In the early nineteenth century, money was flowing into Lakeland. The newly wealthy were looking to build houses and old established families were looking to display their wealth. Small sedate houses were extended and ornamented with gothic towers and classical porticoes, vast mansions sprawled across the landscape and smart villas were constructed overlooking the sea.
One of the key men behind this fever for building was George Webster, from Kendal. He came from a line of master masons long-settled in the Kendal and Cartmel areas.
In 1749 a Thomas Webster is recorded as demanding £4.10s from the people of Kirkby Lonsdale because they had failed to provide sixty horses and carts to carry materials when he repaired 300 feet of the west end of the bridge. A Robert Webster paved the church at Finsthwaite in 1771.
But it was Francis Webster, born in 1767, who really started to make the family's impact on the buildings of South Lakeland. He built the new Assembly Rooms and Market Hall in Hawkshead, a fine building in Stricklandgate, Kendal, which became the Wakefield Bank in 1797, and at the turn of the century he was to be found working for Lord Lonsdale in Whitehaven and at Lowther Hall.
The fanciful imaginative building began when Francis was executant architect to the eccentric Joseph Gandy extending and remodelling Storrs Hall on the shores of Windermere in the style of a Greek temple.
Twenty years later, in 1830, his son George was designing boldly imaginative buildings. Hartley Coleridge, the poet's son, castigated his rebuilding of Croft Lodge, near Ambleside. The design was one which even Piranesi would not have 'dreamed of in a nightmare or under the influence of opium'. The outside is all gothic with fancy ironwork and grinning gargoyles, but the inside is all classical Grecian with delicate plaster ornaments.
Even the new gasworks in Kendal was given a Grecian fa=E7ade with proud pillars supporting the pediment. Kendal's Assembly Rooms have a very fine Greek frontage looking down on the High Street.
George also added towers to Hutton in the Forest and Levens Hall and Dalton, was building as far afield as Skipton and Settle, was responsible for fine buildings in Ulverston and throughout Cartmel, but it was perhaps the massive Conishead Priory that was his greatest challenge.
The brilliant but feckless James Wyatt began extending Conishead in 1822. The house promised to be one of the finest in the kingdom but the work moved forward at a snail's pace and after seven years was only half completed. Wyatt was dismissed and Webster eventually completed the vast and wonderfully ornate building and was largely responsible for its decoration..
Angus Taylor, who died in August, 2000, had spent thirty years researching the work of the Websters. He has investigated hundreds of projects that this important family of architects worked on over a period of almost a hundred years. He traces the development of a business. In the early days the Websters were master masons providing and supervising work to the design of others. When George Webster retired in the 1840's he was a leading regional architect responsible for many of the finest buildings of the area.
The book includes a detailed gazetteer describing the work done on all the buildings and a range of photographs that show just how much the Websters contributed to the architectural heritage of Cumbria. - Steve Matthews, Bookcase.