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John Webb (1799–1880) and Edith Cragg (died 1925)

Studio of François Boucher, Les Deux Confidentes (NG 4080)
Jean-Siméon Chardin, The Young Schoolmistress (NG 4077)
Jean-Siméon Chardin, The House of Cards (Portrait of Jean-Alexandre Le Noir) (NG 4078)
Jean-Baptiste Pater, Fête galante with a Couple dancing, Musicians and Onlookers (NG 4079)

John Webb has been called the most important English dealer in the period 1830–70, and the one who also had the greatest impact on the South Kensington Museum.1 His father was Charles Webb (1774–1849) whose business, conducted at various addresses in Old Bond Street and Piccadilly,2 was to recover gold and silver thread from clothes and textiles. Webb has been described as having been ‘born into the luxury trade and in the midst of a huge turnover of second-hand goods, the very environment from which he would later obtain his own stock’.3

John Webb’s own business was as an upholsterer and cabinetmaker, trading first at 8 Old Bond Street from 1825 to 1851 and then until the late 1860s at 11 Grafton Street, just off New Bond Street.4 That Webb was recognised as an expert in the field of decorative furniture and upholstery is evidenced by his being appointed a member of the jury in that category for the 1851 Great Exhibition.5 In the years 1855–7 he made and supplied pieces of high-quality reproduction furniture to the Marquess of Hertford, including a reproduction now in the Wallace Collection of a large three-stage Boulle writing table, the original of which had been made for Maximilian Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria.6 Webb also made Pugin’s most important furniture for the palace of Westminster: among other things, the Royal Throne in the House of Lords and 16 chairs for the Prince’s Chamber.7

An important part of Webb’s activities was as agent for the South Kensington Museum and the British Museum, on whose behalf he bid at auctions in London and Paris in the 1850s and 1860s, including from the Bernal collection.8 He also reported to the South Kensington Museum on the Soltykoff collection in 1860, offering to buy objects on its behalf on which it was outbid, so that he could submit them later when funds became available. The museum acquired 26 objects at the sale, including the celebrated Gloucester Candlestick. Among other significant purchases which the museum made from Webb were medieval ivories, including the front cover panels of the Lorsch Gospels dating from about 810, and examples of modern manufactures bought from or through him the following year were shown at the Paris Exhibition. In 1869 Webb signed an agreement with the museum to help fund his retirement, whereby the latter would rent a large part of the dealer’s remaining stock with a view to its ultimate purchase. Most of the items were bought during 1871–4, Webb retiring in 1873. This unusual arrangement was encouraged by Matthew Digby Wyatt, in his capacity as art referee, who wrote that ‘the specimens assume an exceptional value from the fact of their having been collected by Mr Webb at a time when his eye and judgement were unrivalled amongst all those who enjoyed opportunities of inspection and purchase at home and abroad’.9 By about 1868 Webb was wintering at the Villa Hollandia in Cannes,10 and in 1872 he, or his son-in-law Cecil Webb Cragg, also leased Wrotham Place, Kent, where Henry Cole stayed in October of the following year.11

Besides his dealing activities, Webb fostered art education and he himself amassed significant collections of paintings and works of art. In connection with the first activity he was one of 64 guarantors of £1,000 each who helped underwrite the costs of the Great Exhibition of 1862;12 he was on the committee of, and for a few years a judge for, the Society of Arts’ competitions held to encourage art-workmanship applicable to manufactures;13 and he was among the ‘well-known connoisseurs’ who helped make as complete as possible the first instalments of the Universal Art Inventory, the purpose of which was supplied by its subtitle: consisting of brief notes of works of fine and ornamental art executed before A.D.1800, chiefly to be found in Europe, especially in connection with architecture and for the most part existing in ecclesiastical buildings: compiled for the use of the South Kensington Museum and the Schools of Art in the United Kingdom.14

On her death in 1925, John Webb’s daughter, Edith Cragg, who remained at Wrotham Place for the rest of her life,15 bequeathed to the Gallery the four paintings specified in the heading to this biography.16 Apparently she had been offered a large sum of money for the two Chardins, but preferred to leave them to the nation as a memorial to her father.17 According to the catalogue of her posthumous sale, which took place on 26 June 1925 at Christie’s, London, the paintings being sold had been collected by Webb.18


1 Wainwright 2002. Except where otherwise stated, the above account of Webb’s life and activities in connection with the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) is based on that article, to which I am much indebted. For additional information on Webb’s activities in relation to the South Kensington Museum, see also Davies 1999, passim; and for additional information on him as a furniture dealer, see Westgarth 2009, pp. 181–3. The ‘John Webb’ written of here cannot of course be the same person as the ‘John Webb’ whose posthumous sales of paintings took place on 8–10 and 24 February 1849 and who had died at Vanves, near Paris, in August 1848.

2 Charles Webb’s final addresses were 48 Piccadilly and Park Hill House, Clapham: The Times, 21 April 1849, p. 9. For a summary description of the substantial property called Park Hill House, see Supplement to The Times, 18 March 1850.

3 Wainwright 2002, p. 63.

4 Originally John Webb was in partnership with Joseph Cragg who was married to Webb’s sister Anne. The partnership was dissolved in April 1828 with Webb receiving one-third of the stock and carrying on the business alone: information kindly supplied by Ian Dungavell. From about 1857 until 1864 or later, Webb traded, or traded also, from 22 Cork Street, just east of New Bond Street: Watson 1956, p. 239; and NG 739 dossier, letter of 5 August 1864 from R.N. Wornum to John Webb.

5The Times, 30 May 1851, p. 6.

6 Watson 1956, pp. 237–40 and pl. 94. In some cases Webb was not entirely open about the extent to which he mis-described the objects he dealt in (Wainwright 2002, pp. 70–1), but he seems to have avoided any taint to his reputation during his lifetime, the Art Journal in its obituary stating that his ‘discrimination and taste, and, above all, his probity, had obtained for him for many years the position of trusted agent of the Government in their purchases’ (new series, vol. 19 (1880), p. 300).

7 Levy 1995.

8 Wainwright 2002 and the obituary of Webb (written by Henry Cole according to Clive Wainwright), The Times, 21 June 1880, p. 12. The sales of the Bernal collection occurred during 1853–5.

9 Cited in Wainwright 2002, p. 70. According to The Times (24 June 1925, p. 13), after his retirement Webb’s business was carried on in Bond Street and elsewhere by Annoot, then by Robson, Radley and Mackay, and finally by R. Robson.

10 Wainwright 2002, p. 70. For information on the Villa Hollandia, see Edith Cragg was also recorded living there in 1903: Le Littoral, 21 December 1903, p. 1.

11 Wainwright 2002, p. 70. Wrotham Place is described in Pevsner as ‘two-thirds of an Elizabethan mansion, of red brick with stone dressings, much tampered with in the C19’: Pevsner and Newman 1969, pp. 591–2. I am grateful to Clive Thomas, Chairman of Wrotham Historical Society for the date Wrotham Place was leased to the Webb Cragg family. He has informed me that the house was owned by Mary Anne Poynder (née Edmeades), who in 1873 left it to her cousin, General Henry Edmeades of Nurstead Court, Meopham. Webb died at Wrotham Place but, according to his will, he normally wintered at the Villa Hollandia, and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth, whom he probably married on 1 October 1835 at St George’s, Hanover Square, died there on 22 March 1894, leaving her effects valued at £11,926 13s. 7d. to her daughter, Edith Cragg: information kindly supplied by Ian Dungavell. Conceivably some of the pictures in Edith Cragg’s 1925 sale had been inherited by her from her mother.

12The Times, 9 March 1861 (‘The proposed Great Exhibition of 1862’).

13  Graham 1993. He had also been among the jurors for exhibits of decorative furniture and upholstery for the Great Exhibition of 1851: The Times, 30 May 1851, p. 6.

14The Times, 8 October 1877 (‘Universal Art Inventory’). The first part of this work was published in London in 1870.

15 Stead 1998, p. 57.

16 The date of Edith Cragg’s death was 18 March 1925: The Times, 19 March 1925, p. 1. Probate to her will dated 12 March 1921 and codicil of 8 August 1924 was granted on 22 May 1925. The bequest of paintings to the National Gallery was made by Clause 10 of the will. One of her executors was Sir Aston Webb, a successful architect whose works included the entrance facade of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

17 Holmes 1925. Conceivably, Edith Cragg may have sold another French eighteenth-century picture during her lifetime – namely, J.-B. Perronneau’s Portrait of a Man (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, inv. 65.2652). The sitter was formerly identified as Francis Hastings, Earl of Huntington. According to a receipt in the Museum’s files, the painting was once in the collection of ‘Mrs. Cragg, England’ at some time before its acquisition by Wildenstein. Whether this was Edith Cragg is unknown, as is the earlier provenance of the painting, which was not in the 1925 sale. I am grateful to Victoria Reed for information about the Boston painting. For a summary of Edith Cragg’s bequests to the Victoria and Albert Museum, see The Times, 1 June 1925, p. 13.

18 For a report on the separate sale by Edith Cragg’s executors of furniture, objets d’art and porcelain on 24 June 1925, see The Times, 25 June 1925, p. 11. She had inherited not only the paintings collection, but also the property in Cannes. She was buried at St George’s Church, Wrotham, where Webb himself and her husband, Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Webb Cragg of the Rifle Brigade (retired), had been buried. I am grateful to Amy Jones of Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Stuart Bligh of Kent County Council Archive and Local History Service for information about the burials. Information about Edith Cragg’s husband is from The Times, 24 June 1925, p. 13. He had died aged 61 on 21 February 1898 at Wrotham Place: The Times, 28 February 1898, p. 6, where his military career is summarised.