Sir Edwin Lutyens, the greatest architect of his generation, comes alive as "Ned" in this book by his great granddaughter, Jane Ridley. The designer of New Delhi, Hampstead, Castle Drogo, Lindisfarne Castle, the British School in Rome, Munstead Wood, the Cenotaph in London and many hundreds of exciting, diverse buildings, Lutyens was a witty, complex personality.
He died in 1944 at a time when classicism was on the wane and modernism was on a roll, and so due recognition eluded him until recent times. This is the fourth book on Lutyens in the past two years but the first to capture the man behind the buildings. Ridley narrates the major influences in his life: from his childhood as the 11th of 14 children with little money and his upwardly mobile marriage, to his collaborators and clients. Although the author apologises for the book not being a definitive study of Lutyens' buildings, there are in fact frequent descriptions of these, as well as examples of the critics' appreciation and ridicule. His relationship with his wife Emily is a significant element in the book.
Being in love with a Lytton, poor Ned had to insure his life for £13,000 before the Lyttons would agree to the marriage. His honeymoon was such a disaster that he and his wife never again took a holiday together, and he became so desperate for work to improve his household that "work became an end in itself". Alive only in the more than 5,000 letters they wrote each other, the marriage was never the relationship Lutyens wanted and not one that many would accept nowadays. Emily spent most of their married years involved in theosophy, chasing Krishnamurti from India to Australia to America, impelled by her belief in his divinity and an apparent sexual attraction. As she once wrote to Ned, "Thank you for being endlessly good to me, patient and loving and long suffering... I have hurt you far more than you have hurt me... we have not succeeded in building a joint life or making a home together.... sadder for you... because I have exactly the life I want..." He, by contrast, wanted her "to be there, to be worshipped and adored and be the reason for (my) work". One cannot help but wonder how his unhappy marriage relates to his ability to design buildings of such happiness, grandeur, versatility and craftsmanship.
For those interested in architecture or in 19th and 20th-century Britain, the book is a must-read. It is especially good on aspects of architecture that are trickier to describe, for example how to "win the project and keep it". Lutyens made over 8,500 drawings for New Delhi (costing "50 times the fee value") - the price of his commitment; and the well-told 20-year battle with Sir Herbert Baker over the gradient of the slope leading up Raisina Hill to the Viceroy's House between the two secretariats is an instance of his perfectionism.
Lutyens comes across as a loner ("I seem to have no friends - just the people I build for"), childlike ("he derived a horrible satisfaction by catching more fish than anyone else"), vengeful ("Ned fed newspaper articles against Baker, whose reputation never really recovered") and always critical ("he made no allowances for the ancient Greeks") - all at once. If he commands our admiration, respect and sympathy, we must also be glad not to have actually worked around him.
Ridley tries hard to balance her criticisms of Ned and Emily, and to remember that Lutyens was a man who inspired so many of us. Sometimes, I think she is a little too critical of him, as when she writes that "his instinct was always to flee" - going to Rome for work is not exactly "fleeing". I also spotted one inaccuracy: the War Memorial Arch in New Delhi is 139ft high, not 75ft as stated.
But this enjoyable book is to be heartily recommended. I hope that it will draw attention worldwide to the body of Lutyens' surviving work. Though Ridley is right that "it is a miracle that Lutyens' work has survived in New Delhi", the garden city is today listed among the World Monument Watch list of "100 most endangered sites"; threatened with skyscrapers replacing the colonial bungalows, and a victim of international ignorance. Lutyens once said, "it is cruel and callous the way our preservation destroys the work of our fathers". Today, let us hope that the greed of the 21st century will not obliterate the finest city built anywhere in the interwar years.
Ratish Nanda, a Delhi-based conservation architect and co-author of Delhi, The Built Heritage , is currently a PhD candidate at the University of York.
The Architect and His Wife: A Life of Edwin Lutyens
Author - Jane Ridley
ISBN - 0 7011 7201 0
Publisher - Chatto & Windus
Price - £25.00
Pages - 484