Book review / A pavilion for Aunt Bumps

Lutyens and the Edwardians: an English architect and his clients by Jane Brown, Viking, pounds 25
Perhaps he wasn't listening when they were introduced - for somebody certainly introduced them. Perhaps he had simply never heard of her, though that seems unlikely. Whatever the reason, Ned Lutyens leaned across Lady Colefax's table and asked Nellie Melba what she did for a living. It must have been a question she relished. As the company fell nervously silent, she finished her fish, threw back her head and gave him Mimi's big aria, at full throttle. They were firm friends from that moment: in the end, he designed her tomb.

Like Dame Nellie, Sir Edwin was quintessentially Edwardian. He belongs to that golden afternoon before the wars of the century began, when tea was taken in the garden and there was no servant problem. We must avoid hindsight, says Jane Brown, and resist envisaging the destruction to come: instead, we should gaze on the period through rose-tinted glasses. Today, the Cenotaph may well be the best-known Lutyens design, but his real genius is to be seen in the cottages, castles and comfortable country houses he created before the crying need arose for memorials, tombs and graveyards.

Jane Brown loves the man. Her enthusiasm for his work and his character is boundless and infectious. At the end of her book, she lists those of his buildings that can still be seen from public roads: such is her passion that you can scarce forebear to leap into a car and set off for a snoop.

This would be easiest if you happened to live in the Home Counties, particularly in what was known as Old West Surrey. Lutyens grew up in Surrey, where he was given the first of his commissions by Barbara Webb, a wealthy, childless woman who mothered him, as so many women did, pestering everyone she knew to give him a chance. Through her, he met Gertrude Jekyll, the great gardener and craftswoman he always called Aunt Bumps, who was to collaborate with him on many schemes. He built her a Thunder House - a tiny, triangular pavilion on the end of her garden wall, in which she would settle herself to watch storms in the valley.

Through Jekyll he met the Mirrielees family whose philanthropic project was "Goddards''. Brown's prose becomes fanciful to the point of whimsy when describing this house, which, she says, "seems to bask like some gorgeous butterfly, settling in the sun among the flowers... its eaves shading the windows like heavy eyelashes". It was built as a retreat for ladies of slender means - mostly nurses and governesses - who needed a fortnight in the country. Eventually it sheltered a stream of such overwrought and recuperating types, who would entertain the Mirrielees children to tea and skittles in return for their holiday (two of the little boys remembered eating 40 scones at one sitting).

So the net spread, until virtually all of middle-class England must have know someone for whom Lutyens was building something. Uneasy in his marriage - his wife developed a penchant for theosophy which led to his being banished from her bed - he immersed himself in work. He collected a grand total of something like 550 commissions, refusing nothing and ultimately undertaking the colossal task of creating Viceroy's House in New Delhi, which took him 20 years.

Brown's purpose in this book is neither biographical nor architectural. Rather, she discusses the power and influence of those who did the commissioning. She is completely at home amongst the Lyttons, and Lytteltons, the Sackvilles, Barings and Asquiths who built, recommended and built again. In her introduction, she sighs that she has amassed material enough for many more such books, and this proves to be a slight problem. For the majority of her potential readers, whose knowledge of the period must be sketchier than her own, these families merge into a great clan whose relationships become dauntingly entangled.

However, just when you nearly give up trying to sort them out, along comes a redeemingly bizarre anecdote to renew your energy. One of the most enjoyable chapters concerns Hugh Percy Lane, an eccentric philanthropist who wanted to provide Dublin with a new Municipal Art Gallery. Lutyens was, as always, game, but the difficulty was to find a site. A skating rink and some Turkish baths were proposed, until eventually the architect produced a marvellously extravagant design for a new bridge across the Liffey which would itself be a gallery. Brown reproduces his drawing, opposite the suggestion of the Saturday Herald cartoonist, that Lutyens should go one stage further and build the gallery at the top of Nelson's Pillar, cantilevered in the sky. What a pity they turned it down.