Tour of Two Lutyens Houses in Kent – The Salutation and Great Maytham
Tuesday, 2 July and Wednesday, 3 July, 2019
By John Comins
By the time Lutyens designed these houses, he was well into his Wrenaissance period and had adapted his style to buildings with Georgian proportions and motifs. The Salutation and Great Maytham display the effects of his conversion on two contrasting scales and to different degrees. The former was a modest family home, the latter a massive political statement, which provides an absorbing comparison of how Lutyens met his clients’ differing requirements for a country house and garden.
A concern for a brother’s health may have inspired the Farrer brothers to build The Salutation, a country retreat very close to the sea at Sandwich. He may have benefited from this, but later owners have had cause to regret the location. This was made clear from our guide’s account of the inundation that occurred here in 2013: a combination of high tides and dismantled flood defences resulted in the almost total destruction of its garden, where six feet of floodwater left a legacy of deposited salt and ruined plantings. The house, however, was saved, thanks to its position on slightly higher ground.
Considering that several seasons were lost in the process of desalinisation, the garden’s restoration has been truly remarkable. Great care has been taken to retain Lutyens’s basic design although the details of the original planting have been lost and there is, incidentally, no record of Jekyll’s involvement. The yew hedges dividing the bowling green from the main garden have been revived and careful thought has been given to planting. This would accord with the Lutyens vistas and the need to give a long show throughout the summer.
The chosen site for the house, approached through the narrow lanes of a seaside town, gave little opportunity for pretension but Lutyens contrived to give a considerable sense of grandeur to this compact area of some four acres.
The house has been through many trials. However, the present owners, in converting it to an hotel, have provided the high polish it deserves. It carries many characteristics of Lutyens’s country-house style in the immediate prewar period — massive chimneys, the contrasting profiles of the three main façades, the perfection of the rubbed brick arches and Georgian symmetry. The seven-bay entrance front and sweep of steps might be expected to anticipate an equally grand hall. Yet this isn’t a large space; neither are the adjoining lobbies but, as one climbs the stairs, the volume augments, revealing contrasts and surprises. The Salutation was built for bachelor brothers, which perhaps explains the relatively modest proportions of the main reception rooms in relation to the house’s size. But, opening to the south, these take in the full glory of the secluded walled garden.
On our way to Great Maytham, I remembered that, in 1911, Lutyens attempted — in vain — to persuade his wife to visit it: “It is a delicious spot but I am afraid you would not face it”.
Indeed, delicious may not be one’s first reaction to this monumental house Lutyens designed for the Liberal politician, Harold John Tennant. It has not avoided critical comment. One of Lutyens’s biographers thought its Classicism “conventional and pompous”. Another commentator described it as one of his less remarkable works. But on our visit, architect Sir Terry Farrell, who occupies one of its large apartments, enthusiastically defended it. He has contributed time, expertise and objects to his apartment’s restoration and decoration. Readers will remember his recent article in the Trust’s newsletter and his perceptive analysis of the house acting as a screen between two contrasting landscapes and dynamic variation in rooflines and facades. His admiration for Lutyens’s work was admirably expressed.
The house’s size and mass are at first sight slightly overpowering. After entering the grounds through the stable block, itself full of subtle detailing, a straight drive through a small park ends with the house square on 15 bays of regular fenestration. This regularity is pointed up by the three emphatic door cases. Closer inspection of the imposing grey-brick walls shows them lightened and softened by an apparently random addition of red bricks. Of course, such a magical effect would hardly have been random but one wondered how it was achieved without giving the builders a detailed specification. Someone helpfully suggested that a trial wall might have been built and then, with Lutyens’s approval, the final decisions were left to the builders.
The motivation for the commission was, in Terry’s opinion, both political and familial. As a member of Asquith’s cabinet with the right budget for it, Tennant desired a place appropriate for the house-party gatherings of late-Edwardian England, complete with family quarters and an ample supply of lavatories. Lutyens gave him a place and grounds worthy of the great Whig heritage and it was perhaps the first that he designed for both cars and horses.
The garden front, now with the fenestration increased to 17 bays, looks out on to great enclosures adorned with walls, pools, steps and flower borders, all in a fine state of maintenance. Suited to the extensive promenades enjoyed by the kind of weekend guests that people the romances of Henry James novels, it’s in complete contrast to the intimacy of The Salutation’s grounds. At one point during the tour, the question of replacing the shutters on the garden front was raised but Terry confirmed that the decision had been taken not to do so.
Terry also told us that the house had adapted well to the needs of its many residents in providing 10 apartments in the main house and a further 10 in the adjoining buildings, so it is perhaps as fully occupied now as it was when the Tennant family, guests and staff thronged the site.