Impervious to Draughts
- The English House by Hermann Muthesius, edited by Dennis Sharp, translated by Janet Seligman and Stewart Spencer
Frances Lincoln, 699 pp, £125.00, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 7112 2688 3
As house prices fall and mortgage rates rise, there is a sense of unease, bordering on panic, that goes beyond economics. An idea of home that is dear to the English middle class is, it seems, under threat. Hermann Muthesius, whose Das englische Haus first appeared just over a century ago and has now been translated in full for the first time, would have sympathised. For him too the English way of domestic life was a precious ideal, which he investigated in exhaustive detail and explained admiringly, despite occasional moments of puzzlement, to his German readers. England, by the end of the 19th century, was, as he pointed out, ‘the only advanced country in which the majority of the population still live in houses’. Flats were not popular, nor were town centres. No Englishman would live over a shop if he could help it. It was to the country and the suburbs that the English retreated, to houses which, Muthesius noted with approval, were ‘to live in, not to look at’, practical and unpretentious. If the nation lacked a café society and any real metropolis, that was because people entertained informally at home, and if guests came ‘with no particular culinary expectations’ (which was just as well in view of the ‘almost primitive’ level of cooking and the prevalence of Worcester sauce), they experienced a degree of genuine hospitality from which Germany might learn much. The devotion of the English to their domestic life meant that they would ‘forgo the theatre, concerts, dinner parties, the races, at-homes and much else’ in favour of their own firesides. Here, without stoves or central heating but ‘impervious to the draught’, they lived lives governed by such ‘immutable patterns’ of behaviour that they were always at ease and able ‘in all situations to do the right thing’.
If Muthesius’s England at times resembles a Punch cartoon that is because what he noticed was, like a cartoon, generalised, occasionally exaggerated, but acutely observed and essentially true. In an exchange of national stereotypes some years after Das englische Haus appeared, the architect W.R. Lethaby, whose work Muthesius admired, remarked that if the Germans had anything to teach the English it was how to appreciate their own originality, adding that this ‘historian (in German) of the English’ had ‘investigated, sorted, tabulated’ everything he could find in a thoroughly Teutonic way, but ‘I must say,’ Lethaby concluded, he also ‘understood’. What Muthesius understood specifically was that since the mid-19th century domestic architecture in Britain had undergone a revolution in the course of which a new building type had emerged to suit a new middle-class way of life. This ‘departure in the tectonic arts’ was all the more surprising, as Muthesius did not scruple to observe, for having arisen in ‘the country without art, the country that until recently had, so to speak, lived on the art of the Continent’ yet was now ‘pointing the way to the world and the world was following’.
Indeed, after the pumped up cottages of the Regency and the scaled down castles of the aspiring high Victorians, a domestic architecture had developed in the second half of the century that produced houses more substantial than late Georgian villas but more modest than the old landed estates. These were homes born of the railway age, the age of the commuter and the weekend house party and they had acquired, by the 1890s, an idiom of their own. ‘Old English’ and ‘Queen Anne’ were the suggestive descriptions applied to buildings that obeyed no strict stylistic rules but drew intelligently on history and modest vernacular buildings, adopting the tile-hanging, red brick and half-timbering, the large chimney stacks and little leaded lights of the past and turning them into something new and comfortable. These houses, with their capacious hallways, deep inglenooks, bay windows and cosy corners (some department stores sold ready-made ‘cosy corner’ units), generated that feeling of emotional comfort, of a ‘pre-eminently friendly’ architecture that Muthesius and others on the Continent admired. It was designed to suit a large middle class, extending from the entrepreneurs and manufacturers who could commission a substantial country house, to the suburban terraces of Bedford Park and the budding garden city at Letchworth. It might even, given enlightened patronage, be modified to accommodate the working class. Muthesius was impressed by the factory hands’ housing at Port Sunlight. There was nothing like this in Germany, where the bourgeoisie, he complained, merely imitated their social betters and made themselves physically and psychologically uncomfortable in the process. He wanted to understand what, exactly, the English had done and he was prepared to consider – as the English themselves, with their dislike of abstraction, were not – how all the elements connected, how everything from the situation of a house to the positioning of the downpipes to the laying of the table reflected or affected the culture that produced it.
Born near Weimar in 1861, Muthesius was the son of a builder. A gifted child whose gifts were encouraged, he read widely, with a special fondness for Goethe. In his youth he learned bricklaying as well as music and was good at both, never losing interest in the practical and technical realities that must underlie any cultural achievement – the last illustration in the final volume of The English House is a line drawing of a soap dish designed to fit on the side of a bath. Having trained as an architect he spent four years working in Japan before coming home and marrying. Anna Muthesius was a singer and a beauty, with theories of her own about interior decoration and dress reform. With her dark hair piled up under a broad-brimmed hat, high-waisted silk dress and velvet cloak, she looks in a photograph as if she is sitting for Klimt. The couple came to England in 1896, when Muthesius was given a post as technical attaché to the German Embassy with a brief to report back to the Kaiser on art, architecture, technology and railways. He was not, despite what was later said, a spy, merely an unusually observant visitor who already knew what to look out for. He and Anna took a house, The Priory, well away from the diplomatic quarter in Arts and Crafts country at Hammersmith. This was where William Morris lived at Kelmscott House and where in October of that year he died. It was Morris, along with Ruskin and occasionally Goethe, whose writings gave Muthesius the epigraphs for his book, and it was in Morris himself, as ‘an individual with the strength of genius swimming against the tide of his age’, that Muthesius thought he found the begetter of the modern English house. Morris’s own first home, the Red House, at Bexleyheath, designed for him by Philip Webb in 1859, was, Muthesius decided, ‘the first private house of the new artistic culture’.
This was an exaggeration which imparted a mythic status to the Red House as a pivotal point in architecture that sometimes hangs about it still. Muthesius was right to think that the past was the key to understanding the modern English house, that ‘the history of the house is also the history of a culture,’ but like most historians he was long-sighted. The period that is always most difficult of access is the one that is just within living memory. Not yet written down, its primary sources often still inaccessible, it is at the disposal of fallible memory and prejudice. No generation is ever fair to its parents. In seeing Morris in his own terms as a revolutionary, Muthesius overlooked the antecedents of Webb’s Red House in the work of Butterfield and Pugin and indeed in John Nash, who might claim, if any one architect could, to have invented the architecture Muthesius so admired. But to the Edwardians Nash was still despicable as a stucco-peddling Neoclassicist, his houses ‘cheerless’ and ‘rectangular’. It was to the longer sweep of history that Muthesius turned for explanations. One of the things he most admired and envied about the English was their ease with the past, a past characterised by centuries of national unity and relative peace at home. This too was an exaggeration made possible not least by Muthesius’s use of the word ‘England’ to cover the whole of Britain. But the contrast with Germany, united as a nation only in his own lifetime, was considerable. For the Germans ‘a yawning chasm rent by wars and devastation’ lay between the age of Dürer and the modern world, ‘a gulf that we can scarcely imagine being bridged’, while Old England, it seemed, still lay about the English in their village inns, farmhouses and universities.
Muthesius’s vivid, not to say lurid, survey of the national history, as it related to architecture and design, takes up a considerable part of his work. It is a startlingly tendentious narrative – two parts Walter Scott to one part Sturm und Drang – that begins with Hengist and Horsa, even though, as he had to concede, no architecture at all had ‘survived from this time’. Each succeeding century is cast as a battle between the native ‘Germanic’ peoples with their humane and homely domestic architecture, embodied in the hall-centred house, and the oppressive forces first of the Normans, with their castles, and later the neo-Palladians, who imposed rigid Italianate symmetry. Elizabeth, queen of ‘merry England’, was a Good Thing, ‘just, sensible and far-sightedly astute’, and under her the ‘stalwart Gothic tradition’ was largely protected from foreign infection. The Stuarts, on the other hand, were Bad, ‘despotic and cowardly, bigoted and vicious’, and hence in favour of classicism. For Muthesius, as for many of the English even in the early 20th century, the Renaissance had been a fitful dream that lasted until the spell of the south, especially that of the ‘spirit-deadening’ Inigo Jones, was finally broken. Then the Gothic triumphed again with the birth of Romanticism, which began in England, ‘this self-sufficient island kingdom’, where ‘the Germanic character had not allowed itself to be overrun.’
As a critic Muthesius was more subtle. The architects he singled out, Norman Shaw and Baillie Scott, Mackintosh and the very young Lutyens among them, are those whose work has stood the test of time. He knew several of them personally and, as Lethaby conceded, he profoundly understood their qualities. He saw how in the buildings, as in the manners of the English, an apparent ease and laissez-faire was made possible only by a rigid underlying discipline. The ‘scientific’ plans of the houses were the ‘kernel’, drawing rooms together into conversational relationships around a central core. It was this organisation of space into discrete rooms, each centred on a fireplace and with as few doors as possible, that lay at the heart, he decided, of a truly homely, comfortable architecture. It was quite unlike the enfilades of Continental houses, where each room was also a passage. There is no word in English for the German Schwellenangst or ‘threshold anxiety’, a fear of moving from one space to another, and Muthesius was taken aback to discover that inside the English house there were no actual thresholds either. ‘There is not even a suggestion of a threshold,’ he noted with some perplexity, ‘the floorboards simply run straight through.’ As a result there was a gap under the door, which resulted in those draughts to which the English were impervious, but also an ease of transit.
On the larger scale, in its relationship with the outside world, the English hall-centred house was similarly free of angst. The visitor was brought directly to a proper room: ‘One steps out of wild nature straight into a warm, friendly atmosphere.’ It is in his observations on the relationship between inside and outside, the way the Romantic house, like all forms of Romantic art, gives preference to the experience of the interior and its points of interpenetration with the exterior, that Muthesius is at his most acute and original. Of the bay window, one of the ‘gems of northern popular art’ and an almost proverbial expression of the English style, he noted that it was always conceived as an extension of the room rather than a feature of the façade. Whereas the classical architect starts with elevations, the Romantic starts with a plan. The right light for the breakfast room, the view of the terrace, these are the determinants rather than the creation of an imposing front, which would anyway be pointless in the English suburbs where, Muthesius was surprised to find, hedges and fences were used to secure much cherished privacy. In Germany it was against planning law to screen one’s house from the road.
Today, when war and devastation have left us almost as remote from the Edwardians as Muthesius was from Dürer, we too may at times feel like a curious traveller in this distant England, fascinated by minutiae. He explains the things that no contemporary English writer needed to mention and draws the reader deep into the texture of the domestic past. He explains how those wardrobes that were all shelves and shallow trays were meant to work, where chamber pots were emptied and the importance of the ceremonial dinner route. Followed every night by family and guests together, this led towards the dining-room via the more imposing elements of the house and was not to be confused with the different and often much longer route the dinner itself took from the outlying kitchen to the table. Muthesius documented furniture species now extinct or much endangered such as the sideboard, the whatnot and the overmantel, describing and classifying them along with smaller details otherwise entirely lost to time, such as the varying type of postman’s knock whereby ‘with a little practice one can judge the importance of his delivery.’ Sometimes we may feel that he is less reliable. His impression that Rossetti ‘became the idol of the people’ gives too heated an idea of the English response to Pre-Raphaelitism, and when it came to Baillie Scott the Ossianic mist that had enveloped Goethe descended on his admirer. ‘All the coolness and naked rationality which distinguishes the Anglo-Saxon south seems already to have vanished’ from the work of this Celt, a native of the Isle of Man. In fact Baillie Scott, though half Scottish, was born in Broadstairs and grew up in Worthing. His genius owed little to the north.
One thing that Muthesius as a German did understand much better than the natives was that the English house was haunted by the zeitgeist. And in this regard there were ominous signs. ‘England is beginning to suffer from a certain hardening of the arteries,’ he noted, adding that in the larger middle-class households with their complex hierarchies of servants and their unvarying routine there was something that struck him as ‘patriarchal’ and perhaps inherently unstable. As for the architecture he admired, it seemed to be losing direction. In 1896 the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society rejected Mackintosh’s entries for their annual show and it appeared that instead of following his lead and that of Baillie Scott towards the creation of entire rooms, the craft guilds were content merely to ‘trot out little boxes’. The long descent into tweeness and laborious simplicity, overpriced wobbly furniture and craft for craft’s sake had begun. Muthesius put his finger with painful accuracy on the problem. In the end it might be, he feared, that ‘here, as so often, England has played the strange part of developing new ideas up to a certain primitive form,’ but would be ‘unable to carry them to completion’. It may be that this sense of impending failure or collapse is the reason he insists, with what seems like exaggerated emphasis, on the awfulness of the weather, the ‘damp English air and perpetually overcast sky’, the fact that even in summer ‘the sun’s rays but rarely penetrate the cloud-cover.’ The eruption of Krakatoa did affect the weather in the 1890s but maybe for Muthesius, as for Ruskin in his Storm-Cloud of the 19th Century, it was Weltschmertz as much as volcanic ash that gave the physical darkness a psychic significance.
Muthesius had graduated from technical to cultural attaché by the time he returned to Germany in 1903, laden with reports about railways, gasworks and art schools as well as the manuscript of his magnum opus. When the first edition appeared in 1904-5 it became part of a long interplay of architectural influence between England and Germany that lasted, despite everything, for the rest of the century. Muthesius’s own career flourished and over the next nine years he built versions of the English house in the Berlin suburbs, drawing on German vernacular models but relying on the English plan, usually the ‘jigsaw’, as he called it, of interrelating rooms around a hall. He was criticised in some quarters for anglophilia but he was influential and soon involved in that fusion of German and English design philosophies that gave birth to the Modern Movement. In 1907, with a post in the Ministry of Education and ever the brilliant talent scout, he secured the appointment of Peter Behrens as director of the Düsseldorf Academy. The same year he was instrumental in establishing the Deutsche Werkbund in Munich. The Werkbund was committed to design reform, as William Morris had been, but to reform that worked with industry not against it and might therefore more reasonably hope to bring good architecture and furnishings within the reach of most people. Behrens was a member, as was the Belgian Henry van de Velde, who resented Muthesius’s pre-eminence by now as an arbiter of taste and attacked him for his views. So did Gropius. Like Morris’s, however, theirs was a revolution that perpetuated something of what it appeared to reject. It seems unlikely, as Dennis Sharp writes in his introduction, that without Muthesius Gropius would have brought such a Morrisian view of craft to the Bauhaus or that ‘the idea of a utopian cathedral of socialism built on principles of medieval Masonic guilds’ would have taken hold in Germany.
Meanwhile, as the German avant-garde advanced towards Modernism, England, as it seemed to Lethaby and many others, slipped back. ‘Just as our English free building arrived, or at least “very very nearly did”,’ he wrote, ‘there came a timid reaction.’ That seizing up, the loss of heart or nerve that Muthesius had sensed, set in in earnest around 1907, and not only in architecture. Then came the First World War and the brutal severing of the complex root system that connected England with the greater Germania. The generation of English boys whose nursery furniture and table manners Muthesius had so admired, a generation that would rise, he thought, ‘sound in body and mind’, went off to Flanders to be mown down in their tens of thousands. The war, Muthesius’s son Eckart wrote with heroic understatement, was ‘a great blow’ to his father. His architectural career never recovered and in 1927 he was killed in a tram accident. Das englische Haus remained untranslated, while the Modernism it had helped to foster made its way back to England, brought by books and magazines and later by refugees, including Nikolaus Pevsner. Probably nobody had cared so much or so constructively about English architecture since Muthesius himself and in 1979, with Pevsner’s support and encouragement, the first volume of Das englische Haus was translated. By now fashionable architectural thought had been drilled, partly by Pevsner, into looking at the whole of history as a teleological prelude to functionalism and the International Modern Style, and so Muthesius was squeezed, not very convincingly, into the role of a proto-functionalist. Thus it came about that a partial interpretation of a partial Muthesius enshrined Philip Webb and the Red House at the fountainhead of Modernism.
If the English were misled by Pevsner and Muthesius it was their own fault, for they had taken very little trouble to know better. The rediscovery of 19th-century architecture was only beginning to break the surface of public awareness in the 1970s, but by the end of the decade opinion was turning. Gradually the 19th-century house was rehabilitated and now at last the English can read its greatest apologist in his entirety. Frances Lincoln has produced a beautiful typographic facsimile of the original and Stewart Spencer has continued the late Janet Seligman’s translation with equal skill, to a standard far higher than many more overtly literary books receive. The totality, however, makes for salutary as well as poignant reading. Why, Muthesius wonders, do the English leave town planning to be ‘handed over to the lowest order of intelligence’, creating incoherent city centres? Why do they bother to experiment with blocks of flats which don’t suit the national temperament and would, if multiplied, mean ‘the demise of one of the best aspects of the English heritage’? English children will never thrive in them. Today, as the Modernist-inspired tower blocks come down and public housing looks again to low-rise and terraces, and as Birmingham, Manchester and other cities attempt to redeem their centres from the ravages of the postwar planners, it is the great-grandchildren of Muthesius’s subjects and indeed the great-grandchildren of their cooks and butlers who are remaking the English house. We watch property programmes on television night after night, seeking, like him, for that elusive but essential element of the English house now known as the ‘wow factor’, and put back the focal fireplaces our parents and grandparents took out. It is hard not to conclude that like Casaubon the English middle classes might have saved themselves a great deal of trouble if only they had read German.