Back to back
- Edwin Lutyens by Mary Lutyens
Murray, 294 pp, £12.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 7195 3777 0
Chapter Four of Mary Lutyens’s memoir of her father finds her parents at Scheveningen, on their honeymoon. ‘For the first week they sat back to back on the beach in two of those old-fashioned high-backed basket chairs, she facing towards the sea and he towards the land, reaching back uncomfortably to hold hands. For the second week he took her sight-seeing when she was so sore from his love-making that she could hardly walk and felt that she should have been resting.’ They had already found two incompatibilities: Emily was to go on finding Edwin’s sexual demands repugnant, and Edwin was never to share Emily’s enthusiasm for the seaside (like half an apple, he said).
The letters between them, which are the primary documentary source of Mary Lutyens’s book, are, when they deal with their feelings for each other, full of affectionate apologies, loving reassurances and tender explanations: but as they began, so they went on – almost always in some sense facing in opposite directions.
Very often they were physically apart. He writes from the country, where he is visiting clients or spending weekends (most of the houses he built were for weekend entertaining rather than country living), from India when he was working on the New Delhi buildings, from the office in town when Emily is spending her summers at the seaside with the children. As Theosophy became more and more important in her life, she, too, travelled, and became involved in Indian politics. It was another cause of trouble: ‘If you come to India on a political mission,’ he wrote, ‘I suppose I shall have to chuck Delhi and leave it to Baker, which will spell ruin for us.’ It was a marriage made tolerable by separation, and this means that much of what is interesting and amusing in Mary Lutyens’s book is about family life without father.
Lutyens was never sent away to school: he said from time to time that he regretted the lack of that assurance which a public school might have given him, but it is hard to believe his time was not better spent watching builders at work and in the local carpenter’s shop, or that solitariness was not a stimulus for imagination. Indeed, he said to Osbert Sitwell that ‘any talent I may have was due to a long illness as a boy, which afforded me time to think, and to subsequent ill-health, because I was not allowed to play games and so had to teach myself, for my enjoyment, to use my eyes instead of my feet. My brothers hadn’t the same advantage.’
He hated disorder. His father, Charles Lutyens, was a horse painter of decreasing reputation (Lutyens had no pictures in his house when he first married so as not to have to hang any of his father’s) who became eccentric (dunking roast potatoes in tea) and parsimonious (using newspapers as tablecloths). All this outraged the tidy-minded Lutyens, who was to bring order into his own life, in the economic way that designers and architects have, by making decisions about dress and decoration once and for all early in life (one thinks of Stanley Morison’s black suits and Corbusier’s bow tie), Lutyens wore, as his daughter remembers, brown suits, brown shoes, duck-egg green shirts with high starched butterfly collars and a narrow black tie. His drawing-rooms had black walls (semi-gloss), white ceilings and woodwork, green painted floors and yellow curtains.
Much of what is reported of Lutyens suggests that, often in admirable ways, he never grew up. The jokes, puns and flippancy, which he used to cover his sense of social inadequacy, the funny drawings done to entertain the children, and the affection most of his clients felt for him, remind one of Edward Lear – a very different character, but one who also came to move in a society to which he had not been born. Harold Nicolson said of him that ‘never, since the days of Sheridan and Goldsmith, has a man of genius been so widely beloved.’ When one reads about his relationship with his clients, his charm can seem like a necessary tool. He built what he wanted to, despite clients who had more ideas or less money than his plans demanded. There is a story that Mr Hemingway, for whom he built Heathcote, his first completely Classical house, said that he wanted an oak staircase, not the black marble one Lutyens had planned. Lutyens said that was a pity. The marble staircase was built. ‘I told you I didn’t want a black marble staircase,’ said Hemingway. ‘And I said “what a pity”, didn’t I?’ answered Lutyens. More typical are accounts of Lutyens carrying clients along with him, sketching ideas quickly on one of the pads he always kept along with pipes and pen-knives in his bulging pockets.
These tactics were not so successful in committee-rooms – the story of his work at New Delhi is in part one of frustration. He could treat the Viceroy and his lady, and even the King, as distinguished private clients, but the job was not his alone and the decisions were in some degree collective ones. Sir Herbert Baker, who was responsible for the Secretariat buildings, and always had a book of poetry rather than a sketchbook in his pocket, was better liked by the administrators. He knew how to compromise, and his buildings show it.
Nor was the attractive child all that easy to live with. Work meant much more to him than anything else: without it he turned to games of patience and yet more jokes. When his friendship with Lady Sackville turned into a love affair, their correspondence became sickeningly coy. She calls him ‘MacNed’ and he calls her ‘MacSack’. ‘Such a good little MacNed and so fluffy,’ she writes. ‘Your velly vellumy McNeddie,’ he signs himself back. Yet she too found something rebarbative in the schoolboy part of him. She writes, exasperatedly, in her diary, of days spent in Brighton in 1927 – of his smutty drawings, of the impossibility of having a proper conversation with him, and of his refusal to take her feelings seriously.
Architecture he always took seriously: but he had none of the anxieties about the nature of work and of society which Ruskin and Morris bequeathed to an earlier generation. Architecture was a wonderful game (Classical architecture he calls quite specifically the ‘Great Game’) which could only be played by making buildings – the function of those buildings mattered little. It is significant that a doll’s house and war memorials are among his best-known work. He cared about good building and comfort, but his most striking effects are often in parts of his buildings – entrances, staircases and galleries – which are enlarged beyond any functional need and which have the sweetness of an elegant three-dimensional chess problem.
When he was courting Emily, Lutyens gave her a casket. It contained, along with a tiny crucifix and miniature Bible, the plans of the ‘little white house’ they would live in. It was in the shape of their initials – EL – and epitomised a dream of modest, simple domesticity. The house was never built and the dream never achieved: but it was an inadequate dream from the first. Now that Lutyens’s eclecticism and traditionalism no longer stand between us and an appreciation of his buildings, one can see how little of his work is compromised by the fact that he designed and built for sharers in that dream of aesthetic living. While it is possible to imagine his abilities visited upon a more cultivated man, it is hard to see how anyone could have looked after them better: his first loyalty was to his own creations. It is lucky that he was building while stone, wood, brick and tiles, and the craftsmen and money to use them, were still to be had. He died on the first day of 1944. During the war he went on with his plans for Liverpool Cathedral, which never rose higher than the crypt. It seems unlikely that we will ever build in his way again.
Mary Lutyens’s book is exceedingly readable. It focuses Lutyens’s personality, in a way Christopher Hussey’s 1950 biography could not have been expected to: together, the two books give us the Life. The Works are (with next year’s Hayward Gallery exhibition and a number of books in or recently off the press) getting much attention. The hard fact, on which this book throws some oblique light, seems to be that, though he stands so tantalisingly close in time, there is very little we can reach out and take from him. His ‘Great Game’ depended on a distribution of wealth and resources we are no longer willing to countenance.