Lutyens and The English House

by Dr Mervyn Miller

Hermann Muthesius, The English House [Das Englische Haus] Edited with an Introduction by Dennis Sharp, Translated by Janet Seligman and Stewart Spencer. First Complete English Edition, London. Frances Lincoln Ltd., 2007. 3 volumes, £120.

Here is a treasure indeed. Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927) trained as an architect in Berlin was seconded to Britain with diplomatic status in 1896, to report initially on technical advances, but soon settled down to examine the remarkable flowering of British domestic architecture in the wake of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the reforms by William Morris, Philip Webb and Richard Norman Shaw. Published in Berlin in 1904, with a comprehensive three volume edition in 1905, Das Englische Haus has long been recognised as an indispensable snapshot of house design and home life at the turn of the century. Yet it has taken a century more for the full text and illustrations to be published in English. The publishers are to be congratulated on this handsome production, as are Dennis Sharp and the translators. An earlier, one volume reduction which appeared in 1979 is quite superseded. All aficionados of the Arts and Crafts Movement should buy, beg or borrow the set without delay.

During his several years sojourn, Muthesius conducted an exhaustive survey of his subject. The three volumes are divided into Development, Layout and Construction, and The Interior. The author’s interest in technology included subsections on drainage, bathroom fittings and cooking appliances, and a discussion about servants worthy of Isabella Beeton. In Teutonic fashion, Muthesius was concerned with the total artistic vision, under the control of the architect, which extended from the single item of furnishing to embrace the house and garden as a whole. At the end of Volume II, after commending ‘two books by that stimulating writer Gertrude Jekyll’, he concluded

Garden, house and interior as a single unity: how simple that sounds, and yet how far we still are today from achieving that sense of unity.

In fact, most of his chosen examples, from the Who’s Who of late Victorian architecture, show a far greater unity, and restraint, than most modern houses achieve, particularly those built in the affluent Home Counties. Muthesius became well acquainted with Voysey and Baillie Scott, and a close friend of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Their work is well illustrated and described. While I sense more detachment in his comments on Lutyens (it would be interesting to see whether he merits a mention in the letters to Lady Emily) his identification of the emergence of an architectural star was spot on. His association of Lutyens as true successor to Shaw would have greatly pleased ELL. After setting the scene with major houses by Shaw and Webb, he moved through work of ‘the younger architects’, beginning with Lethaby’s ‘Avon Tyrell’, then introduced

Some [architects who] are only just beginning their careers: they may become influential in the future but for the present this can only be a matter of surmise. First among these must be E. L. Lutyens in London. He is a young man who of recent years has come increasingly to the forefront of domestic architects and who may soon become the accepted leader among English builders of houses, like Norman Shaw in the past.

High and well deserved praise indeed. The comments appeared with photographs of ‘Orchards’ (seemingly from Country Life , which Muthesius also commended). The plan was hailed for reviving the courtyard house in a modern context, and

In siting a house he seeks to relate it as closely as possible to the Surrounding terrain by developing the architectonic idea in the Form of terraces, flower beds, pools, box hedges and pergolas. In this conversion, he is the most zealous champion of the new movement in gardening.

Munstead Wood was also included, rather isolated in Volume II, under a discussion on construction. Under ‘the smaller country house’ Overstrand Hall, Norfolk appeared, in close juxtaposition with Shaw’s ‘Sunninghill’, Berkshire. The house and garden block plan of ‘Deanery Garden’, Sonning was used to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between the two:

The garden is seen as a continuation of the rooms of the house, almost a series of outdoor rooms… thus the garden extends the house into the midst of nature.

When Muthesius completed his text in 1903, Lutyens’s work was comparatively unknown, although Country Life was adeptly spreading the news in the right places. But it was to be a decade later that Laurence Weaver’s iconic Houses and Gardens by E. L. Lutyens appeared. All credit to the Prussian envoy for spotting a winner. More than a century after its initial appearance, we can now admire the full range
of what the late Roderick Gradidge aptly termed ‘dream houses’. In the second part of this review, I shall discuss Muthesius’s treatment of some of Lutyens’s contemporaries.

Dr Mervyn Miller