The Monuments Men

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Geoffrey Fairbank Webb ( 1898-1970 )

Architectural historian and professor, Geoffrey Fairbank Webb was born in Birkenhead, England on May 9, 1898. He served as a seaman in the Royal Navy during World War I before completing a degree in History from Magdalene College, Cambridge University, in 1921. He then moved to London, where he befriended members of the avant-garde, including art historian and critic Roger Fry of the Bloomsbury Group. Inspired by this dynamic cultural milieu, he published writings on painting, architecture, and sculpture. Among his first published works were articles on Spanish Art (1927), Georgian Art (1929), and the editing of the letters of the architects Sir John Vanbrugh, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and Sir Christopher Wren. In 1929 he returned to Cambridge, where he received a succession of appointments which included Demonstrator, Lecturer, and, most prestigiously, Slade Professor of Fine Arts in 1938. Webb also lectured at the Courtauld Institute of Art from 1934 to 1937.

Webb reentered the Royal Navy in 1939. His quick wit and historical acumen qualified him for service first with the Intelligence branch of the Admiralty and later the historical section of the War Cabinet Office. In November 1943 he was appointed by Sir Leonard Woolley, Archaeological Advisor to the War Office, as Advisor to the MFAA at SHAEF headquarters in London. The following January, Webb served as part of a three-man committee which drafted the first directives of the MFAA. Also involved in the project were Woolley and Monuments Man Capt. Calvin Hathaway. This early “Charter” was used as a basis for Civil Affairs training and was later widely distributed to Monuments Men in the field. Webb also supervised the creation of Official Lists of Protected Monuments based on maps provided by the United States. In late August 1944 he traveled to Paris to meet with Jacques Jaujard, the head of the Musées Nationaux, establishing a relationship that would prove critical in the postwar restitution of looted French art.

Following the German surrender, Webb was named Chief of the MFAA Branch, British Element Control Commission. In addition to overseeing MFAA operations in the British Zone in Germany, he was an integral part of the postwar restitution effort in France and Germany. He also helped expose the notorious forger, Hans Van Meegeren, after being alerted to his deception by Monuments Man Maj. Ellis Waterhouse, who became suspicious while examining the painting Supper at Emmaus, previously attributed to Jan Vermeer. Further investigation uncovered a group of forged Vermeers, including Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, a painting Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering considered the crown jewel of his collection. As a measure of gratitude for his role in revealing von Meegeren’s deception, the Dutch government gifted Webb one of his forgeries, The Procuress.

In appreciation for his service as a Monuments Officer, the French government awarded Webb the Croix de Guerre and named him an officer of the Legion of Honor. He was presented with the 1947 Medal of Freedom by the United States and made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1953.

Following his return to England in July 1946, Webb resumed his duties as Slade Professor at Cambridge University, delivering the 1947 Henriette Hertz Trust Lecture on Aspects of Art. His term was short-lived, for in 1948 he was appointed Secretary of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments in London. However, much of his time following the war was devoted to caring for his ailing wife, the architectural historian Marjorie Isabel Batten. Despite personal stress and professional disappointment, he continued to write. His Hertz Lecture, “Baroque Art,” was published by the British Academy in 1947. He also contributed an entire volume to the multi-volume Pelican History of Art, Architecture in Britain in the Middle Ages (1956). While Webb intended to publish a catalogue of the works of Sir Francis Chantrey, this hope was dashed with the unfortunate theft of the suitcase containing his first and only draft for the project.

Webb was a member of the Royal Fine Arts Commission and a fellow of the British Academy, the Society of Antiquaries, and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Following his wife’s death in 1962, he retired from the Royal Commission and settled down to a quiet life by the sea in Wales.

Geoffrey Webb died on July 17, 1970 in Ffynone, Swansea in Wales.