Eccentric Weathervane Gives the Clue

By Kate Chattaway

Felbridge Copse, one of a pair of handsome porticoed sandstone lodges, stands as a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been created by Sir Edwin Lutyens on the Surrey/Sussex borders. Felbridge Place was designed during the First World War to be the grandest of Lutyens’s country houses if it had been built. The mystery has always been why the classical house with a 300-foot façade, 128-foot long formal canal and Italian garden was never realized.

The answer comes from an extraordinary clue left by Lutyens himself in the sketch of a truly eccentric “pigeon cot” for Felbridge Place. For there amongst the collection of plans and drawings at the Sir John Soane Museum London, is a pigeon cot with battleship potholes. Even more strangely, the pigeon cot is topped by a weathervane in the shape of a machine gun. Lutyens even obligingly labels the weapon as a Lewis machine gun.

This weapon, though experimental at the beginning of the war, was being used to devastating effect in the fields of Flanders by 1916 and had become known as the Belgian rattlesnake. Lutyens’s client for Felbridge Place was American arms dealer Henry Rudd who with his wife Mary had commissioned the architect to build them a stylish house near East Grinstead to match their newfound wealth. For Rudd had provided thousands of Lewis guns a year since 1915 through his Belgian company Armes Automatiques Lewis under a multi-million-pound contract with the Ministry of Munitions.

The extent of Lutyens’s vision for Felbridge Place provoked jealously in his mistress Lady Sackville. She was commissioning the architect herself to build her a more modest house at Roedean, near Brighton. But it obviously did not compare with the scope of what was envisaged by Mary Rudd, who Lady Sackville calls the “rich vulgarian” in her diary. But Lady Sackville need not have worried because the Chancellor of the Exchequer Bonar Law put paid to the Rudds’ ambitions.

Research at the Public Records Office in Kew’s and the Midland’s archives of the Birmingham Small Arms Company who manufactured the guns under licence reveals the payment negotiations between the Government and Rudd. Ministers reneged on the contracts when it became clear in 1918 just how much they would have to pay because of the number of guns needed for the war. Rudd was bankrupted by the Government’s refusal to honour their contracts. Plans for Felbridge Place were abandoned but Lutyens later used largely the same design for Gledstone Hall in Yorkshire, designed and built between 1922 and 1925. The relationship of the house to the forecourt and terraces shows the influences of Lutyens’s arrangement of the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi. And it features a canal leading the eye to the distant countryside beyond, just as he had planned in conjunction with Gertrude Jekyll for Felbridge Place.