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An odd (but loving) couple

The Architect and His Wife: A Life of Edwin Lutyens
Jane Ridley
Chatto & Windus, 2002

The great grand-daughter of the architect (“Ned” to all) and his wife (Lady Emily Lutyens, nee Lytton) has set herself the quadrangular task of describing the lives of both of them, together with his architecture and her theosophy. Their interests, to which both were strongly bound, conflicted and in others, and probably at other times, would have ensured their separation. But as his letters (The Letters of Edwin Lutyens to his Wife Lady Emily, edited by Clayre Percy and Jane Ridley) can attest, much more strongly than this book does, they retained a deep affection for each other, certainly amounting to love initially and at the end of their lives together. “In the last years of his life,” wrote Lady Emily, in her autobiography Candles in the Sun, “I like to think that we were closer to each other than we had ever been before.” And, penitently, after re-reading their letters two months after his death, she found hers and herself “a revelation of such an odious person, and Father so endlessly sweet and patient.” His letters (a superb collection, and a joy to read) certainly bear this out: as far as I know, hers have not been published – perhaps as she would have wished.

Unfortunately their incompatibilities were enormous. Just for a start, neither seemed to have any idea how to make love. Perhaps if Emily had been seduced by Wilfred Scawen Blunt, “a corridor-creeper” as someone characterised him (and got away with it; and, in the circumstances it did seem an amazingly close-run thing – see A Blessed Girl by Lady Emily herself) he might have taught her how to initiate the obviously clumsy virgin Ned. As it was, after the birth of Mary, the youngest child, she refused (by letter) to have any further sexual relations with him. Fortunately, perhaps, they did not live together very much; at first his work took him to sites and clients, South Africa and India, later her theosophy to camps, congresses, India (he had to warn her that if she came when he was there, he’d have to throw up his work) and Australia. The children suffered terribly – or do I exaggerate? The houses Lutyens bought for the family to live in also sound appalling – one was perennially damp, all were sparsely furnished (bare boards underfoot) and under-heated, if not actually icy. How can I sympathise with an architect who does not care for comfort, for others, let alone for himself and his family? Maybe the Cenotaph and the War Memorials he designed appealed to him as projects because no one had to live in them? In a passage I remember but cannot find, the author states “Lutyens’ houses [for his clients] were notoriously uncomfortable” and there are references to draughts, smoky chimneys and inadequately lighted rooms, to say nothing of increased costs over the estimates.

Even “Viceroy’s House [in New Delhi] was not an easy or a comfortable house to live in”, Ridley admits, p. 402. He paid his office staff the lowest wages in the business and some of them were probably, perhaps because of this, dishonest. His feuding with Herbert Baker, fellow-architect and once his friend, and far more magnanimous in his attitude to Lutyens, was surely excessive. He could never forgive him for “deceiving” him about how the approach road at Delhi would dip so that the view of Viceroy House, with its dome, was sometimes lost. Later, when the project was complete, many judged this did no harm to or even enhanced the effect. Yet, in spite of his defects, Lutyens comes across as an attractive, cheerful (he was always making jokes) and ultimately lovable man. His daughter Mary who wrote her autobiography To Be Young confessed that though she had tried to redress the balance to some extent in favour of her mother, it didn’t work.

Somehow the lives of everyone seem more austere, uncomfortable and chaotic than has been the impression given in other biographies by Mary and her mother. The breakthrough of Lutyens himself into success is not made clear, perhaps because he was always bad at managing money and worried about becoming poorer and poorer, like his father, and dying in poverty. Yet by the time he was 30 “he had so much work in Surrey that he spent most of his time there (p. 73).” He seemed to have wanted to build in the local ‘vernacular’ style, but of course sought clients who desired large houses. Gertrude Jekyll, the legendary garden designer who had, from his first days, been a close friend, collaborated with him and found him many clients (12 out of 20 documented jobs between 1892 and 1896, p. 69) and there were others, Barbara Webb and Betty Balfour, and the Duke of Westminster. At least one house sounds like a disaster, the principal rooms facing the wrong way (p. 70).

It is difficult, of course, to describe architecture, let alone the thought processes that bring it about, without far more illustrations than are possible in a book of this sort and the reader is tacitly referred to other works, particularly Hussey’s Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens. Perhaps that is why Lutyens’ efforts to get work (one or two bordering on sharp practice) are more obvious because easier to recount. Other features that emerge is his obsession for work, even to the last few days of his life, and linked with it, his painstaking care for detail. His long relationship with Lady Sackville (Macsack) seems to have been a failure architecturally as well as personally.

His achievement in New Delhi was, by contrast, a triumph. It was a paradox that an architect so English should have made something so suitable for India, somehow taking the features of a culture and people he basically thought inferior in order to achieve it. That, at least, is how I see it. Jane Ridley makes the proper anti-racist sounds, but Lutyens was merely a man of his time, nor could the British have ruled India if they had felt anything but superior to the natives and made them feel the same.

By contrast, it is Emily’s (and Mrs Besant’s) position, now perceived as so conventional, that was remarkable. Society, for all its racism, tolerated her behaviour then more than ours would today would her husband’s. Its racist element actually probably made it easier for Emily and Mrs Besant, President of the Theosophical Society (white), to judicially remove Krishna and Nitya from their father (black). Krishna, or Krishnamurti as he became, had been identified as the Theosophical Messiah, a role he repudiated later. As for the sinister ‘Bishop’ Leadbeater, today he would long ago have been locked up as a paedophile. I expect the Rev. Whitworth Elwin, who had named Emily as “a blessed girl” when a teenager and caressed her by his fireside, while his wife grumbled quietly in a corner, would have been on some sort of police list, too. Such are our more enlightened times.

Ridley makes little attempt to explain what Theosophy was (or is), perhaps thinking (and correctly) that Emily would have found some other weird thing to do. (My apologies to modern Theosophists, whose lifestyle is presumably different, and, I trust, much more comfortable now than then). It is very unlikely that it would have been anything that helped her husband, who took the refusal of his marital rights (as they were then regarded) very hard. Although both Edwin and Emily lived through both World Wars (he died on New Year’s Day 1944) neither war is given much prominence – it seems a strange intrusion when one of Edwin’s trips to India is menaced by a U-Boat. There is no mention of any of his relatives being lost in either war. Emily’s sister Barbie lost three sons in WWII; its effect on Emily’s family seems to have been minimal. Only after WWI did it seems to affect Edwin when he served on the War Graves Commission and designed memorials, the Cenotaph being the most famous.

As for his work, strangely his best known did not make money; he waived his fee for the Cenotaph, his beautiful Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House (scale 1:12, see the almost as beautiful book of the same name, by Mary Stewart-Wilson and David Cripps, photographer), with its multiple collaborators (typically, Bernard Shaw was the only one to refuse to contribute a tiny book to the Royal Library) was a personally inspired (and unpaid) jeu d’esprit and the Viceroy’s House didn’t bring him a profit. And his (Roman Catholic) Liverpool Cathedral, the design for which he was working on his death-bed, has become an architect’s fantasy, never (apart from the crypt) to be built, though a full model of it still exists.

Emily survived Edwin for twenty years, dying at 87 from Alzheimer’s. Two years before, her daughter, the composer Elizabeth Lutyens, had taken her on a tour in Surrey, visiting there the houses her husband had designed. But “Have I ever been married?” enquired the bewildered old lady. Tragically, after her death, two of her four daughters committed suicide, but all her children left progeny, though of the twenty two now of the fourth generation, only one male bears the name of Lutyens.

Note: Lutyens is a unique family name (as, I believe, is Guinness), all being descended from Bartold Lutkens, a Hamburg merchant who immigrated to London and was naturalised in 1739, anglicizing his name to Bartholomew Lutyens; Edwin was his great-great grandson and had nine brothers and three sisters. At least three of these survived him, but his daughter remembers that from time to time, her father would don a black suit and top hat to attend the funeral of one of his siblings.

One of them, his second elder brother, John went to India after he joined the Royal Engineers and befriended Kipling, then a cub reporter who later in tribute put him in by name as the hero of the polo match in his story The Maltese Cat: “Why Lutyens? What an odd name,” I’d wondered as a boy, long before I’d ever heard of the architect.

Five Lutyens, one of them Edwin’s grandfather, fought in the Peninsula, three at the battle of Corunna. Oman, in his History of the Peninsular War, mentions a Captain Lutyens, presumably one of the other two brothers, who, just out to the Peninsula, may (the facts are obscure) have been killed in a disastrous skirmish there.

Another brother, Englebert, had the duty of keeping an eye on Napoleon on St. Helena, which he did with such consideration (against orders) that Napoleon gave him a pair of pistols. Edwin also thrilled his children with the ghoulish story that “Englebert was on duty the night after the post-mortem on Napoleon, guarding his remains, when waking from a doze he was just in time to stop a rat from making off with Napoleon’s heart.”

“Fought” is perhaps not the quite the correct word to describe the role of another brother, Edwin’s grandfather Charles, who was a general in Wellington’s commissariat, and left the army a wealthy man. As Ridley puts it, “The administrative offices of the army were notoriously venal and, though in his war diaries he grumbled about dishonesty and graft, it seems unlikely that the shrewd and worldly Charles, as commissary general, neglected altogether the chance of enriching himself.”

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4 comments to An odd (but loving) couple

  • GCooper

    Another fascinating review, Mr Dunachie – thank you.

    And, uncomfortable though they may be, what sits more flawlessly in the English countryside (or could be more desirable) than a Lutyens house? Ideally, of course, with the essential, painterly, Jekyll garden.

  • John J. Coupal

    The architecht’s wife, Lady nee Lytton, is so close to hilarious Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau talking about “Lady Litton”, that it will bring a few chuckles to a serious piece.

  • Paul Marks

    I would love to see “Castle Drogo” (on Dartmoor) by L. However, I never will – it is far away and I am past my best.

  • Janet Gold

    Terrific review; but btw it’s Whitwell (not Whitworth) Elwin. EL’s book ‘A Blessed Girl’ is *well* *worth*