The great man’s owlish charm is brought to life in some long-lost correspondence
At the time of his death on New Year’s Day 1944, Sir Edwin Lutyens was widely considered the greatest English architect of his age. His pre-eminence was such that, within months, a committee was formed to produce a memorial biography, making the fullest possible use of the architect’s office and papers. The book was published in 1950, and it is appropriately monumental, a two-inch-thick green and tan cenotaph with gilt lettering.
One copy of The Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens resided prominently on a high shelf in my grandmother’s living room. Despite enjoying books about architecture and architects, I never took it down – it had a heavy look to it, both literally and figuratively. And there were plenty of other books about architecture to enjoy on lower shelves. My great-grandfather, Herbert Austen Hall, had been an architect, and his daughter had kept some of his appreciation of buildings and their making, partly explaining how that appreciation came down to me.
Great-grandfather had two claims to fame. One was that he launched his career by winning the competition to design Lambeth Town Hall, which he entered with his friend Septimus Warwick while both were still very young men. This remains his most important built work, as he later went on to design Odeon cinemas, almost all of which were destroyed. The other claim was that he had collaborated with Lutyens, latterly as part of the Royal Academy committee that drew up a plan for the post-war rebuilding of London.
My grandmother died last year and, as I mentioned in my previous column, I have been helping sort through the very large number of books and papers she left. At last, I took down the biography to see if great-grandfather was mentioned at all. No one, it seemed, had opened it in years, and I could hardly believe what I found inside. A large envelope had been attached to the inside of the front cover by the adhesive gum of its flap. On this was written ‘Letters & Drawings – E.L.L to H.A.H’. And so it proved – a small sheaf of letters from Lutyens and his family and some doodles.
Suddenly here was Lutyens the charmer and friend, or ‘Lut’
Up to that moment Lutyens was, to me, a name, a fairly monolithic name with an imposing backdrop of buildings: the Cenotaph, the Monument to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, imperial New Delhi. Although the architect’s affability and generosity are common features of accounts of his life, they are qualities that fade in the mausolea of reputation. But suddenly here was Lutyens the charmer and friend, or ‘Lut’. He opens every letter with ‘My dear Austen’, and was fond of sketching himself self-deprecating vein. A tiny thumbnail self-portrait appends a letter of May 1943, no more than a few lines suggesting a round face, round glasses, a pipe and an Edwardian collar: ‘What I look like now, in case you have forgotten.’ Another drawing depicts an owlish Lutyens being leaned on by my great-grandfather, who is depicted as a clear couple of feet taller than the great man.
Hall served as honorary secretary of the committee, and we have since found folders of documents related to the replanning of London (see box). Though they had little effect on the rebuilding of the city, the plans were exhibited amid much interest in 1942, and again towards the end of the war. That latter show was too late for Sir Edwin.
Another drawing is a touching glimpse of his working relationship with Hall: it shows Lutyens as a baby, held by my great-grandfather, who is wearing the uniform of a nurse. It had obviously meant a tremendous amount to Austen, who had cherished these mementos, and ensured their safe-keeping on a high shelf, where they listened to the ticking of the mantel clock more than 60 years.
LONDON REPLANNED UNEARTHED
The numerous documents we found relating to the plan for London are a curious mixture, and I intend to write about them in much greater detail later in the year. There’s very little architectural work (one fascinating schematic drawing aside), but dozens of letters and minutes that cast an intriguing light on the remarkable work of a selection of Edwardian eminences in wartime. It was a popular family myth that His Majesty George VI ‘liked to pop in’ and see how they were getting along – sadly I have found nothing that supports this.
Will Wiles is a journalist and author