The lady doctor and the man in the night: A mystery

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BY DAY she was an ordinary garden practitioner, familiar to the comfortable middle-class denizens of Edinburgh. By night she turned into an architect called Lutyens who stalked the highways and byways of the Scottish capital, designing hideous houses in what came to be called the much-loved Lutyens style. They came to be known as Dr Jekyll and Mr Lutyens. Now, in a new book entitled aptly Dr Jekyll and Mr Lutyens, ace biographer Lytton Hobhouse has filled in the gaps of our understanding of this complex character.

'For a long time it was believed that they were actually two different people,' says Hobhouse. 'One was meant to be a rather ethereal garden designer called Gertrude Jekyll, and the other a flamboyant house designer called Edwin Lutyens. Together they were meant to have created almost all the country houses built in Britain during the Edwardian and immediate post-war years. But the more I looked into it, the less evidence I found that anyone had ever seen both of them together]

'The usual explanation was that one did the house, then the other did the garden. But it seemed to me that there was a more logical explanation. They were one and the same person]'

But why would they want to be the same person?

'Well, you have to remember that Edinburgh is very much given to that sort of thing. As a city, it has more than its fair share of strange, opposing partnerships. Burke and Hare. Hibs and Hearts. Waverley Station and Haymarket Station. New Town and Old Town. Deek and Brodie . . . Very much the right place for the Jekyll and Lutyens legend to begin in, I think.'

As dusk fell in the closes of Edinburgh, the familiar comfortable and rounded shape of Dr Gertrude Jekyll would fade and would be replaced by the hard, angular shape of Lutyens, as stark and stiff-jointed as some of his own gable ends, striding through the night. Wee bairns who were up past their bedtime might catch a glimpse of him as he rounded a corner, driving a coach and four through planning regulations. Children who would not do what they were told, were sent to bed with a threat of: 'If ye dinnae dae whit ye're told, I'll skelp your lug, and if ye still dinnae dae whit ye're told, the architect man'll come and put leading on yon windows and turn them into mullioned casements, ye little de'll]'

And how was this transformation achieved, the extraordinary change from the lady garden designer to the gentleman architect? By some magic potion? Some spell or other? Hobhouse permits himself a small smile.

'We would all love to believe in that kind of fairy story. Real life, alas, is not quite so impressive. I have inspected the remains of the room shared by Jekyll and Lutyens and found various scraps of paper dating from the time that this remarkable partnership was formed. It suggests very much that it came about for tax reasons.'

Tax reasons?

'Yes. If Jekyll/Lutyens could operate as two people and spread the tax load across two incomes, there would be much less owing to the Inland Revenue. So two people were created where one had been before.'

So which one was the real one? Jekyll or Lutyens?

'Well, now, that's an impossible question. It's rather like asking which one was the real one, Abbott or Costello?'

But surely neither Abbott nor Costello was real?

'Yes, perhaps that's a bad example. Actually, I think probably Edwin Lutyens was the real one. After all, by the time the partnership had come to design New Delhi, there was no place for the garden side of the team.

'There is no sign in modern Delhi of the rambling yet shapely rose gardens and arbours in which Gertrude Jekyll so delighted. Delhi is not a city of shady nooks and mysterious water gardens. It is all white avenues and monumental vistas. It is almost as if the Lutyens' side of the dual personality had taken over. Or, rather, as if . . .'

Hobhouse trails off into silence. One has to prompt him.

'Almost as if Lutyens had . . . killed off Jekyll.'

There seems nothing to add.

Coming soon - other great forgotten partnerships such as the comedy team Nelson and Hardy, and Alcock and Sullivan, the first people to fly an operetta non-stop across the Atlantic east to west.