A child's intuition, an adult's logic

Sir Edwin Lutyens's fluent drawings run the full gamut, from monumental projects to cosy, intimate spaces
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) was, quite simply, one of the finest architects who ever lived. He was also one of the greatest, but the word "great" sounds unnaturally inflated when tagged to a deeply modest, self- deprecating, warm, childlike and very funny man. Lutyens brought wit, formidable energy and great imagination to all his building projects, from his first (Crooksbury House, near Farnham, Surrey, designed in 1889 when "Ned" was not quite 20), through a pot-pourri of romantic country houses, the Cenotaph, the Queen's Doll House, Castle Drogo and the Viceroy's House, New Delhi, to his sublime, but uncompleted, Liverpool Roman Catholic cathedral.

Lutyens was reluctant to explain his ideas in words; he expressed them in drawings instead. He drew fluently and copiously. His son, Robert, donated some 80,000 drawings to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1951, but sadly - because architects' drawings, and Lutyens himself, were little valued in the aftermath of the Second World War - only 2,181 of these were kept. You can see a generous cross-section of them from Thursday at the RIBA Heinz Gallery, Portman Square, London, in an exhibition of sketches by the architect's own hand. Many of these have not been shown before and they cover little known or unexecuted building projects as well as the great set pieces such as Liverpool Cathedral (the drawings of which surrounded Lutyens on his deathbed).

These drawings show an architect unlike any other. He drew as a sculptor might, expressing his ideas in three-dimensional form and in a way that anyone could understand. He had the ability to represent both the monumental splendour of his Indian projects and the cosy delights of the most intimate spaces of his English country houses. He would draw a kitten asleep on a Windsor chair in a mussed-up kitchen as readily, and as convincingly, as he would a mole's-eye view of the dome of a titanic cathedral or government building. He drew with thick pencils, rubbing out and shading with his fingers, used wash and crayon for colour and, in doing so, brought the intuition of the child in touch with the logic of the adult. Children loved him, as did his clients.

To rival professionals and serious contemporary historians and critics, however, Lutyens was never less than a puzzle. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the great architectural historian and apologist for the Modern Movement, found Lutyens so impossible in every way that he made no reference to him whatsoever in his influential An Outline of European Architecture, the architectural bible of the Fifties and Sixties for non-professionals. Lutyens poured his heart and capacious mind into his drawings. But when cornered by interviewers and intellectuals, he resorted instinctively to a stream of silly jokes.

When, for example, Lloyd-George asked him, in 1916, how much it would cost to replace the statue of the Duke of York overlooking the Mall with one of Lord "Your country needs you" Kitchener, Lutyens replied "five shillings; half-a-crown for each moustache". When asked by a worthy committee what should be done with the Crystal Palace, he suggested it should be put under a glass case. The lions at Trafalgar Square would be improved enormously, he told a reporter from the Sketch, if they had gramophones sewn into their tummies which would make them purr.

And when he promised a "serious" interview to the young Beverly Nichols in 1928 and Nichols wanted Lutyens to come on a bus tour of central London to give his views on how to build the ideal city, the architect puffed on his pipe and said: "Talking of buses, there was once a little boy who was travelling on the top of a double-decker, who said to his mother, `ain't we ever going to get off this bloody bus?' Do you know what she replied?" "No," groaned Nichols, thinking of his deadline nearing, with nothing remotely serious to report. " `Enery, 'ow often have I told you not to say that word - ain't'."

If you were Herr Doktor Professor Pevsner, recently of Germany, you would find this sort of execrable joke exceedingly unfunny (or incomprehensible). After all, would Sir Christopher Wren have talked this way 300 years ago or, indeed, Sir Norman Foster or Sir Richard Rogers today? Architecture is an earnest profession for buttoned-up chaps, and here was Lutyens, held to be the most inspired architect of all, calling it a "high game" and indulging in the sort of nonsense a proper chap would have dropped on leaving the nursery.

But that was Ned's secret. He never grew old and self-important in the way earnest professionals do. He lived in a febrile world, part Water Babies, part Piranesi. No wonder so many loved him. You can see this good grace shining from his drawings. You can also see why he found no favour with those who, no matter how intelligent and well meaning, think architecture should be as pleasurable as a night stuck in a deep-freeze.

Sketches by Sir Edwin Lutyens, 27 April to 1 July, RIBA Heinz Gallery, 21 Portman Square, London W1. Tel: 0171-580 5533.

Lutyens's drawings: a lecture by Margaret Richardson, 9 May, 6.15pm, Royal Institute of British Architects, 66 Portland Place, London W1. Tickets available on 0171 251 0791.

Sketches by Sir Edwin Lutyens by Margaret Richardson, Academy Editions, £19.95.

J G

Comments