William Richard Lethaby was the son of a gilder and a radical lay preacher. In 1871 he was apprenticed to a local architect and painter Alexander Lauder. In 1879 Lethaby was appointed chief clerk to Richard Norman Shaw, whose influence was already evident in his architectural drawings. He remained in the employ of Shaw for twelve years during which time he had become increasingly responsible for detailing Shaw's work, and in doing so made an important contribution to his work. In 1879 Lethaby set up in practise in London and his designs for Kenton & Co., a short lived co-operative specializing in furniture (1890-02), founded with Ernest Gimson, Sidney Barnsley and others, were independant of any previous style. He designed and in some cases made highly original work in cast iron, silver, plaster, stone, stained glass, book illustration and interior design.
As an architect Lethaby built little, the three examples of Avon Tyrell, Ringwood, Hampshire built for Lord Manners, Hurst, Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire and All Saints, Brockhampton, Hereford all serve to illustrate the development of his ideas.
Lethaby was a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement and a founder of the Workers' Guild in 1884. From 1894 to 1918 he was Art Inspector to the Technical Education Board of the London County Council, and it was Lethaby who initiated art and craft education in the capital helping to form the Central School of Arts and Crafts of which he was Principal from 1902 to 1911.
In 1906 he was made Surveyor of Westminster Abbey and introduced the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, of which he was a member, concentrating on cleaning and conservation of the abbey's fabric instead of attempts at restoration.
Lethaby wrote extensively on art and architectural history, publishing Architecture, Mysticism and Myth in 1891, followed by numerous articles in the art and architectural press.
Lethaby advocated a functional, socially responsible architecture and one that was 'a developing structural art satisfying the special requirements of the time by experiment'.