Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Totally at home

This friendly Surrey cottage, half-timbered and tile-hung, with its steeply pitched roof and surprisingly tall chimneys, looks as though it could never have been built anywhere else. It belongs, with a comfortable naturalness, to the flowers and plants, hedges and trees, that closely surround it. Its old building materials and crafted construction add to the impression that it is ''vernacular'' - native to its soil and locality, with its roots in the ages.

In a way, all this is true. But ''Munstead Orchard'' (which is the name of the cottage) is not exactly what it at first appears to be. For a start, it is not yet one hundred years old. Second, it is ''architect designed.''

About these ads

It would have been hard to guess - in 1899, when the pretty little cottage was completed - that its young designer would, about fifteen years later, be the architect of the massively imposing, colonial ''Viceroy's House'' in New Delhi, India, with its classical portico and dome and its cool self-importance. But Edwin Lutyens was a man of both versatility and sympathy. He seems to have had a genius for appropriateness. He found ''inspiration,'' as Jane Brown has written, ''in his client's dreams.'' Imperial government involved one kind of dream. Miss Gertrude Jekyll involved another, quite different, one.

Dyed in the wool of the 19th-century ''Arts and Crafts'' movement, with its belief in and attempt to recapture the ''thorough and honest spirit of the good work of the old days,'' Miss Jekyll was the client (or more exactly the patron) in whose garden ''Munstead Orchard'' was built. It was the home of the Swiss gardener she employed, and was just one of the several buildings Lutyens designed for this independent and original Edwardian lady.

Miss Jekyll was a notable personage in the history of English garden design, ultimately collaborating with Lutyens on more than a hundred gardens, and her patronage aided his rapidly growing architectural practice. He made his name as the designer of fine country houses. He had respect for traditions, but introduced his own wit and favorite motifs. As an American admirer, Frank Lloyd Wright, wrote in 1951: ''To him the Big Chimney, the Gable, the Gatepost monumentalized in good brick work and cut stone were motifs to be dramatized with great skill. He was able to idealize them with a success unequalled. Nor can I think of anyone able to so characteristically and quietly dramatize the Old English feeling for dignity and comfort in an interior. . . .''

Today, as epitomized in a wonderful exhibition in tribute to Lutyens' work, held at the Hayward Gallery in London this winter, we apparently feel freer than ever to admire the calibre, opulence and love of materials in his work. It isn't often that an exhibition in itself seems almost equal to the artist it presents, but this one did. Its ambition and its spaciousness fitted its subject perfectly , and its drama echoed his feel for the dramatic, for an architecture of effective images. It was like a re-creation in fine style of the felicity of his era and taste.

Whether it is true, I don't know, but I couldn't help feeling that houses like ''Munstead Orchard'' must surely have come closer to the real heart of this adaptable man than the great classical conceptions of his later work. This cottage is not just clever, not merely an ingenious pastiche; it actually expresses his own ''dreams.'' As a boy he had roamed the Surrey countryside, making drawings of houses with soap on glass. His love of this southern county was no less integral to his aesthetics than it was to Gertrude Jekyll's.

In the gardener's cottage, it is clear that Lutyens was aiming at a kind of typicality - a melding of house and garden: affection capsulated in a home. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner has pointed out, not uncritically, the fairy tale nature of Lutyens' imagination, and there was indeed a child's-eye view of things in his love of designing children's rooms, an inn or cottages with ''typical'' thatch, even a doll's house for the royal family. But this could be seen as one of his positive qualities, an attraction toward the popular , perhaps, but well under control. Lightness of touch is not necessarily frivolous.

He was not much in sympathy with modernism. An indignant thrust at Le Corbusier's idea of architecture as ''mass-made cages suitable for machine-made men'' (which might also be seen as a vulnerable admission that he felt more at ease in the nineteenth century than the twentieth century) nevertheless provides a glimpse of a deeply felt notion of house-designing central to his vision. He wrote, ''To be a home, the house cannot be a machine. It must be passive, not active, bringing peace to the fluctuation of the human mind from generation to generation. For what charm can a home possess that can never bear a worn threshold, the charred hearth and the rubbed corner?'' His own ''Munstead Orchard'' could certainly bear such pleasing evidences of age and use; they could only add to its charm

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.