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Stamp of authority

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review

Edwin Lutyens: Country Houses - From the Archives of Country Life By Gavin Stamp. Aurum Press, 2001. 192pp. £35

Edwin Lutyens was, to all effects, the house architect for Country Life - or Country Life Illustrated as the magazine was originally named. He built its Covent Garden headquarters in 1904, with acknowledgements to Christopher Wren (a style which he wittily christened the 'Wrenaissance'), and designed three houses for the editor, Edward Hudson, beginning with Deanery Garden in 1899.

From 1900, Lutyens' work was continuously featured in the pages of Country Life and, after his death in 1944, a handsome tribute appeared - the Lutyens Memorial - consisting of Christopher Hussey's biography and three folio volumes of drawings and photographs.

This fine new book brings together the sumptuous original photographs, commissioned for the articles, with Gavin Stamp's commentary and his masterly introductory essay - an exemplary piece of writing which, in less than 50 pages, offers a fresh perspective on Lutyens' practice and his critical standing.

In 1951, Lutyens' exact contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright referred to his 'success unequalled' in idealising English architectural qualities. Almost half a century before, Hermann Muthesius had taken Peter Behrens to see Munstead Wood and Orchards, a visit which Behrens described as being a powerful stimulus, through the qualities of 'masterly art and human amiability' which the houses exemplified.

As Stamp shows, Lutyens was not a country house architect so much as a country villa architect; few of his clients (he preferred the term patron) were the owners of landed estates; many of the houses boasted just a handful of acres. Yet those who commissioned Lutyens needed deep pockets. He had a tendency to throw out estimates like confetti and then, as he confided to his wife, came nemesis - the 'horror that I have yet to work it all out'.

Stamp makes a strong case throughout for the exploratory nature of Lutyens' work, its inventiveness bursting beyond the narrow bounds of the vernacular tradition, even as transformed in the hands of Philip Webb.

Yet the editors of Country Life (and their successors in 1950) did not want to know much about Lutyens' ventures towards the 'New Art'. They ensured that The Ferry Inn at Rosneath, and Les Bois des Moutiers were overlooked; the 'over-anxious' originality had no admirers in Tavistock Street.

But Lutyens was greatly impressed by Mackintosh and had been a pupil of Voysey, who thought that if Lutyens had not 'defected to the Classical Camp, England might have developed a sound modern architecture of her own.'

Ironically, it was a few thoughtful American architects in the early 1970s, not deaf to the claims of Classicism, who helped to argue Lutyens back into his rightful position.

The production of this book does justice to the richness of the photographs, showing the gardens of Gertrude Jekyll as intended, the building materials newly handled and, inside, the comfortable furniture of wealthy owners. Even now, few of these houses are open to the public, and one or two - Papillon Hall in Leicestershire, for example - have gone.

This is an incomplete record but a magnificent one. The story culminates in New Delhi, where Lutyens' achievement was celebrated by Le Corbusier as he began the planning of Chandigarh: 'The critics may rant as much as they like, but to have done such a thing demands respect (at least it demands my respect).' Few would now dispute Stamp's view that the Viceroy's House (see picture) is 'surely one of the great buildings of the world'.

Gillian Darley writes on architecture and landscape

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