England's own architect
Sir Edwin Lutyens' frustrated dreams of triumph
The reputation of architect Sir Edwin Lutyens has been in eclipse for many years. Christopher Howse discovers its resurgence.
WHAT Sir John Betjeman has been for English poetry. Sir Edwin Lutyens has been for architecture: inalienably domestic. native, comfortable. popular and smelling of the sandy pine clad hills of Surrey.
At the same time everyone has had at the back of their minds that Lutyens built a city — New Delhi — and designed the biggest cathedral in England for the Catholics of Liverpool, which never was built. But the work of an architect is harder to get to know than a poet's. For all its solidity it can be spoiled or destroyed, and it takes a lot of footwork to track down. Only now, with a large exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London, which alone justifies inclusion of the Arts Council in one's night prayers, can secret Lutyens admirers come close to voicing the appraisal given at his death the greatest architect since Wren.
For such a great artist, Lutyens was a terrible punster. He devalued his grander work by calling it `Wrenaissance. The levity that he threw about himself like a cloak hid an unconquerable shyness. The childhood delicacy which had kept him away from school gave him time to think and a reason to develop his architectural interests. but no chance to gain social ease. I o Lady Hardinge, wife of the Indian Viceroy he atoned for a minor offence by saying: "I will wash your feet with my tears and dry them with my hair. True, I have little hair but then you have little feet." That is nice enough to hope original.
Lutyens would overcome his diffidence by entertaining clients
`The desolation of Lutyens' greatest scheme is a more touching memorial to him than the stark curves of the Cenotaph.'
with verbal quips and snatching out a pad of paper to sketch a jeu desprit. The same humour gave rise to the light fittings for the chapel at Campion Hall. Oxford, which are shaped like Cardinals' Hats with hanging red tassels.
The chapel is one of his most dignified, chaste and satisfying buildings. Inside it is cool and bare, with twinned stone pillars in the New Delhi Indian order of his own invention. Outside, only the It was shortly afterwards that
the building of Liverpool Cathedral was abandoned as a serious project. The War had come and with it a feeling that architectural triumphalism was no longer to he the Church's priority in Liverpool. The dedication of the Cathedral was to be Christ the King. John Summerson has developed in an essay the idea Lutyens employed of founding the vast building on interlocking triumphal arches. The whole was to be surmounted in best Wren manner by a vast dome. The Blessed Sacrament and Lady Chapels were each to
be the size of moderate Wren churches. At the (liturgical) West end two free standing bell towers were to rise upon either aisle roof, wide enough apart to frame the lower flanks of the dome.
The size of the project may be judged by the crypt which was all that was completed. Now it is roofed by a windswept and puddled pavement in the middle
`Carpaccio's painting shows a scene of domestic bliss raised to great art that Lutyens had to make his own.'
of which the new Metropolitan Cathedral ("Paddies' Wigwam") perches. In the Hayward Gallery exhibition a 12-foot high wooden model gives a hint of the intention. Even that was damaged while in the care of Liverpool Cathedral in the 1960s. The desolation of Lutyen's greatest scheme is a more touching memorial to him than the white fields of war graves he designed or the stark curves of the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
Lutyens dressed with the con
ventional neatness of Rudyard Kipling — the victim of childhood insecurity. Lutyens — Ned to his family — had a Catholic mother who had apostasised on marrying his father in Ireland. His wife took to Theosophy so strongly that she neglected her children and husband until the last years of her life.
Unlike Kipling whose Sussex house suggests a pathetic effort to fall into the mould of a man with taste, Lutyens adopted a startling style in the interior decoration of his own homes: — green painted floors, black walls and ceiling and yellow curtains. Whimsy invaded his furniture designs. He was inspired by a delightful Carpaceio painting. the Dream of St Ursula to design a pair of light four poster beds for his eldest daughters. In Carpaccio's painting (which I first saw in reproduction on the staircase of John Ryan's house — a family cook had always called it the Death of Nelson) St Ursula k tucked up in bed with her slippers at the bedside and a fluffy dog messing about, quite unconcerned at the angel coming in at the right to deliver his message.
It is a scene of domestic bliss raised to great art that Lutyens had to make his own.
The LutvetA exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. London SE1, run.v till January 31.
upturned boat roof above the apse end betrays its presence in the narrow local stone lane of Brewer Street.
Lady Helen Asquith has lent the Hayward a photograph of Lutyens in the last decade of his life on the steps of Campion Hall. surrounded by the Duke of Alba. Fr Martin Darcy and Fr Ronald Knox, the ensemble robed, with in the back row the partially obscured impish presence of Evelyn Waugh, who gave Abyssinian pictures to hang on the smooth stone inside the Hall.