Impervious to Draughts

Rosemary Hill

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.

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