Edwin Lutyens

Mar 1, 2021 | Blog Posts

Edwin Lutyens was widely regarded as the greatest British architect in history. He was a leading designer of English country houses, public buildings and war memorials. Later on, he lived in New Delhi, where he designed a presidential palace and many other structures, leading to a whole area being known as Lutyens’ Delhi.

Gavin Stamp, the renowned architectural historian, described Lutyens as the “greatest British architect of the 20th or any other century”, thanks to his unique and innovative ideas. He adapted different historic styles to meet the demands of 19th and 20th-century contemporary domestic architecture.

© Scott Dexter CC BY-SA 2.0 / Internet Archive Book Images

Lutyens was born in 1869, during the Victorian era, at a time when the architect’s role was becoming more of a specialist one. At the beginning of the 19th century, the profession had multiple roles, with the architect acting as surveyor and developer as well. Following the birth of the Institute of British Architects in 1834 – later becoming the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1837 – the architect’s role focused more on design.

Lutyens was active at an exciting time for the architectural profession. Victorian designers were open to influences from different cultures and historical periods and these captured his imagination, inspiring him to achieve greater things.

Civic and industrial buildings were developed on a great scale, as well as a multitude of new residential and commercial properties, as a result of population growth and the industrial revolution. The legacy of Victorian architecture (and especially Lutyens’ influence) is still felt on the landscape today.

Early years

Lutyens was the tenth of 13 children born to soldier Captain Charles Lutyens and housewife Mary Lutyens, who lived in Kensington, London. Although a military man, Charles was also an artist and was a friend of the sculptor, Edwin Henry Landseer.

The young Edwin inherited his father’s artistic talents and taught himself to draw in his youth, using the unusual technique of drawing with a sharpened piece of soap on a pane of glass. This enabled him to effectively trace exactly what he saw.

Soap was cheap to buy and it was also easy to erase, so it provided an ideal medium for him to hone his skills, rather than using traditional pencils and paper. In fact, he actively discouraged the use of a sketchbook to make a permanent note of ideas.

As his love of drawing and architecture grew, he reportedly said that it wasn’t good practice for old sketches to be “assimilated into buildings” at a later date. He believed new designs for buildings should emerge spontaneously in their local context. He viewed a sketchbook as a “borrowed” collection of elements and ideas.

In 1885, at the age of 16, he began a two-year course studying architecture at South Kensington School of Art. On completing his studies in 1887, he took his first job at the Ernest George and Harold Peto architectural practice at 29 Bloomsbury Square, London.

First designs

After only six months, at the age of 19, Lutyens left his apprenticeship to start his own business. His first private commission was designing a house in Crooksbury, Surrey. While working on the property, he met the renowned garden designer and horticulturalist, Gertrude Jekyll, who was 26 years his senior.

This was the start of an enduring professional partnership that defined the look of many properties, as she instilled in him her philosophy of practicing the “directness of purpose and simplicity of intention”.

In 1896, he began working on a country house for Jekyll at Munstead Wood, near Godalming. It was the first time he had been able to truly show his qualities as an architect, designing a sweeping roof in contrast with high-buttressed chimneys, while offsetting long strips of windows with small doorways. This one design established his reputation as a great architect and suddenly, he was in demand.

He successfully designed a brilliant series of country houses, giving them all their own unique twist by adapting a variety of styles of bygone years into contemporary pieces of domestic architecture.

One of his influences was the Doric Order, a style of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. The Doric style originated in the Dorian region of Greece. One of its most prominent features was the circular structure at the top of a column, as defined by the design of the Parthenon, the Greek temple dedicated to the goddess, Athena.

Lutyens described the Doric Order style as a “lovely thing” and explained, “You can’t copy it … you have to take it and design it.” He described this task as “hard labour and hard thinking”, considering every line and every joint. He said adapting the Doric Order meant utilising “poetry and artistry”, altering one feature, while creating other new features in a “sympathetic” manner. He said this task should not be taken lightly.

Greatest buildings

Lutyens earned his reputation for being the greatest architect of all time by designing some of the most stunning and memorable buildings in Great Britain.

As well as his use of the Doric style, he also adapted Tudor architecture into some of his most famous designs, such as Munstead Wood (which he designed for Gertrude Jekyll), the country house Tigbourne Court in Wormley, Orchards and Goddards country houses in Surrey, and Deanery Garden house in Berkshire.

He was also jointly commissioned with Jekyll to design the house and gardens of Le Bois des Moutiers, a country estate in France. The descendants of the original owner, Guillaume Mallet, still live there today. The estate is designated a historical monument and a Remarkable Garden of France – the equivalent of Britain’s National Trust properties.

At the turn of the century, Lutyens’ style evolved into one of classicism and this influenced other designers of the early 1900s. His designs during this period included an extensive refurbishment of Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island, near Berwick-upon-Tweed, in 1901.

The castle had been built in 1550 and Lutyens completed a dramatic renovation of the entrance hall, sectioning it off with large stone pillars that made it resemble a church nave. It featured dark reddish-brown stone, contrasted with whitewashed plasterwork.

One client was reportedly so delighted with Lutyens’ work that he sent him a Rolls-Royce Tesla Roadster – the only car he ever owned.

War memorials

During the Great War from 1914 to 1918, Lutyens was appointed principal architect of the Imperial War Graves Commission, which later became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He was tasked with creating some of the best-known monuments in Britain to commemorate the war dead.

He designed a Stone of Remembrance for Britain’s larger cemeteries and created the UK’s most famous monument, the Cenotaph in Whitehall, Westminster. He also designed the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, in Thiepval, France.

Originally, the Cenotaph was commissioned by Prime Minister David Lloyd George as a temporary structure for the Allied Victory Parade of 1919. It was to have been a low platform, but Lutyens suggested a taller monument. He designed the new structure in less than six hours.

His other war memorials included Dublin’s War Memorial Gardens, Manchester Cenotaph, the Tower Hill memorial in Trinity Square, London and Leicester’s Arch of Remembrance.

New Delhi designs

Lutyens went to India in 1912, at the age of 43, when Delhi became the seat of the British Government. He was commissioned to design numerous buildings over the next 18 years. He used his new order of classical architecture, which became known as the Delhi Order.

His masterpiece was the palatial building, featuring the famous great dome, which was the Viceroy’s House and known as the Rashtrapati Bhavan. With 340 rooms, it spans an area of around 330 acres and has a private garden, which Lutyens also designed. Today, it is the President of India’s official residence.

Lutyens also designed the furniture and fittings for the Viceroy’s House, including his throne, the light fittings, fireplaces, fire backs, fenders and fire-irons. A team of specially-trained cabinet-makers was drafted in to make the furniture using teak, mixed with hardwoods such as koko and ebony, which were used for decoration.

Lutyens also drew up the plans for New Delhi, featuring wide avenues with trees lining either side. At the point where the old and new cities met, he planned a market, which would be a shopping centre for the local people. This became the D-shaped market that exists today.

He also designed the four bungalows in the presidential estate surrounding the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Willingdon Crescent, which was later renamed Mother Teresa Crescent. His other designs included Bikaner House, Baroda House, Patiala House and Hyderabad House.

Recognising his architectural prowess, Lutyens was awarded the Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire on 1st January 1930. A bust of Lutyens remains in the former Viceroy’s House in New Delhi.

Lutyens and his wife, Lady Emily Bulwer-Lytton, had five children. In later life, the architect suffered from several bouts of pneumonia and suffered further ill health when he was diagnosed with cancer in the 1940s. He died aged 74, on 1st January 1944, but will always be remembered for the magnificent legacy of his beautiful architecture.

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