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

James Stevens Curl is delighted by a comprehensive study of an often underrated architectural era 

July 27, 2020
Kingsgate Castle
Source: Robin Forster

When English domestic architecture was designed by sensitive, gifted architects who drew on historical precedents, it was invariably realised by builders who employed properly trained craftsmen, working with natural materials, often from local sources. So new buildings not only found their places in the landscape, but settled in happily with existing structures. This prompted the German government to appoint Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927), attaché at the Imperial German Embassy in London, to carry out a comprehensive survey of British domestic architecture and design. This culminated in the superbly illustrated and produced three-volume Das englische Haus, published by the Berlin firm of Wasmuth in 1904-05, with a revised and even better second edition of 1908-11, which publicised the work of numerous British architects on the Continent.

Now Timothy Brittain-Catlin, helped hugely by the photographer Robin Forster and his sympathetic publishers, has authored an intelligent, scholarly and beautifully illustrated tome encapsulating the astonishingly innovative, imaginative and superbly crafted dwellings erected to the designs of grossly underestimated architects such as W. H. Romaine-Walker, George Kitchin, Charles Mallows and Avray Tipping. He rightly emphasises the literature of the period, including the highly influential articles on architecture in Country Life, Edward Hudson’s journal, but not ignoring the picture books aimed at the builders of smaller, humbler dwellings. Even more important, he emphasises the influence of leading circles within the once-mighty Liberal Party, which caused an incredible amount of domestic architecture to be realised, from great houses to humbler cottages, influencing developments all over the country.

Figures such as John Lubbock (1834-1913), today mostly remembered for legislation concerned with the preservation of ancient monuments, called on Romaine-Walker to remodel Kingsgate Castle, Kent, but the same architect’s work at Rhinefield, near Brockenhurst, Hampshire; Medmenham Abbey on the Thames, Buckinghamshire; and Danesfield, near Marlow, in the same county, is extraordinarily inventive and very beautiful. Romaine-Walker also designed some 28 cottages around Medmenham in a Domestic Revival style, the planning of which was much praised in the august pages of Country Life, in which the writings of Tipping and Lawrence Weaver played such important parts in disseminating taste.

Brittain-Catlin also describes the significant, although underrated, garden suburb of Gidea Park, Essex, a built exhibition of model houses to cost between £350 and £500, including contractors’ profits and architects’ fees: those were the days! The houses in Gidea Park, by talented architects such as Courtenay Crickmer, Geoffry Lucas, Ronald P. Jones, Clough Williams-Ellis, Barry Parker & Raymond Unwin, and Reginald Longden, are varied and interesting, but most of all, they are aesthetically pleasing, their prettiness stemming from intelligent variety.

As Brittain-Catlin observes, the “great genius of Country Life was that it managed to combine so disciplined and so technically precise an editorial line on the architecture of both new and remodelled houses”, and had an “astonishing ability to understand the meaning” of such buildings. His book is a wonderful thing, elegantly written and superbly illustrated: it celebrates agreeable human habitats designed by truly creative professionals that show up the dire, ugly, shameful mess being made nowadays.

James Stevens Curl received the 2019 Arthur Ross Award for Excellence in the Classical Tradition for History and Writing by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art in the US. He is also the author of Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism (2019).


The Edwardians and Their Houses: The New Life of Old England
By Timothy Brittain-Catlin
Lund Humphries, 224pp, £45.00
ISBN 9781848222687
Published 1 April 2020

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