The Edwardians and Their Houses: The New Life of Old England by Timothy Brittain-Catlin - review by Jane Ridley

Jane Ridley

Liberal Habitats

The Edwardians and Their Houses: The New Life of Old England


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Sir John Lubbock was an exemplary Edwardian Liberal. Growing up under the influence of Charles Darwin, who lived in the same village as him, he had a scientific mind. A truly good man and a philanthropist, he gave us bank holidays and early shop closing. His father-in-law was the great archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers, and Lubbock took up archaeology as well; he introduced the first legislation for the protection of ancient monuments. His crowning achievement was to commission Kingsgate Castle on the Isle of Thanet. Kingsgate is a mock Tudor castle with towers and courtyards, built on the ruins of a Georgian folly created by Lord Holland, the father of Charles James Fox. Lord Avebury, as Lubbock had become, died there in 1913, content that he had created a place on the Kentish coast for holidaymakers to enjoy. He is the hero of this book. Timothy Brittain-Catlin lived in a flat at Kingsgate Castle as a child.

An astonishing number of Liberal politicians before 1914 built houses for themselves, and the boom in house building by such figures forms the core of this fascinating book. Liberals of all sorts shared progressive views on land reform, and Liberal architecture was the architecture of land reform. Liberals disliked Georgian architecture because it was identified with the enclosure movement and they deplored the Palladian houses of the Whig aristocracy because they were designed in a style that was imposed from outside. They built houses with historical features that seemed to have grown out of the ground and their preferred style was Elizabethan: half-timbered and gabled.

Lord Carrington was a Liberal peer who converted the buildings on his farm at Daws Hill into a sprawling country house, an extraordinary thing for someone of his social stature to do. Architecturally the house was dull, but the mixture of old and new, of vernacular exteriors and a classically grand white drawing room, made it a prime example of Liberal building (it was later sold to Wycombe Abbey School). Carrington was an enlightened landowner, introducing allotments and strengthening the security of the tenants on his estates by creating smallholdings. As president of the Board of Agriculture in the 1905 Liberal government, he increased the rights of tenants and agricultural labourers.

Herbert Asquith, prime minister from 1908 to 1916, built himself a plain brick village house for weekends on the River Thames at Sutton Courtenay. Margot, his wife, did something revolutionary there, converting (rather than remodelling) an old barn into her ‘studio’ – the first barn conversion on record. Not all Liberal houses were in the country. On Cowley Street and Great College Street near Smith Square in Westminster, Liberal MPs commissioned ‘Quality Street’ Queen Anne houses. It’s striking how rich all these Liberals were. At the suburb of Walton-on-the-Hill in Surrey, Lloyd George and his friends rented ‘dormy’ (overnight) houses from the Liberal newspaper proprietor Lord Riddell, the co-owner of the village golf course.

The rage for new houses before 1914 led to what Brittain-Catlin calls a ‘culture’ of building. The outstanding source for this culture is Country Life, which was the first magazine devoted to writing about houses. Its brilliance lay in combining pieces on charming and historical old buildings with articles on such subjects of contemporary concern as planning and scientifically inspired cottages for agricultural labourers. The writing was directed at landowners rather than architects. Later it acquired an image as a weekly for the gentry, replete with photos of girls in pearls, but at this time it was a Liberal magazine. Edward Hudson, the founder and co-owner of Country Life, was apolitical, but his fellow proprietor was the rogue and fixer Lord Riddell. Country Life constantly presented old and new houses side by side, blurring the distinction between the two. Lawrence Weaver, the Country Life writer with the greatest influence on Edwardian domestic architecture, made the case for new-old houses in his weekly articles.

Hudson was a good friend and patron of Edwin Lutyens, and from 1900 Country Life ran a series of full-length, beautifully illustrated features on Lutyens’s major country houses. Here we come to the elephant in the room. Lutyens is usually seen as the towering genius of Edwardian domestic architecture, but in this book Brittain-Catlin presents a revisionist view.

According to the author, Lutyens’s buildings ‘tend to reflect Edwardian preoccupations rather than create them’. The contrast between a ‘Tudor’ exterior and a lush white classical interior, which is so often seen as characteristic of Lutyens, was in fact typical of Edwardian architecture. Country Life abounds with photos of such houses, suggesting that Lutyens’s work was not as original as his admirers believe. Brittain-Catlin claims that Lutyens often borrowed features for his houses from other contemporary architects. Lutyens used to tell a story about his old employer Ernest George, who would return from holidays with sketchbooks filled with picturesque details, which he would then incorporate into his buildings. Lutyens did the same but he didn’t sketch; he remembered what others had built. ‘The secret of his success’, says Brittain-Catlin, is that ‘he designed their ideas better than they did’. Contextualising Lutyens’s work within the Edwardian architectural world is a useful exercise, but, as the author admits, it’s hard to prove what came first: ‘Did Hudson choose his photographs to suit his idol, or the other way round?’

Brittain-Catlin brings a fresh approach to Edwardian architecture. He refuses to see the architectural movement that the Edwardian era gave birth to as being cut off by the First World War. Nor, he argues, did its style ‘develop’ into modernism. The book is a rich, dense – sometimes rather too dense – study of a political elite and their language of house building, a revisionist text that will cause us to look at Edwardian architecture in an entirely new way.

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