Architecture, Politics, and Progress
The Edwardians and their Houses: The New Life of Old England
by Timothy Brittain-Catlin. Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd; 224 pages; £45.00.
This splendid, ground-breaking book should put an end to the snobbery about Edwardian buildings. So often Edwardian architecture has been mocked as lazy pastiche – notoriously in the case of ‘Mock Tudor’. The term is almost always used pejoratively. Why should it be any worse than Mock Classical or Mock Gothic - the two styles in which most of our greatest buildings were built in?
Edwardian architecture is attacked for combining the old with the new: the Elizabethan garage; the beamed sitting room with the electric grate. But that was exactly the point of so much Edwardian architecture – that all the latest mod cons could be contained within houses that boasted all the greatest hits of ancient British architecture. Again and again, as Timothy Brittain-Catlin shows, this sublime combination – ancient without, modern within – was repeated. At Medmenham Abbey, Buckinghamshire, William Henry Romaine-Walker (1854–1940) built a Tudor-looking building where, according to Country Life, “No trouble or expense has been spared in appointing and fitting the laundry with every modern contrivance.” At Jardine Hall, Dumfries, the apparently Palladian house had a vast room added to accommodate the late Victorian craze for playing snooker.
And why not? It’s an attractive combination: all the comforts of the modern age in old – or old-looking – houses.
Jardine Hall, Dumfries, architect Henry Romaine-Walker, 1814 (postcard from 1909, Wikicommons)
Is it too much to hope for that the battle between originality and pastiche might come to an end? There’s no reason why a building can’t be original and borrow from the past at the same time. That battle raged between John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner, as neatly brought out by the Venerable David Meara, former Archdeacon of London, in his new book, A Passion for Places: England through the Eyes of John Betjeman. The two men came to blows over Ninian Comper’s marvellous, mock-15th century church, St Cyprian, Clarence Gate. Pevsner damned it as mixed pastiche. Comper called it “unity by exclusion”. And Betjeman deeply admired it – like Comper, he thought the point of a church was to bring people to their knees through its beauty and spiritual architecture.
St Cyprian Church, Clarence Gate, architect Christopher Wilton, 1866 (Wikicommons, 2011)
If that aesthetic effect is achieved on the brain and soul, in religious or secular buildings, then why worry about the various architectural elements being borrowed from older styles as long as the architects are gifted enough? Brittain-Catlin shows how extraordinarily gifted those Edwardian architects were at recreating medieval architecture or inventing their own versions of it. At Penshurst, Kent, George Devey added buildings to an old group of cottages where it’s near impossible to distinguish between old and new. Take a look at Vann, near Hambledon, Surrey, designed by W.D. Caroe for his family in 1907, and I defy you to spot the difference between the old and the new buildings. Caroe added his own work to a medieval core behind a half-timbered front, with an early 18th-century wing – and the whole thing looks gloriously harmonious.
That was built in the late 1870s – this is the long Edwardian period, as it were, stretching from the late 19th century until well after the First World War. As Brittain-Catlin points out, Clough Williams-Ellis was pottering around with his Edwardian vision at Portmeirion until his death in 1978 – and it has been added to since then.
All the same, despite the length of the era and the variety of buildings, there is a central theme to Edwardian architecture – and Brittain-Catlin’s central argument is convincing. The architectural fabric of the new wave of Edwardian buildings – their design, structure, treatment of materials and ornamentation – combined to produce a distinctive, seamless whole, mixing old and new. That is, at heart, the distinctive, new style of what we call 'Edwardian architecture'. It is an admirable school that is very much of its time and has a thematic unity. It isn’t mere lazy pastiche.
Brittain-Catlin picks out some intriguing new themes in the Edwardian architecture boom, not least the role of Liberal politicians and governments. William Forster, the Liberal MP for Bradford, introduced the 1870 Education Act in Gladstone’s Cabinet. That Act produced the Board Schools, those towering Queen Anne delights that still soar above neighbouring buildings throughout the country. That combination of architecture and politics in the Board Schools is captured by Arthur Conan-Doyle in The Adventure of the Naval Treaty (1893), when Holmes and Watson spot the schools from the train.
An inspired Holmes points them out to Watson:
"Look at those big, isolated clumps of building rising up above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-colored sea."
"Light-houses, my boy! Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wise, better England of the future.”
Again, it’s hard to point out any unified version of Liberal architecture. Lord Grey, Foreign Secretary for most of the Asquith government, built himself a tin cottage on the Itchen to appreciate his beloved fishing and birdsong. When he was Prime Minister, Lloyd George commissioned a house from Philip Tilden in Churt, Surrey, that looked like a farmhouse but was lined with grandiose interiors – again that Edwardian disparity between the outside and the inside.
The Edwardian taste for the Queen Anne style was Liberal at heart. Liberals were opposed to the Palladian style, so fashionable after George I came to the throne in 1714. The three volumes of Vitruvius Britannicus, published by the Palladian architect Colen Campbell between 1715 and 1725, acted like a shopping list for new Whig patrons. This copperplate-classical style, so easily and quickly reproduced, was mocked by Alexander Pope in his 1732 Epistle to Lord Burlington, the Palladian architect, who had just published Palladio’s designs of the baths, arches and theatres of ancient Rome:
‘Yet shall (my Lord) your just, your noble rules
Fill half the land with imitating fools.’
Queen Anne architecture was, to 19th-century Liberals, the pure predecessor to – and opposite of – that corrupt, oligarchic Whiggery. Thus the charming rebuilding of Barton Street, Lord North Street and Cowley Street – that lovely, largely unvisited quarter squeezed between Westminster School and the Houses of Parliament. In 1900, the Conservative and Liberal Unionist coalition determined to deal with the supposed slums in this area. The London County Council gave the council the right to buy land for street improvements. And so, one of the finest pieces of urban regeneration in this country was achieved.
It was done by the unappreciated architect Horace Field, in partnership with Evelyn Simmons from 1905. They built the new houses in a Queen Anne style so immaculate that it’s hard today to spot they are only just over a century old. This was extremely scholarly architecture – again not lazy pastiche. In 1905, Field, with his assistant Michael Bunney, found the time to write a detailed, lavishly illustrated book, English Domestic Architecture of the XVII and XVIII Centuries. Yes, this was classic Edwardian artifice – but how impressive it was. Field’s building at 4 Cowley Street was in fact home to railway offices but the commercial premises were designed to look like the town houses of prosperous Restoration merchants.
Queen’s House, Greenwich, architect Inigo Jones, 1616-1635 (Queen’s House Greenwich via Visit London, 2012)
29 Exhibition Road, London, architect JJ Stevenson, 1876-7 (George P Landow via The Victorian Web, 2011)
Vann, Hambledon, architect W.D. Caroe, 1907 (Lisa Cox, 2011)
As Brittain-Catlin acknowledges, Edwardian architecture is such a huge, varied ragbag that it’s impossible to contain it within a single, broad definition. It’s hard to lump those country houses above, built in an English, rural vernacular, with, say, the great, red-brick palaces of South Kensington. Just look at 29 Exhibition Road, designed by JJ Stevenson – a quite fantastical combination of round and triangular gables, broken pediments, balconies and swags of flowers, carved out of brick.
4 Cowley Street, London, architect, Horace Field, 1904-5 (Zoopla via IdealHome, 2019)
Field’s artifice was ingenious. His houses were built to look like they had been altered over the last 200 years, inside and out, as they almost certainly would have been if they were the real thing. The Edwardian Liberal Party may have been progressive in its renovation of these supposed ‘slums’. But it was still very much an imperial party. The empire's land mass reached its greatest extent under a Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George, in 1920/1. In the first decade of the 20th century, London was at the heart of the Empire – and Westminster was, as ever, the political heart of London. So it is in Westminster that you see the apogee of the ‘Wrenaissance’, then – the late 17th century/early 18th century renaissance of Wren’s classical yet peculiarly British style.
This book is full of surprises, not least in what it misses out. There isn’t much on Lutyens, the most famous Edwardian architect, because, Brittain-Catlin says, his houses “tend to reflect Edwardian preoccupations rather than create them”. Still, though, Brittain-Catlin does acknowledge the huge, well-known contribution of Country Life magazine, first published in 1897, to Edwardian style. From the beginning, Country Life was a rare combination of ancient and modern. It published articles about lovely, old piles but it also pioneered the study of novel, economic, rational, progressive buildings.
The late 19th and early 20th century was a vital time in the creation of mass housing for the poor, too. In 1890, the Housing of the Working Classes Act encouraged local authorities to improve the quality of houses. In 1893, the London County Council built the first council estate, Boundary Street, in Bethnal Green, east London.
An expanding middle class could also afford to buy their own houses for the first time, particularly in the suburbs. Brittain-Catlin concentrates on Gidea Park in Romford, Essex. The houses cost £375 or £500 – and what lovely houses they still are today. They are largely built in a subtle Tudor style – the sort of thing we’ve been encouraged to mock for decades. How I’d love to live at 54 Parkway, Gidea Park, designed by the distinguished architect Geoffry Lucas. And how proud I would be of its Mock Tudor features: the steeply pitched roof; the dormer windows; the mighty chimneys; the big windows, divided up into hundreds of small panes by a profusion of glazing bars; the half-timbered garage.
Boundary Estate, Bethnal Green, Arnold Circus, 1903 (London Metropolitan Archives via the Londonist)
54 Parkway, Gidea Park, Romford, architect Geoffry Lucas, 1911 (Google via Google Maps, 2020)
16th and early 17th century English buildings are the main inspiration for these lovely new houses of the early 20th century. And you can understand why – that was the period when vernacular building was at its most confident, original and most English, before we understandably adopted the genius proportions of classicism, as introduced by Inigo Jones from 1616, at the Queen’s House, Greenwich.
But Edwardian architecture wasn’t restricted to the 16th and 17th centuries for its inspirations. In the late 19th and early 20th century, British architects felt completely free to choose from any period and add their own modern touches, too.
Classicism broadly prevailed from Inigo Jones until the Gothic Revival of the early 19th century. Gothic Revival then took over for most of the 19th century. It was in the late 19th century that architects felt free to be classical, Gothic or anything they wanted. Just look at the confections of Frank Matcham (1854-1920) who built or refurbished over 170 theatres in every style from Neo-Baroque-Indian to Moorish Alhambra.
British architecture had never been so liberated.
Harry Mount is author of A Lust for Windowsills – British Buildings from Portcullis to Pebbledash (Little, Brown)
Background painting is The Education of the Children of Clovis, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1861