Talk by Dr Mervyn Miller: Lutyens in the City of London – A Joint Event with the Twentieth Century Society

Friday, 19 February, 2016

By Paul Dawson

It is always a pleasure to attend a talk by Dr Miller. His erudition and insights into Lutyens and his work mean that one comes away knowing much more about the subject without feeling one has been pummelled into submission. This talk was held in conjunction with the Twentieth Century Society at its premises in Farringdon, London, and was beautifully illustrated with slides.

The talk served as a reminder that, while Lutyens’s early houses in Surrey were influenced by his sketching of local vernacular buildings, he was a Londoner. He was educated at South Kensington School of Art and, as a student, he explored the City of London and its environs, being captivated (according to a letter to his mother) by the nearby Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield. He was also an admirer of Sir Christopher Wren whose City churches undoubtedly fomented his later interest in classical architecture.

Lutyens’s key works in the City of London are the former Midland Bank HQ on Poultry, Britannic House in Finsbury Circus, the Reuters building in Fleet Street, the Midland Bank branch in Leadenhall Street and, last but by no means least, the Mercantile Marine Memorial in Tower Hill. All were built in the interwar period and reflected the changing nature of architectural patronage. Private house commissions had diminished due to higher personal taxation, death duties and the growing difficulties in recruiting domestic staff. Instead corporate and official bodies were now commissioning new buildings on a much greater scale.

Lutyens’s ability to cultivate this new group of clients was undoubtedly facilitated both by his domestic architecture, for example, for Reginald McKenna, who commissioned him to work for the Midland Bank, and by his ability to design buildings in a classical rather than a vernacular style. While several of Lutyens’s prewar buildings, for example Heathcote, and the designs for what became New Delhi, foreshadowed this architectural style, it was only after the First World War that it dominated his commercial and war memorial work.

Dr Miller’s presentation gave a detailed description of Lutyens’s work in the City and how it has been adapted to meet changing needs. Members of the Trust have been fortunate in being given privileged access to these buildings on previous visits. While their usage has changed — for example, Midland Bank at Leadenhall Street is now a wine bar — we are fortunate that the listing system and enlightened owners who recognise the inherent quality of Lutyens’s work mean that so much of it remains for us to cherish and admire. For this we must thank those who have led and supported the Trust since its inception in 1984, not least Mervyn Miller himself.