The English House, By Clive Aslet
From medieval mud huts through Tudor red brick and the suburbs, England is the home of eccentricity
Sunday 28 September 2008
Towards the end of this wide-ranging, highly personal exploration, the author touches on the tensions in the marriage of the "impish genius" Edwin Lutyens. These were intensified by Lutyens' realisation that "architecture [is]... a country of the spirit for which his wife had no passport".
The English House is a passport through a nation's building trends and capabilities, from Norman times to the present. The author draws on his 30-plus years at Country Life magazine for much of his material, and even kicks off this voyage of discovery from his own London home. Aslet's choice of examples for different styles and types of housing is therefore eclectic, rather than obvious. He has alighted on buildings that have a tale to tell, rather than a lecture to give.
In less confident hands, this could have been a dry and self-regarding book. Aslet, though, writes with flair and warmth, and is not afraid to drop in light diversions that stay with the reader. As he gently deconstructs the rise of the suburb, he adds to a description of the rise of tennis as a middle-class sport a bracketed aside: "In the 1890s Sir George Sitwell told his most unsporting daughter Edith that 'there is nothing a man likes so much as a girl who is good at the parallel bars'."
This, then, is a book as much about England – its quirks, its foibles, its haphazard legacy – as it is a study of architecture. Literary references are frequent and illuminating: Chaucer, Austen, Dickens, and Betjeman are all summoned on cue. Meanwhile, Aslet weaves in houses that are associated with interesting historical figures: Buckland Abbey, occupied in succession by those Elizabethan nautical knights, Richard Grenville and Francis Drake; and The Grange, in Ramsgate, home to A W N Pugin. This is a celebration of a culture that rose from medieval mud huts, through Tudor red brick and love of "fantasy", to imperial splendour, before descending into the more workaday dwelling; the semi-detached and the pre-fab.
The narrative moves along at a fair pace. Accurate architectural and horticultural descriptions are there for the aficionado, but for the general reader there is no need to be held back by references that may be normal in the offices of Country Life – five firs in the gardens of The Wakes, in Selborne, are said to "form a quincunx" – but may send the layman lungeing for his dictionary, as a succession of fascinating topics are thrown up.
In early building, for instance, those who burnt the lime before it was "mixed with sand and water to form a paste", were frequent victims of premature death, because of the toxic fumes of their brew. Similarly, the White Tower "contains the first fireplace in England". And sycamore was chosen as the wood for milk pails "because it imparted no taste", while ash was used for wheels because it can "take knocks".
Although the book really begins with the Norman conquest, the debt to the Roman Empire is made clear throughout. Indeed, many of the Normans' earliest strongholds were constructed of bricks found at Roman ruins, for the Dark Ages found the inhabitants of England unable to remember how to make this staple building material, which the Ancient Egyptians had mastered long before. The same is true of glass, which the Romans had employed and enjoyed: it was not till Tudor order rose out of the chaos of the Wars of the Roses that brick and glass were "rediscovered".
Unsurprisingly, given that this is really a collection of essays drawn together by a very general theme, there is an unevenness to the quality of the chapters. The look at 10 North Street, in Cromford, is fascinating for its sympathetic interpretation of the privations faced by many in England as they were enslaved by the Industrial Revolution. Early in the book, Erasmus's description of the foul, spit- vomit- and urine-stained floor of an Englishman's home in the 16th century is matched by the Victorian disgrace of workers wading through excrement to reach the front doors of their overcrowded hovels.
Against that, the final chapter should not have been included. It is the author's musing on living today, and frets about the bother of having people to stay the weekend, and how teenagers prefer showers to baths.
What precedes this, though, is an entertaining and informative passage through 1,000 years of English culture, with its tendency to take two steps forward and one step back, before lurching off in another fascinating direction. It is laced with appreciation for the absurd, and is peopled by a gratifying gallery of eccentrics and geniuses. '
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