William Richard Lethaby

In honour of William Richard Lethaby’s 160th birthday, we will take a look at this remarkable man and the collection of his work we hold in our collections.

William Richard Lethaby is a man many will never have heard of, however, he was a leading light in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Born in Barnstaple on the 18th January 1857, Lethaby was a member of the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institute, where he studied art under Alexander Lauder. He went on to become apprenticed to Lauder where he started training as an architect, before moving to practices in Derby and then Leicestershire. After finishing his training, Lethaby went to work for Norman Shaw in London and became a leading light of the emerging Arts and Crafts movement.

One of Lethaby’s many sketches in our collection [B70-3a-11]
As an architect, Lethaby did not create many buildings, but his influence in both art and architecture can still be seen today. He was heavily involved in creating the Central School of Art in London (which is now part of Central St. Martin’s) and was also a founder of the Art Workers’ Guild.

After Lethaby’s death in 1931, the North Devon Athenaeum was given a large collection of his notes and drawings. There are around 160 sketches and watercolours along with 12 sketch books. Many of the sketch books contain drawings of Barnstaple and North Devon as well as sketches he took whilst on travelling scholarships in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

Lethaby was a prolific writer and had several articles and books published during his lifetime. There is a substantial collection of notes, many of which seem to have been written on the back of whatever came to hand,  including on the back of exam papers taken by the students of the Central School!


In addition to the collection of original drawings, notes and other items by and about Lethaby in the our document collections we also have several editions of his books and articles on our shelves in the Library Collection as well as some of the items he won whilst studying at the Literary and Scientific Institute. The items include his books on Westminster Abbey, from his time as Surveyor there, and the church of Sancta Sophia in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), which he wrote with Harold Swainson. It also contains  a copy of Architecture, Mysticism and Myth which has become a standard work for those studying architecture.


The largest and perhaps most important item in the collection are the original drawings which won him the Soane Medallion in 1879 and brought him to the attention of Norman Shaw. We have 7 of the 8 drawings he submitted, which he may well have worked on whilst in Barnstaple.


lethaby-front-coverTo discover more of the items in the Lethaby Collection visit our document catalogue.

You can also find out more about Lethaby’s life and legacy in this booklet which was published in 2007 to celebrate his 150th birthday. Copies are available to purchase from us. For more details contact us.


…Barum Athena

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