The Life and Work of Geoffrey Webb (Author of The Liturgical Altar)

PREAMBLE: Many of our readers will already be familiar with the name of Geoffrey Webb, who is perhaps best known for his excellent little work, The Liturgical Altar, which treats on the classic design principles of the Catholic altar and all of its related parts.  (I personally consider it an essential work for any liturgical library but I digress.) What you may be less familiar with is Webb himself. With that in mind I thought I would reprint the following article, written by another well known commentator on liturgical art and design, Peter. F. Anson -- author of Churches: Their Plan and Furnishing -- which he published in Liturgical Arts Quarterly about a year after Webb's death. I hope you enjoy it. (Following Anson's piece are a few examples of Webb's work, specifically in relation to his altar designs.)

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Geoffrey Fuller Webb (1879-1954)

by Peter F. Anson

Geoffrey Fuller Webb, whose death occurred on January 20, 1954, had many friends and disciples in the United States, even if few of them had ever met him. His long association with Liturgical Arts [Quarterly] began in the late autumn of 1933 when this magazine published an enthusiastic review of The Liturgical Altar which was described as "... an invaluable book ... the only one of its kind."

Geoffrey Webb was born in 1879. The hereditary influence of several of his forbears must have influenced his artistic development. His father, Edward A. Webb, was a distinguished antiquarian and the author of a monumental two volume history of the Norman church of Saint Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London. It was one of Geoffrey's uncles, the famous architect Sir Aston Webb, G.C.V.O., R.A., who restored this same church. His  boyhood and youth were spent in an atmosphere permeated with the best traditions of Victorian culture, with high church Anglicanism as its spiritual background After being educated at Rugby School, Geoffrey was apprenticed to Charles Eamer Kempe, who by the end of the last century was generally regarded as the most outstanding glass painter in England. Kempe's windows were an almost integral part of those exquisitely refined Anglican churches designed by G.F. Bodley, which might be described as the sunset-song of the gothic revival.

After Geoffrey Webb and his wife were received into the Catholic Church in 1913, he continued to design and make stained glass, most of which was commissioned for Anglican places of worship. His name was hardly known among the rank and file of the secular clergy in England, although a few priests had discovered him. It ca be said that it was the publication of The Liturgical Altar in 1933, i.e. twenty years after his conversion, which introduced him to a large circle of clients. That same year Geoffrey was mainly responsible for the formation of the Company of Saint Joseph, actually a sort of inner circle of the Guild of Catholic Artists, which had been founded in 1929. Its purpose was the regular study of liturgical rules, rubrics, and decrees. The Company, which never numbered more than a dozen members, was closely associated with the Benedictines of Prinknash, among whom was Geoffrey's brother, Dom Bruno Webb. Annual retreats were held at the Abbey, and the advice of some of the monks taken on liturgical matters. Several exhibitions held in London helped to bring the members' work to the notice of the Catholic public.

Geoffrey himself did the publicity for the Company by giving lectures. One of these lectures, entitled The training of taste in liturgical arts, was published in Pax (November 1936). He makes it clear enough that "good taste" in liturgical art can be achieved only by loyal obedience to the objective principles laid down in canon 1296 of the Codex Juris Canonici. Here are the three requirements: "in regard to the material and form of sacred furniture it is necessary to keep to liturgical prescriptions, ecclesiastical traditions, and to the greatest extent possible to the laws of sacred art."

Having formed a clear conception of his mission as a Catholic craftsman, Geoffrey never swerved from what some of his contemporaries maintained was a far too narrow path. He was never tired of point out that "the liturgical prescriptions are contained in the canonical books and in the directions of the Congregation of the Sacred Rites." In season and out of season Geoffrey would stress that "the purpose of a church is to be a building for the performance of the liturgy. And since the Mass is the central act of that liturgy, it follows that the high altar is intended to be the central object of beauty and visible focus of any church."  He would remind his listeners, especially nuns, that "the prescriptions for furnishing the altar are not complicated, nor obscure, nor difficult to put into practice. They are in fact far simpler than the elaborate arrangements which break them." Very often he annoyed and surprised priests, seminarians, and nuns by stating quite frankly that "there are at present few high altars, especially in convents, where these simple rules are carried out in due order." But he would explain that this disobedience was excusable, "due to the fact that until recently [the rules] were not to be found in any inexpensive handbook."

Geoffrey used to admit that it was more difficult to deal with the precise meaning of "ecclesiastical tradition," and he generally concentrated on one point which is often neglected -- the importance attached by the Holy See in recent times to the need of carrying out the liturgical prescriptions in the tradition native to each country. "Those who are responsible for the education of young English Catholics," he wrote, "and have the duty of training their taste in liturgical art, will only build on a lasting foundation so long as they follow [the Instruction from the Prefect of the Congregation of Propaganda in 1932] and train their pupils in the traditional Catholic art of their own country. There are many who think with me that the neglect of this study is doing more than most people realize to delay the conversion of England."

It was almost a revelation to some Catholic priests to learn that the rules laid down by Rome today, are the same as the liturgical prescriptions of the seventh century. Geoffrey loved to show lantern slides of Anglo-Saxon altars standing beneath domed canopies, with curtains between them, never forgetting to point out that these very early altars are always vested with frontals, just as is laid down in the general rubrics of the present Roman Missal.

Geoffrey firmly believed in frontals, not only because they are ordered by the rubrics, but because they "concentrate colour where it is most required." The right use of color in a church is part of the technical equipment of the trained designer, and without this knowledge he is ignorant of one of the laws of sacred art.  To quote Geoffrey's own words: "To leave the altar stripped to the bare stone and splash colour all around the sanctuary can only result in confusion. The eye is distracted from the essential feature of the building, attention is dissipated and the decoration drags down the mind and heart instead of raising it." But what invariably astonished his listeners or readers more than anything else was the statement: "No student can fail to notice the pains taken by Catholic builders in this country to light their high altars from all three sides, north, east and south. To omit the east window has only succeeded in setting the altar in the darkest corner of the church and that has proved a poor remedy indeed for too much glare." Since the early days of the gothic revival very few Catholic churches in Britain had been designed with large east windows -- more often than not there was a black wall behind the high altars -- so Geoffrey's insistence on their value sounded almost like heresy. Yet once these novel opinions were digested by priests, seminarians and nuns -- even bishops -- Geoffrey began to find himself in greater demand to remodel sanctuaries of churches or to replan their altars. It is mainly due to the influence of The Liturgical Altar that so many tabernacles in England are now veiled according to the rubrics, but it has taken far longer to convince the clergy that their altars would be improved by hiding them with frontals. Still it is less trouble to change a tabernacle veil than an altar frontal, so this may partly account for the absence of the latter!

In a brief tribute to his memory, written by the Reverend John P. Murphy, of Saint James, Reading, Berkshire, published in The Tablet (February 6, 1954), it was said: "God thought fit to endow one so devoted to the altar with an abundant measure of the fruits of the Holy Spirit; of charity and peace and joy. And perhaps no one can know better than a parish priest the part he played in "the reconciliation of a convert" (to borrow a phrase from the Ritual) when, coming from an environment of good taste, the convert found such work as Mr. Webb's to greet him in the place of worship of his new-found Faith. That indeed was very reconciling ... Mr. Webb has done a very great life's work. He was loved the beauty of God's house. And with what exquisite fingers he has known how to show that love; a love so traced in many a church that if his going makes you lonesome you can be consoled, because si monumentum requiris, circumspice [if you seek his monument, look around -- LAJ]. And looking round, you will want to borrow Goldsmith's epitaph as well as Wren's, for how precisely true it is of Geoffrey Webb that nullum quod tetgit non ornavit." [There was nothing he touched that he did not adorn" -- LAJ]

Originally published in Liturgical Arts Quarterly, vol. 23, February 1955, no. 2

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Some examples of Webb's work:

Webb's Lady Altar in Fairford (1913)
Photo credit: Lawrence Lew, O.P. (Source)
Detail. Photo credit: Lawrence Lew, O.P. (Source)
Regrettably, these next two works by Webb appear to no longer exist -- or at least they no longer exist in their original churches.

Webb's high altar for the Church of St. Thomas More, Seaford, Sussex (1933)
Webb's altar for the Church of Our Lady, Queen of Peace, Braintree, Essex (1940)

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