McNed and the style that war ended

LUTYENS AND THE EDWARDIANS: An English Architect and His Clients by Jane Brown, Viking pounds 25

How do you become the most fashionable architect of your generation? By having exceptional talent, certainly. But talent doesn't get the buildings off the drawing-board and on to the ground in bricks and mortar. To quote Sir Edwin Lutyens, "There will never be great architects or great architecture without great patrons."

Jane Brown takes this observation as her starting point. She illustrates its truth by analysing Lutyens' relationships with his clients. It is rare enough for architect and client to remain on good terms, but in Lutyens' case his talent as an architect was matched by a gift for charming his patrons. The working relationship nearly always ran smoothly, and was often converted into life-long friendship. The loyal efforts of his client- friends to "find jobs for Ned" resulted in an ever-expanding network, so that by the end of his working life he had carried out more than 550 commissions.

Lutyens owed his first clients to his close friendship with two women, both old enough to be his mother. His friendship and working relationship with Gertrude Jekyll is well known. But before Jekyll there was Barbara Webb (nee Lyall), the 40-year-old bride of a Surrey widower. Lively, well- travelled and bored with Surrey society, she was charmed by young Ned Lutyens' jokey manner and not put off by his bumptiousness. She was able to persuade the local gentry to let Ned design their lodges, cottages and stables and, in due course, their houses.

Barbara Webb was also his entree to musical evenings, tea and tennis parties where he met more potential clients, and through Barbara he met his future wife Emily Lytton. Emily's family (her father, Lord Lytton, had been Viceroy of India) introduced him to a more aristocratic clientele. But the aristocracy mostly lived in family houses and offered few opportunities for an ambitious young architect: "Only new money people build."

Lutyens' special genius was for building country houses for this newly prosperous middle class, and it was for the new money people that he worked long hours to support his growing family. Jane Brown describes him arriving by bicycle from the station, dusty and thirsty, to meet new clients. He would charm them with his puppyish enthusiasm and outrageous puns, and draw pictures and tell stories for their children. Instant sketches of his ideas for the house to be designed inspired confidence in his abilities, and he accurately interpreted the aspirations of his clients by building country gentlemen's houses with beautiful gardens: solidly crafted, comfortable, large enough for weekend house parties and for the servants who ministered to the Edwardian way of life. In return, satisfied clients recommended him to their friends and relations and remembered him when it came to allocating the public commissions he yearned for: the Midland Bank headquarters in the City, Reuters in Fleet Street, the British Embassy in Washington, Campion Hall at Oxford.

Lutyens also became the natural choice for the Viceroy's House in New Delhi (now the home of the President of India). It was the plum commission for an architect of Lutyens' generation and occupied, off and on, 20 years of his working life.

Although Lutyens was the ideal architect to build for the Edwardian golden age, that age was all too short. It ended with the onset of the First World War, which had a devastating effect on his country-house clients. "All their young men are killed," he wrote to Emily from Lady Horner's house at Mells. He was there to design a war memorial for the village. A decade earlier, he had drawn pictures for those young men as children, and paddled in lily ponds with them. Now the next generation of his patrons was wiped out. In the melancholy post-war years Lutyens' clients were the dead themselves, their mourning families and their country. The Whitehall cenotaph and memorials for the War Graves Commission were his public works. Private "jobs for Ned" included memorials in village churches and private chapels. The houses he designed for that pre-War way of life have not proved adaptable, and most of them are no longer in private ownership: the architecture died with the clients.

Jane Brown's portrait of Lutyens is vivid and appealing but his clients remain rather shadowy figures, perhaps because there are so many of them. Only Lady Sackville, who has a chapter to herself, springs to life. The mother of Vita Sackville-West, she was the last of Lutyens' "older women". Attractive, volatile, capricious, maddening and in love with him, she filled much of his time during and after the War. They played childish games together, calling each other McNed and McSack. They planned and quarrelled over endless (mostly abortive) building schemes. She worked hard to find new, rich clients and bought him Rolls Royces, but McNed, though grateful and affectionate, was unable to return her love. He remained, as Jane Brown says, "one of Barrie's 'lost boys' ". Even towards the end of his life and at the height of his success, he didn't want to grow up.

Delhi established his international reputation, but the job which he hoped would ensure his immortality was the Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King at Liverpool. His design was approved and registered in the Vatican, and the crypt of the cathedral was built before the bombing of Liverpool in World War II brought an end to the work. Lutyens died in 1944 not knowing that his greatest building would never be completed.

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