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Lucy Lethbridge - Ideal English homes

Books | By Lucy Lethbridge

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

The architect and historian Timothy Brittain-Catlin begins his erudite and entertaining book on Edwardian architecture with a quotation from E M Forster’s novel The Longest Journey (1907).

“Thank God I’m English,” said Rickie suddenly.’

In the England of Forster’s fiction, these little morsels of the rural past are under attack from encroaching suburbs, ribbon developments and row after row of hideous, bricky boxes spreading ever outwards over the green. The rook-racked, ivy-clad, un-planned jumbledness of Forster’s Howard’s End is a morsel squeezed between the deep and particular pleasures of the past and the soulless efficiency of industrial capitalism.

But Brittain-Catlin points out that the great building boom of the Edwardian age, though its style has become synonymous with commuter belts, suburbia, jokes about Stockbrokers’ Tudor and (especially) golf courses, had at its best a radical vision of land reform, better housing for the poor, and buildings that celebrated the best elements of the craftsmanship of the past but with top-notch additional bathrooms and central heating. Indoor bathrooms were almost universal in all new homes built after 1900.

Edwardian houses come in all sorts but the one aspect that defines them is an often eccentric homage to a romanticised national past: pitched roofs, pantiles, mullions, beams perhaps or Queen Anne gables. The great Edwardian architects, including Voysey, Lutyens, Shaw and Clough Williams-Ellis, aimed to suggest in their designs a comfortingly familiar and mellow past for a society undergoing social change and urbanisation at a dislocating rate.

Cottages were key, but so were castles. Kingsgate Castle, built (over a Georgian folly) for the liberal politician and scientist Sir John Lubbock on a clifftop on the Isle of Thanet, can, says Brittain-Catlin, tell us ‘almost everything that is special about Edwardian architecture: science; politics; archaeology; style; history; castle; fantasy; magic; golf; a contented people in the land of England: it is all there’.

Edwin Lutyens took the 16th-century fortification on Holy Island, Lindisfarne, and incorporated it into a magical new building that corresponds in appearance exactly to what we might expect of a medieval castle, at the same time as being a comfortable Edwardian home with a baronial interior.

Brittain-Catlin is very interesting on how these influential images of pre-industrial Merrie England were also conveyed through the hugely popular children’s-book illustrations of Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott, with their cosily detailed depictions of cottages ornés with barley-sugar chimneys, thatches and diamond-pane windows. Unsurprisingly, the development of Edwardian architecture (the book begins with Pugin) coincides with the development of folk-song collecting and the encouragement of maypole- and clog-dancing for schoolchildren. Also crucial to the story is the rise of the garden city, where social housing was modelled on the old-fashioned working village – but without the hierarchical grip of the old aristocratic estates.

Country Life, established in 1897, caught the mood of the moment. It was founded by Edward Hudson, the owner not only of Lindisfarne but of several other Lutyens houses. Country Life was the house journal of Edwardian progressive ideas about the architecture of the future as well as nostalgia for the past; of celebrating ancient workmanship in new ways.>span class="Apple-converted-space">

A Country Life kind of house had an exterior that reflected (or suggested) weathered centuries of architectural mood and change and an interior that was clean, pale and uncluttered in the aesthetic manner. Brittain-Catlin writes, ‘Country Life’s brilliance lay in the way in which it both published charming old buildings of all kinds that had an historical air about them and at the same time pioneered economic, rational building and rational planning.’

There are some glorious illustrations in this book: there doesn’t seem to be any Edwardian architectural corner into which Brittain-Catlin hasn’t ventured with his camera. Some of his examples, beautifully designed and made, are now hidden in the kind of suburban development that E M Forster so deplored.

This is a book full of surprises and a reminder that behind a familiar landscape there was a grander vision of housing fit for everyone.

This story was from July 2020 issue. Subscribe Now