Sir Edwin (Ned) Landseer Lutyens, architect of genius, was a master of the false trail and the misleading, if jocular, aside. Born and educated in London, he preferred to dwell on his formative years in rural Surrey. Although trained in the architectural office of Ernest George and Harold Peto, the older of whom was an able vernacular revivalist and the younger a skilled landscape architect, he portrayed himself as a self-taught artist who learned what he needed by haunting the yards of traditional craftsmen builders. Eventually, he all but scratched his family from the record – especially his curious father, a military horse painter turned landscapist whose later years were blackened by his obsessive secret, a mysterious Venetian paint recipe, never revealed. When Emily Lytton first met her future husband, she assumed him to be the only child of a widow. In reality he was the tenth surviving child, the ninth son, of a family of 13, happy to have become his mother’s favourite son after recovering from rheumatic fever.
Equally, considerable adjustment was (and is still) applied to Lutyens’s prodigious architectural output. His early promoters and admirers added their own skew, emphasising whatever best suited their arguments and stylistic preferences, editing out the awkwardly novel or the anomalous. So even within one county (Surrey), one building type (the small country house) and one decade (the 1890s), the inspired but traditionally based handling of vernacular materials and forms, exemplified at Goddards or Tigbourne Court, entirely overshadowed his extraordinary efforts to master the difficulties of a steep roadside site, at the Red House in Godalming (for Gavin Stamp, ‘an unsung masterpiece’), with its sheer elevations of brick, in which the Tudor almost met the Machine Age. As Lutyens’s style moved from Arts and Crafts through Palladian classicism towards abstraction of forms and his own arcane system of geometry, he was aided by mentors and patrons for whom he could do little wrong, despite his often dismissive attitude to both budget and brief. Country houses made Lutyens’s name, and his workload and assiduity caused considerable jealousy among his peers, but he wanted to be acclaimed as an architect of public buildings. The painstakingly detailed plans and designs he prepared for County Hall, a massive riverside headquarters for the London County Council, engrossed him for most of 1907. It was his reverential response to Greenwich Hospital, in a style he christened Wrennaissance. He was mortified to lose, especially since one of the judges was Richard Norman Shaw, the living architect he most admired. But if Lutyens had been known solely for the unexceptional commercial offices and banks he produced in the interwar period, as he struggled to keep offices in London and India and support his family, he might have been forgotten – just as Ralph Knott, the man who won that coveted job at County Hall has been, dismissed as just another prolix revivalist architect of no great note.
Lutyens’s great-granddaughter Jane Ridley’s biography has been eagerly awaited, in the hope that it would clarify his selective account, make amends to the influences that Lutyens denied and the family he forgot, and above all answer the question, how did this apparently largely untaught, unlettered, inarticulate man design so many exceptional buildings over more than half a century of architectural practice across the world?
Ridley’s book turns out to be disappointingly unrevealing of the professional Lutyens but is – as the title suggests – exhaustive on his domestic life. She follows the unravelling of an agonising marriage, via the protagonists’ letters, written daily and even twice or thrice daily. The pair were caught up in an unbearably tense yet apparently unbreakable contract, one which lasted all their lives and marked their five children: two committed suicide, the other three wrote tactful books about themselves or their parents in which their childhoods are dealt with discreetly but with plenty of telling details.
Edwin Lutyens seemed to approach life as a game. For those who knew him least it appeared to be a giggly, childish game; those who knew him better realised the desperation involved: this was a battle in which everything gave way to ambition. His upbringing, or, as he might have punned, his downbringing, saw his father reduced to using a single plate at mealtimes, even to eating off newspapers – the family fortune had disappeared into the purchase of a tea plantation in Ceylon for one of his older brothers, while his father’s obsession with the Venetian Secret (he even wrote a novel of that title) only speeded up the descent.
Ridley depicts an odd and troubled man, very far from the familiar cheery, owlish face which, when topped by a pith helmet, bore a startling resemblance to the dome of his late masterpiece, the Viceroy’s Lodge in New Delhi. Lutyens could, however, charm and entertain in just the measure that the unequal relationship between client and architect favoured. The ghastly strings of puns, although alleviated by sudden moments of inspired wit and wordplay, wore out those who spent long periods with him, but they were perfect for gaining clients’ confidence, loosening purse strings and alleviating the longueurs of a country house weekend.
Ridley’s book attempts to put the record straight on Emily Lytton, who has long been seen as the archetypal Bad Wife to Lutyens’s puckish genius. The aristocratic but unconventional Emily entered a marriage in which there were problems from the first: sitting back to back on a windy Northern European beach on their honeymoon, the signs were already clear enough. Sexual incompatibility was compounded by her literary interests and his avoidance of anything which did not touch on architecture. Her husband excluded her; her children, much as she loved them, confused her.
Emily Lytton’s first experiences with men had not been propitious. Aged 18, she fell for the wiles of the ‘53-year-old married philanderer’ Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, until her obsession with him was replaced by friendship with his odd daughter Judith. Hardly recovered, she met Gerald Duckworth, Virginia Woolf’s nemesis, but it was for marriage to Lutyens that she gave up her plans to work at the Oxford Mission among the factory girls of Bethnal Green. Her mother’s disapproval of her choice of an architect of uncertain social origins and a German name perhaps strengthened her resolve. (Lady Edith soon became close to her son-in-law, who designed her a wonderful house, Homewood, on the Knebworth estate.)
From the start, Emily was an outsider in her own home; when she was Lutyens’s fiancée, she began to sew their entwined initials on the bed linen, but it was Gertrude Jekyll, known as Aunt Bumps, Ned’s brilliant patron and collaborator, who chose the colour of the thread. Lutyens immediately lighted on his preferred decorative scheme and applied it from one house to the next: the drawing-rooms, with their dramatic black walls and green painted floorboards, were the Edwardian version of Minimalism. The tyranny of taste and frigid aesthetics is never conducive to family life, but Emily Lutyens seemed to have been as indifferent to her surroundings as Lutyens was prescriptive.
Marriage left Emily’s energies and intelligence without an outlet, but gradually she broke free from her role, much as she had absconded from the exotic milieu of her upbringing as granddaughter of Bulwer Lytton and daughter of the Viceroy of India. Later, in what she described as her ‘growing up’, Emily became involved with the militant suffragette group, the Women’s Social and Political Union, and campaigned for the Labour Party, taking her children’s nanny along in case of trouble. She was invited to stand for Luton but declined, partly because she was terrified of what winning a seat in Parliament might involve.
Although Emily played little part in her husband’s professional life, it was her friendship with his clients the Mallets that provoked the greatest rupture in their marriage and gave her a sense of purpose for almost twenty years. Lutyens had told her of a locked cupboard in the house he’d built for the Mallets (one of his most experimental early houses, Le Bois des Moutiers at Varengeville, near Dieppe), which contained ‘secret books’. These turned out to be key writings by Madame Blavatsky and her followers regarding a new esoteric religion, theosophy. At Christmas 1909, Mme Mallet sent Emily a volume by Annie Besant. Theosophy was a murky stew, mixing self-expression and spiritualism and promising the second coming of a World Teacher (conveniently already identified, by Mrs Besant, as Krishnamurti), and it provided an ideal release for Emily Lutyens’s frustrations. The fact that her grandfather’s occult novels were key texts compounded the attraction. She, and later her daughters, would spend years following a shady international circuit, from California to Australia, from the Netherlands to Benares.
One daughter, the composer Elizabeth Lutyens, remembered the family sitting with hands outstretched, in a cloud of incense, chanting ‘I am a link in a golden chain of love which stretches round the world’; their father, one imagines, was not in the room. Edwin Lutyens, having inadvertently lit the touchpaper, was left with the dubious privilege of designing the theosophists’ headquarters in Bloomsbury, constructed under Mrs Besant’s own experimental system, which dispensed with the normal building contracts and procedures. The outbreak of war and the failure of funding scuppered the project and it became, eventually, the imposing headquarters of the British Medical Association. A few years later, theosophy was in ruins, and Emily was left utterly disillusioned.
Lutyens’s habit of forming friendships with clever, older and often unhappy women was formed long before his marriage and continued after it. He could always hide behind facetiousness when sexual or intellectual tension threatened. For a while, the exhaustingly mercurial Lady Sackville, Vita Sackville-West’s half-Spanish mother, seems to have offered him more than just company and patronage, but Emily was watching from a distance, knowing that ‘she will be a bad enemy when she ceases to be a friend.’ Ridley unwisely looks for evidence of Lutyens’s psychosexual problems in his architecture: the ‘significance of tunnels in Lutyens’s work is undeniable’ she says and in his mother-in-law’s house, faced with a passage, she finds a vagina, entering ‘womb-like’ rooms beyond. This habit reaches its nadir when she refers to the ‘feverish state of architectural foreplay’ between MacSack and McNed, their pet names for one another.
Despite her links to and interests in India, Emily did not accompany her husband there until 1921, almost a decade after he had begun working on the plans for New Delhi. Lutyens and Herbert Baker, who had also been a pupil of Ernest George and Harold Peto’s many years before, were jointly appointed to this huge task, which would become a sour professional (and personal) battle and win them both knighthoods. The siting and designing of the vast imperial administrative complex was a marathon which lasted for twenty years and found Lutyens’s powers at their zenith while Baker’s, best seen in his earlier work for Cecil Rhodes in Africa, were waning. The tensions were further exacerbated when Baker won another plum job, the rebuilding of Soane’s Bank of England, which Lutyens had desperately wanted. Emily, who was an enthusiastic backer of India and its people even before she visited the country, wrote in 1914, ‘you have no opportunity of seeing what lies behind, the real India . . . but perhaps it will come some day.’ In fact, Lutyens had already begun to seek out the motifs which would dominate his work in New Delhi: the stupa, or Buddhist dome; the chattris, or roof pavilions of Fatepuhr Sikri; and the chujjah, the deep, sharp cornice. Five months before the outbreak of war, he presented his plans to the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge. Perpetually unwell and nervously exhausted, he signed off drawings without realising that the gradient of the approach road meant that the dome of the Viceroy’s House would frequently disappear from sight on the way up to the Government buildings on their plateau. Baker’s vast administrative buildings, the twin Secretariats, also sited on the plateau, had gained the advantage of permanent visibility. Lutyens became obsessed with Baker’s ‘trick’ and fought tenaciously and fruitlessly until 1922 to have the gradient altered. He saw it as an act of spite on the part of his colleague and erstwhile friend. Characteristically punning away his misery, he called the episode his Bakerloo.
Revisiting the familiar, shifting the vernacular detail or the classical motif into a subtly Mannerist rendering, inverting forms much as he subverted language with his puns, Lutyens was a consummate designer in three dimensions. In his work in India, he adjusted his eye minutely to the transformation of an entirely new range of detail and massing while extending, on a magnificent scale, his own variation on the Venetian Secret, a subtle and apparently inexplicable mathematical system of proportion to which all in his office alluded but no one could explain.
When Robert Byron wrote his fine articles for Country Life in 1931 commemorating the achievement at New Delhi he noted that the meeting of classicism and the Orient was ‘a fusion, not of historical reminiscences, but of two schools of architectural thought. The outcome of it is monumental.’ The objective desired by what he called ‘political sentimentalists’ had been triumphantly achieved. ‘Lutyens had put the imperial Indo-Saracenic style, with its uneasy imports of Victorian Gothic larded with Islamic motifs, resoundingly to flight.’ Architecture, as David Cannadine has pointed out, played a part in the consolidation of the Indian Empire, and the Viceroy’s House, ‘a ducal domain-cum-country house-cum-princely palace’, complete with six thousand servants, was a metaphor for the social hierarchy and self-confidence of the Raj well into the 20th century.
Country Life and its editor Edward Hudson (Lutyens’s client for three country houses as well as the magazine’s Covent Garden offices) had been central to the ascendancy of Lutyens’s work and also to the manner of its representation. In his acute introduction to the handsome volume reproducing the magazine’s photographs of his country houses, Gavin Stamp points out how partial the coverage was. Le Bois des Moutiers, of 1898, with its hints of Mackmurdo and Mackintosh, and in Stamp’s words, ‘a creative experiment in form, a piece of inventive Mannerism’, did not find favour in Hudson’s magazine; the photograph of it was finally published in 1981. Others, like the Red House, were never to appear.
It is in houses such as these, as well as in New Delhi, in the crypt beneath the projected Roman Catholic Cathedral of Liverpool and in the First World War cemeteries at Thiepval and Etaples, that the Lutyens admired by Frank Lloyd Wright, Peter Behrens and even Le Corbusier can be discerned. It is here, too, that the links to Lutyens’s masters Norman Shaw and Philip Webb appear, not in literal borrowings but in their shared toughness of architectural approach, resolutely avoiding the norm. Who knows what Lutyens would have made of the Bank of England, Soane’s masterpiece so unerringly obliterated by Baker? The Viceroy’s Lodge contains strong echoes of Soane’s remarkable series of passages and hallways at the Bank, which were photographed and published in loving detail prior to their demolition. Such subtly modulated spaces were understood by both architects to lie at the heart of great and complex buildings.
Lutyens Abroad reports the proceedings of a conference held in 1999 at the British School at Rome, itself a Lutyens building, ” a reconstructed exhibition pavilion based curiously on the top of the west front of St Paul’s Cathedral. In his concluding essay, Gavin Stamp wonders what claims to modernity Lutyens’s work can make. He uses A.G. Shoosmith’s Church of St Martin in Delhi, an extraordinary stepped brick monolith, to exemplify the force of Lutyens’s legacy, but concludes that his own best works ‘have the power to move and thrill and astonish because of the inimitable intuitive comprehension of three-dimensional form possessed by Lutyens alone’.