactured exclusively for Watt by Jeffrey & Co. were presented alongside the furniture. Watt also promoted church furniture, showing a view of a chancel with choir stalls and screen in wood, with gas brackets and a standard in metal. The fashionable quarto was dedicated to Princess Louise. The extensive preface took the form of a letter from Godwin to its readers in which he urged Watt to ‘continue . . . producing furniture of refined design, of good workmanship, of reasonable cost’. The instructional notes, though signed by William Watt, were largely written by Godwin. In a long diary entry, Godwin mentioned that he examined Watt’s manuscript corrections and rewrote major portions of the text [Godwin Diaries, V&A AAD 4/2-1980, 25 December 1876]. An annotated price list accompanied each catalogue which records that most of the designs were made in plain wood (ash, pine, deal, oak, mahogany, walnut) but could instead be provided with an ebonized finish. Pieces ranged in price from one guinea for an oak willow chair to £75 for an oak sideboard.

Reviewers for the trade and building press took notice of the catalogue. In Building News, 24 August 1877, it was called ‘a rather choice collection of designs for domestic furniture . . . [that] display a decided taste for the truthful and simple in workmanship. . . We recommend the furnisher of a new house to consult Mr. Watt’s suggestive guide’. The Furniture Gazette, 25 August 1877, also praised the Watt furniture catalogue: ‘[W]e can unhesitatingly recommend to our readers as good examples of the styles now sought after. . .’. Outside the trade press, the catalogue was also reviewed in the Graphic of 8 December 1877, which noted that ‘though simply a well-executed trade catalogue [it] is well worth some attention’. The catalogue was so popular that a second printing was issued the following year and it was also reprinted by Garland in New York and London along with Messenger and Company’s Artistic Conservatories (1878).

Once again, Watt extended his business, adding an ‘Artistic Furniture Warehouse’ at 20 and 21 Grafton Street to the existing premises at no.13. Through 1878 he refurbished the new shop, using the building work as a promotional tool to offer ‘ART FURNITURE at greatly reduced prices during the alterations’ [Daily Telegraph and Courier, 7 December 1878]. From the information given in Watt’s advertising material in the Catholic magazine, The Tablet, 25 October 1879, the warehouse contained fourteen showrooms, each one displaying ‘different styles of Artistic Furniture and Decorations, from designs by Mr. E. W. Godwin, F. S. A., and others’.  Watt also promoted the catalogue in an extensive advertising campaign in the British Architect [25 January 1878, 19 July 1878, 3 January 1879]. He reproduced images of two of Godwin’s most popular pieces: the wicker chair and the coffee table, both shown ebonized. The catalogue was available ‘on application’ at the Watt premises at 21 Grafton Street and was offered for 7s. 6d. 

After the publication of the Art Furniture catalogue, there are signs that Watt’s clientele expanded considerably beyond its localized London retail showrooms. The firm began to acquire a reputation in the American market and in 1878, Art Worker, an American periodical, reproduced twelve plates from Art Furniture [Art Worker, February 1878, pls. 12, 13; March 1878, pl. 22; April 1878, pl. 30; May 1878, pl. 37; June 1878, pl. 46; July 1878, pl. 53; August 1878, pls. 60, 61; September 1878; pl. 69; October 1878, pl. 76]. Watt’s catalogue also reached the lucrative colonial markets; some of the drawing room furniture designs from plate 12 were reproduced in an advertisement for Cullis Hill and Company in the Melbourne Bulletin, 15 May 1885. Many of Watt’s pieces designed by Godwin were publicized through illustrated articles by Godwin in the Building News which appeared with some regularity from the late 1870s to the mid-1880s. Thirteen pieces ranging from Anglo-Japanese furniture to a Jacobean oak sideboard were featured in these articles [Building News, 14 June 1878, 24 & 31 October 1879, 15 October & 5 November 1880, 11 November 1881, 14 March 1884, 1 & 15 May 1885, 29 May & 18 December 1885, 5 & 19 March 1886]. 

The most significant sign of Watt’s ambitions for his firm was the increasing attention he gave to the promotional opportunities offered by the great national and international exhibitions. His earliest displays were small ones, all in London; in 1873 in the London International Exhibition, in 1874 at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham, and again at the Crystal Palace in 1878 (illus. Weber Soros, fig. 107.1). However, it was William Watt’s display of Godwin’s Butterfly Suite at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris that gained the firm the greatest international prominence. Conceived by Godwin and painted by American expatriate James McNeill Whistler, the Butterfly Suite attracted worldwide press attention while it was on display from May to 10 November 1878. A drawing by Godwin annotated ‘Watt Paris 22 Sep 1877’ represents the combination fireplace and shelved cabinet-overmantel for this extensive suite which also included lightweight chairs, occasional tables, a sofa, and a case for music (illus. Weber Soros (1999), Fig. 369.1; V&A E.229-1963, fol. 73). A photograph of a portion of the display shows the fireplace and its superstructure placed between a wicker side chair and a small table (illus. Weber Soros (1999), Fig. 51). The doors and central panels have painted decoration by Whistler of a Japanese cloud motif with butterflies on a primrose ground. The mahogany panels are sprinkled with butterflies and chrysanthemum petals in gold. The signboard above the stand reads: ‘Wm. Watt/21 Grafton St. Gower Street/ LONDON Designed by E.W. GODWIN, ESQr./ Decoration Harmony in Yellow and Gold/ Designed and Painted by/ J. A. McN. WHISTLER ESQr./ CHINA Lent by A. L. LIBERTY/ Regent Street’. Though Whistler called the suite ‘Harmony in Yellow and Gold’, the official catalogue listed it under the heading of ‘William Watt Drawing Room Furniture, the Butterfly Cabinet and Fireplace, sofa, centre table, music bookcase, coffee table, and two chairs designed by E. W. Godwin, FSA. Decorations in yellow and gold designed and painted by J. A. McV. [sic] Whistler, Esq.’. The exhibit, though controversial, produced an unprecedented amount of news coverage which spread interest in both Godwin and Watt’s furniture. Not all of the commentary was positive. Many reviewers criticized the Butterfly Suite as being impractical and flimsy. As one commentator put it, some of this furniture seemed ‘rather slight for everyday use’ [Architect, 24 February 1877]. This criticism was echoed in Society of Arts Artisan Reports, published in 1879, which mentioned that ‘the tables look weak’. Both reviewers also commented on the vividness of the colour scheme. Magazine of Art stated that ‘For its startling mode of attracting the attention of the visitor, the work of Mr. Watt is unrivalled. We cannot say that we should care to be surrounded in our homes by this ‘agony’ in yellow’ [Magazine of Art, 1 September 1878].

Despite the many negative reviews, there was a positive reception overall. Society of Arts Artisan Reports credited Godwin for his innovative design. The British Architect, 12 July 1878, commended ‘the exhibit of Wm. Watt . . . a very pleasant harmony of colour. Chairs, mantlepieces, settees, &c. are all in pale yellowish mahogany, light and even elegant in form . . . the general scheme of colour, which is excellent . . . the manner in which the panel decoration is, as it were, carried through on to the wall, is ingenious and suggestive’. It was ‘in the Anglo-Japanese style which we are beginning to associate with the name of Mr. E. W. Godwin’. The American press also took notice; a lengthy and detailed account of the stand in the New York Tribune closed with a description of the subtle elements of Godwin’s Anglo-Japanese mode: ‘The frame-work of the sofa has a hint of the Japanese influence, which faintly, but only faintly, suggests itself all through the room. Its lattice-work back and wheel patterned ends might pass for bamboo; the carpentry is as light as if the long fingers of a saffron-faced artist had coaxed it into shape’ [New YorkTribune, 6 July 1878].

William Watt was awarded a bronze medal for his furniture shown at Paris. The fireplace and its cabinet overmantel were unsold after the exhibition and Watt altered the piece, transforming it into the ‘Butterfly cabinet’, which was recorded in Watt’s Grafton Street showrooms in 1882 and is now in the collection of the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow (illus. Weber Soros (1999), Fig. 369, pp.226-67). One of the lightweight Anglo-Japanese side chairs from the Paris display can be found in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (illus. Weber Soros (1999), Fig. 141-1, p.117). A maple and brass cabinet with symmetrical inlaid floral decoration currently in the National Museum of Scotland may be an additional cabinet from the William Watt stand [NMS, K.2014.2].

The 1878 Paris Exposition was the first, and last, overseas international exhibition in which Watt participated. Thereafter he was an active exhibitor in London-based exhibitions and fairs at which he promoted his furniture and decorating services. At the Decorative Arts Exhibition held in August 1881 at the gallery of Thomas John Gulick (1829-1895), 103 New Bond Street, Watt exhibited some of Godwin’s designs, including an ‘Anglo-Japanese ebonized writing table, and a mahogany writing cabinet’: V&A E.233-1963, fol. 103

The same year, Jackson and Graham, a firm with which neither Watt or Godwin had a formal arrangement, exhibited a hanging cabinet Godwin designed for Watt at the Albert Hall Furniture Exhibition. A reviewer for British Architect commended Jackson and Graham for this unusual precedent of not being too proud to exhibit a piece of furniture from a rival firm [British Architect, 27 May 1881]. 

In 1882 Watt showed at the Domestic Electric Exhibition, at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham. The purpose of this special exhibition was to demonstrate the effect of electric lighting on a domestic interior. Watt exhibited a set of Elizabethan-revival style furniture designed by Godwin, dubbed the ‘Shakespeare Dining-Room Set’ as part of an Early English morning or reception room, with a low panelled and moulded ceiling with a prominent cornice, walls with a high dado, and a frieze of leather embossed wall covering. The furniture included a Shakespeare chimneypiece, single chairs and armchairs, a Jacobean sideboard, a Nuremberg hanging cabinet, tables, and a writing desk. The Furniture Gazette of 1 April 1882 reported that ‘the furniture and fittings, drawn by Mr. E.W. Godwin, F.S.A, for Watt & Co., and executed by the firm, are taken from the best accessible old examples’. Flemish and Old English style glass and earthenware adorned the room as well as an imported Smyrna carpet. Embroidered curtains created by the Royal School of Art Needlework completed the scheme, which Furniture Gazette, 1 April 1882, described as ‘effective though quiet’.

 In 1884 Godwin designed a fifteenth-century English room for Watt’s stand at the Exhibition of Furniture at the Royal School of Art Needlework, South Kensington. Contemporary reviews indicate that the oak panelled room had a fireplace in imitation of one at Haddon Hall, and an oak dining room suite in Jacobean style, which was illustrated in Building News, 14 March 1884, and praised for reflecting ‘the greatest credit on the maker, Mr. Watt’. Godwin also designed a sideboard with an unusual extending top, a version of the Shakespeare chair, and a table with carved cup-and-cover legs with gadrooned apron and acanthus leaf ends. The surprising addition of a circular table termed Chinese was described by another contemporary reviewer as ‘good in itself’ but having ‘thin legs . . . completely out of scale with the rest of the furniture’ [British Architect, 22 February 1884]. Another reviewer admired a Watt screen filled with panels of ‘figures sewn in greenish-brown crewel outline on white sailcloth; though no (colour but the outline thread is used’ [Decoration, April 1884]. The following year, 1885, Watt exhibited Godwin’s latest designs at the Exhibition of Art Furniture. Only one of the pieces shown is recorded; a round-back study chair with cane seat and back adapted from a design first promoted in Art Furniture (Pl. 11). The editor of Cabinet Maker praised the chair for being ‘cleanly or fairly durable’ adding that the panels were well-suited to ‘the placing of those tempting-looking embroidered chair cushions which the Art needlework ladies turn out in such perfection’ [Cabinet Maker and Art Furnisher, 1 April 1885]. This was the last Watt exhibition at a fair.

William Watt also held promotional exhibitions in his Grafton Street showrooms, where a cabinet painted by Godwin’s wife Beatrice (1857-1896), who was a painter and designer in her own right, was exhibited in October 1879. This cabinet, called ‘A bright and elegant piece of furniture’ by a reviewer in Building News 31 October 1879, combined Gothic and Japanese elements; the cabinet’s ‘four painted panels representing the Four Seasons’ were credited to ‘Mrs. Godwin, a daughter of the late Mr. Birnie Philip, the sculptor’. The illustration accompanying the review indicates that the ‘Beatrice Cabinet’ was made of red mahogany with yellow mahogany mouldings and had sections of clear bevelled glass to frame the painted panels, a mirror inset, and delicate brass handles. A coloured drawing of this piece appears in Godwin’s sketchbook annotated ‘Watt. Beatrice Cabinet on Stand. Sep. Paid’ (illus. Weber Soros (1999), Fig. 374.1, p. 230;V&A, E.233-1963, fol. 103). 

In December 1882 Watt exhibited a special collection of Godwin’s work in two of the fourteen rooms at the Art Furniture Warehouse on Grafton Street. The critic for The Artist commended the collection for its ‘modern design . . . adapted to modern use. These are very original and very tasteful, and the workmanship in all cases is excellent’. The writer’s description suggests that the firm was no longer best known for inexpensive, bargain pieces, arguing that ‘the furniture there shown is hardly, from the nature of it, for the million. It is not machine-made and cheap, produced, to meet a demand, by the ton’. He claimed that Mr. Watt together with Godwin had a strong claim to be ‘the originator of this great revival in the decorative arts which, with allowances for its vagaries, is an established fact’. He concludes: “He [Watt] has never departed from the standard he set before himself at the first, and his shop has unique and peculiar interest’ [Anon, The Artist and Journal of Home Culture (1 December 1882); V&A, E.229-1963, fol. 83]. The London Post Office Directory, 1882, recorded William Watt as an artistic furniture maker, upholsterer & decorator, at 20 & 21 Grafton Street East and 58 Oakley Square. 

In the 1880s Watt was in the forefront of the new Greek revival style with his introduction of ‘Anglo-Greek’ furniture made to Godwin’s designs. A Greek-inspired octagonal tripod table with a series of volute-topped supports and inlaid feet in one of Godwin’s sketchbooks is of the type he was designing for Watt in 1881 (illus. Weber Soros (1999), Fig. 41, p. 63; V&A E.229-1963, fol. 83]. Godwin’s notebooks indicate that this series was inspired by nineteenth-century texts on ancient Greek art and by antiquities in the British Museum. On 29 May 1885 Building News illustrated an Anglo-Greek chair by Watt which had slender attenuated uprights, square cut legs, double seat rails, square seats, and a splat comprised of a series of upright laths. (illus. Weber Soros (1999), Fig. 183, p. 135). On 1 May the same year Godwin’s design for a satinwood and ebony cabinet was published in Building News. It was decorated with panels of classical figures set within metal frames that were painted in ‘black and white by Mr. Godwin’ (illus. Weber Soros (1999), Fig. 385, p. 236). The classical theme continued in the outward-curving sabre legs adorned with metal-winged shields. The colours of the satinwood and ebony recall the Greek black-and-red figure vases that Godwin studied in the British Museum.

The Godwin and Watt association lasted until the latter’s death on 30 June 1885. His effects were valued at £2,633.4.10, a substantial sum which by the provisions of his will was placed in trust for his wife Mary, with the suggestion that ‘my said trustees or trustee may with the consent of my said wife continue for such period as she or he shall think desirable any business in which I may be engaged at the time of my death’ [Principal Registry of the Probate Division, Wills and Administrations, 1885, Last Will and Testament of William Watt, probated 13 August 1885, fol. 763]. His executors and widow continued the business under the name of ‘Heirloom, Representatives of the late William Watt’. A metal Heirloom label, ‘Wm. Watt’s Representatives’ then replaced the original William enamel label (illus. Weber Soros (1999), Fig. 304.g.1, p. 182). Several months after Watt’s death, the representatives of William Watt were still making the Greek chair in several versions, including one with arms, upright laths in the splat and variations of legs from turned to square; an example with upholstered seat and back and turned decoration on the legs is in the Victoria and Albert Museum (illus. Weber Soros (1999), Fig. 184, p. 135; V&A CIRC.258:1, 2-1958). 

Copyright (Attribution/Credit)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Ebonised oak chair designed by Edward William Godwin and made by William Watt & Co., c. 1885 [CIRC.258:1, 2-1958]. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 

Godwin designed other furniture for Watt’s representatives. These included a hanging cabinet, a hat stand and an umbrella stand. All three were illustrated in Building News, 18 December 1885, under the heading ‘Working Drawings of Inexpensive Furniture by E. W. Godwin, F.S.A., Architect’. He also designed a ‘Cabinet for Objects Du [sic] Vertu’ and an ‘Art Cabinet’ for the new enterprise. These were illustrated in the Building News of 5 and 19 March 1886. They were probably among the last designs made by Godwin for the new firm, for Godwin died in July 1886. Heirloom continued the work of the original Watt manufactory until 1888, at which time the business closed its doors. On 30 January of that year the firm illustrated a Godwin washstand in polished pine, walnut or ash in an advertisement in the Queen. The advertisement promoted ‘FIRST-CLASS ART FURNITURE, Finished in the best style of workmanship from designs especially prepared for them. They invite a call to inspect a new Revolving Bookcase, designed by E. W. Godwin, Esq., F.S.A., which unites compactness with honesty.  Their easiest Easy Chair is one of the most comfortable ever made’.

Godwin’s designs for Watt can be found in drawings in his sketchbooks annotated “Watt” or “W” in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and in the drawings collection of the RIBA. Some of these were for the mass market and others for private commissions, such as the Dromore commission, and the manufacture of a document cabinet for solicitor Charles T. Lane of Petersfield, Hampshire (illus. Weber Soros (1999), Cat 308, p.187). Godwin’s ledgers, cashbooks, and diaries in the Victoria and Albert Museum also record his transactions with Watt in some detail. Many of the Watt pieces have an enamel William Watt label applied to their undersides or unfinished backs (illus. Weber Soros (1999), Fig 307.1, p.186) or, after 1885, an Heirloom label. Furniture designs by Godwin for the firm can also be found at the National Archives, Kew, as Watt registered several pieces between 1876 and 1881 in order to prevent copying. These include an easy chair, table, music bookcase, and the Shakespeare sideboard [National Archives, BT 44/6/305188; 44/6/305888; 43/58/306237; 43/58/372557]. There are additional registration documents for three Godwin wallpaper designs copyrighted by Watt in 1876 [National Archives, BT 43/101/302278; 43/101/1301929; 43/101/302033]. William Watt’s furniture can be found in many public and private collections including Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; Ellen Terry Memorial Museum, Smallhythe Place, Kent; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Hunterian Museum, Glasgow; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Powerhouse Museum, Sydney; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; Musée d’Orsay, Paris; Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford; Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Collection, the Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami; National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside.

Dr Susan Weber 

Sources: Godwin, ‘My Chambers, and What I Did To Them. Chapter I. A.D. 1867’, Architect, 1 July 1876, pp. 4-5; Watt, Art Furniture, from Designs by E. W. Godwin, F.S.A., and Others, and Manufactured by William Watt, with Hints and Suggestions on Domestic Furniture and Decorations (1877); Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878. Catalogue of British Section, Part 1, Third Group, Furniture and Accessories (1878); Society of Arts Artisan Reports on the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878 (1879); Cooper, Victorian and Edwardian Furniture and Interiors (1987); Weber Soros, The Secular Furniture of E. W. Godwin (1999).