Gillian Darley

  • The Architect and His Wife: A Life of Edwin Lutyens by Jane Ridley
    Chatto, 524 pp, £25.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 7011 7201 0
  • Edwin Lutyens, Country Houses: From the Archives of ‘Country Life’ by Gavin Stamp
    Aurum, 192 pp, £35.00, May 2001, ISBN 1 85410 763 1
  • Lutyens Abroad edited by Andrew Hopkins and Gavin Stamp
    British School at Rome, 260 pp, £34.95, March 2002, ISBN 0 904152 37 5

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.

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