Sir Edwin Lutyens: An Appreciation in Perspective, 1942
by ROBERT LUTYENS
An extract from his biography of his father
His contribution to the assured and lovely development of modern English gardening is incalculable. But here he was aided by the only fruitful and abiding collaboration of his career, with Gertrude Jekyll, for whom – alone among contemporaries – he retained an admiration only equalled by his affection for her. The influence of this wise, eccentric and cultivated woman on her generation, in general, and on my father, in particular, has been on the whole insufficiently acknowledged. Much has he owed to her companionship and encouragement; much to her great knowledge of rural tradition. She fostered his love of ingenious contrivance, so patent in all his assembly of finished detail, and shared his pleasure in the wit and economy of old-fashioned workmanship. How odd must they have looked, this curiously assorted pair, as they drove in her pony-cart along the Surrey lanes in search of rare survivals! The lank young man and the inordinately stout and bespectacled spinster – the dreaded ‘Aunt Bumps’ to us children on our rare visits, later on, to Munstead Wood.
While Miss Jekyll elaborated, with an infallibility of taste and sensitive craftsmanship, the growing feeling for natural and picturesque planting – a curious and beautiful result, this, of nineteenth-century antiquarianism – she found in Father the ideal interpreter who eventually exalted her limited conception on to the plane of creative formal design.
An extraordinary instance of this is the origin of the Cenotaph. No one would connect this apparently most abstract and formal conception with a picturesque Surrey garden. Nor would anybody but my father have remembered the incident so vividly for thirty years, assimilated its significance, and been able when the time came, to give it seemingly spontaneous architectural form.
On some occasion at Munstead Wood, Miss Jekyll asked Father to build her a seat – a massive affair consisting of an immense balk of timber supported on masonry. When it was finished, their friend, Charles Liddell, remarked that it looked like the Cenotaph of Sigismunda. Father did not know the word, and elicited that it meant an empty tomb, “a monument erected to a deceased person whose body is buried elsewhere”. Shortly afterwards he jokingly explained to Herbert Jekyll that the new object in the garden was “a cenotaph for Bumps”.
In 1919 Lloyd George summoned my father and told him that the Government wished to erect a ‘catafalque’ for the anniversary of the armistice. He explained that it must be non-denominational in character, as commemorating man of every creed, and, in the first instance, was envisaged as a temporary structure; hence no doubt, Lloyd George’s choice of the word ‘catafalque’, as indicating a ‘temporary stage or platform erected by way of honour in a church to receive a coffin or effigy….’ Father immediately remembered the long-ago incident of the ‘cenotaph for Bumps’ and evolved the design, not as a catafalque, but infinitely more apt, as the empty tomb – the monument of millions ‘buried elsewhere’.
In submitting the design to the Cabinet, he called it a ‘Cenotaph’, at the same time indicating the precise meaning of the word. Both idea and name were approved and immediately appealed to the national mood. The long-obsolescent word returned to universal use as perfectly denoting a symbol of a universal emotion.
This story illustrates so many aspects of my father’s intellectual equipment. His receptiveness to a fresh idea, though it might have seemed a trifling archaeological detail at the time; his immense memory for anything bearing on architecture; the peculiar cast of his mind, which would attach a clear image to any word once understood; the nature and extent of his debt to Miss Jekyll and, finally, his capacity for recreating in characteristic and personal form, and thereby exalting on to the universal plane, conceptions originally limited or local. This process can be detected throughout his work, both in detail and in spirit. It is this that gives it its profound cogency.