The Architect and His Wife

A Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens by Jane Ridley

There is a convention that no-one thanked in print by the author of a book should publish a review of it, but I hope that in disregarding this safeguard against nepotism in the Newsletter of the Lutyens Trust, I am not so much promoting Jane Ridley’s new biography of her great-grandfather to a wider public as talking amongst friends. I was very pleased and flattered to be asked to help Jane with whatever knowledge of Lutyens’s architecture I may possess as, already admiring her skill as a biographer and knowing of the epistolary and documentary riches to which she had access, the result could only be a riveting and illuminating study of the complex and peculiar character of the most ravishing, the most romantic, the most intuitive and sculptural and, yet, the most geometrically intellectual; in all – let’s be honest, and not just among friends – the greatest of all British architects. I am proud to have some of my slides illustrating this enthralling book.

Lutyens, like any great man or woman, has suffered both from the condescension of posterity and from hero worship. Mary Lutyens revealed some of the warts; Jane Ridley reveals many more, and rightly. He was not a saint, but a very great artist, while no architect can be very successful without behaving selfishly and cynically, at times. Here are more stories about Lutyens’s ambition and his ruthless seeking after jobs. It was all to do with money, of course, and Jane explains both the need for it – the absurd grandeur of those Bloomsbury houses – and, paradoxically, Lutyens’s hopelessness with it when he had it – all those unanticipated tax demands. Yet, in the end, one warms to Lutyens more because he seems more human, even when behaving badly towards his children, colleagues and clients, while the account of his last wartime years when he was dying is very moving.

Then there is sex, of course. The story of that thrilling but doomed dalliance with Lady Sackville is at last told as fully as it can be (yes, they probably did.). But that leads on to what is the real subject of the book. Not for nothing is it called The Architect and his Wife. It is really the story of a socially ambitious, ill-judged, physically disastrous and yet, in the end, surprisingly enduring and companionable marriage and its effect on the behaviour and imagination of a perversely shy, highly wrought and reasonably-sexed male artist. Mary Lutyens apparently wanted to put her mother’s point of view in her 1980 book and was dismayed when most readers sympathised with her dad. Jane wanted to be fair and honest but, I suspect, became more and more exasperated with Lady Emily’s antics as she went on. No matter: the important thing is that this is a subtle and perceptive portrait of two remarkable individuals, both victims in their time of the most suffocating and inhibiting period for healthy heterosexuality in English history. Amazing, really, that those five unfortunate children were ever born at all (while the final paragraphs about their respective fates is the saddest part of the book).

Now I am older and, possibly, just a little wiser, I know that one cannot understand any individual in isolation from background, friends and colleagues and, above all, from parents and wives (or husbands). Unfortunately, so often the evidence is missing: What do we know of Lady Wren and Mrs Hawksmoor, of Mrs Cockerell or Lady Barry? For various reasons, Mrs Bodley is largely irrelevant in understanding Late Victorian architecture, but we do know something of the sufferings of poor Mrs Soane and a little about the three Mrs Pugins and I have no doubt that Sir Gilbert Scott could not have been what he was without the support of the shadowy Caroline Oldrid. With Lutyens’s generation, however, the contribution of women is much better documented. Charles Rennie Mackintosh said himself that his work owed everything to his artist wife, Margaret Macdonald, while the three Mrs Frank Lloyd Wrights – each in different ways unfortunate – are crucial to understanding the amazing life of Lutyens’s American admirer. So Jane Ridley has done justice to her great-grandfather by telling the story of her great-grandmother. I never tire of complaining that while new books on his great contemporaries – Mackintosh and Wright – seem to appear once a month, new works on Lutyens are still comparatively rare. Jane Ridley’s book, however; should not just be bought by every member of the Lutyens Trust because it is an important addition to the bibliography which adds so much to our understanding of Ned Lutyens; it should be read because it is a wonderful biography.

Gavin Stamp