Visit to Four Lutyens Houses in Surrey

Saturday 23 September 2007

On a pleasant autumn morning, a group of 30 members met in the station car park at Milford for a day spent at four private houses designed by a ‘twenty-something’ Ned Lutyens in his home patch of ‘Old West Surrey’. Ruckmans, the earliest of those visited was completed in 1894; Littlecroft, the last, in 1899. So this was a day spent, to some extent, in the 90s of the century before last.

To those of my generation, who grew up in the middle years of the 20th Century, the closing years of the 19th Century and the Edwardian era were remote but not totally unconnected. We were well versed in the children’s literature of the period and knew our ‘E Nesbit’ backwards. If we wanted to hear what it was like at the beginning of the century there were plenty of older people, very much still alive, who had grown up or been young adults at the time, and could tell us. We (most of us) didn’t live in houses with servants and separate servants quarters but we knew about them. The period, though fading, was still a living memory. That time has now gone and, in visiting houses which were brand-new and up-to-date in the 1890s, we are looking at machines designed for life in quite a different world from our own. It is, therefore, of particular interest to see how these houses have been adapted and altered to reflect today’s domestic arrangements and needs. It is particularly nice to see, not only that they have been felt to have the potential for reorganisation, but that current generations should see them as sufficiently desirable to want to adapt them to 21st Century living.

Our morning was spent viewing two smaller houses, The Red House in Godalming and Littlecroft on Guildown Road, Guildford.

The Red House (1897) , built for a retired assistant master and honorary chaplain of Charterhouse School who probably moved in the same circles as the Jekylls, is one of the first Lutyens houses to face the challenge of a steeply sloping site. The two storey entrance front, facing the road, is relatively unremarkable, at first sight, while the opposite (garden) side is completely different, runs down the hillside and, with an added storey, rises almost cliff-like before you. Inside, the central feature is an impressive central stair-well, with shallow risers on deep treads, which takes up the full height of the house. Of particular interest are the unusual and impressive early Lutyens fireplaces in the drawing-room and dining-room. The current owners, Mr and Mrs Laws, who welcomed us and explained the extensive restoration work which they have already done, bought the house in 1975 when it was in a seriously poor state. Work on the property continues.

Littlecroft (1899) is also a house built on a steeply sloping site, sitting right on the street at the front, this time, giving the impression of a rather grand bungalow. The oriel windows at the corners, are, I understand, typical of Lutyens at this period. As with The Red House, this slightly smaller house makes use of its difficult site by offering a variety of different facades. It also revolves around a central staircase – this time, lit by dormer windows. The owners, Mr and Mrs Osborne, met us and, with justifiable enthusiasm, showed us around their home and garden.

Our next port of call was Ruckmans (1894) at Ockley, home of Lutyens Trust member, Mrs Phyllis Lusher, who kindly provided us with a superb lunch which the perfect weather permitted us to enjoy ‘al fresco’ in the garden. The house, described by Roderick Gradidge as ‘one of the first houses which really shows the Lutyens style’ is an early instance of Lutyens extending an old building (a row of cottages). It is an example of his skillful management in adding a volume of building much larger than the original structure without overwhelming it. In 1902, Lutyens was asked to return in order to add a music room which needed to be sufficiently tall to produce a satisfactory acoustic and, consequently, could not sit comfortably next to the long low house and the horizontals of the earlier extension. Linking the new room to the old house only by a broad passage way, he treated the building more or less as a freestanding pavilion with very tall sash windows on the south and east sides. I understand that it is partly due to his rigorous use of geometry that Ruckmans makes such a cohesive and satisfying whole.

Ruckmans has been thoroughly renovated to adapt it for a (virtually servantless) present. As an aside, it was especially pleasing that a building designed to serve as the centre of a working farm should – in the Surrey of 2006 – still be used for exactly the same purpose.

Our visit ended at Rake Court back at Milford, originally built in 1602 for Henry Bell, Clerk Comptroller to the household of James 1 and, in 1882, virtually doubled in size by the Surrey architect, Ralph Nevill. In 1897, the owner, Mrs Cavan Irving, commissioned Lutyens to modify and extend the Nevill wing in order to provide a new kitchen and housekeeper’s room and a service courtyard. Subsequent extensions were designed by Baillie Scott in 1910 and 1925. Alan and Caroline Bott, the current owners, conducted us around the Lutyens part of the building, gave us a tour of the grounds and ended a most interesting day with afternoon tea on the lawn overlooking the lake. A fitting end to our visit to late 19th Century Surrey.

John Entwisle