The Edwardians and their Houses : In Conversation with Timothy Brittain-Catlin

To celebrate the publication of The Edwardians and their Houses, author Tim Brittain-Catlin talks to Meris Ryan-Goff about the surprises, quirks, politics and key figures of Edwardian architecture. 


MRG: You have mentioned your admiration for earlier publications on the subject of Edwardian Architecture (including Alistair Service’s Edwardian Architecture and its Origins). How did you decide on the structure and particular focus of your own publication?

TBC: The most important thing about writing architectural history is to tell a story that people might want to read. My own teacher Andrew Saint used to say that ‘if it’s not an interesting story, then there isn’t any point in writing it’. And, in fact, as someone who has taken a close interest in buildings in all my life, I don’t find it hard to tell stories of some kind about them, or see how they fit into a bigger picture. So The Edwardians and their Houses starts with an intriguing glimpse of an extraordinary building on a cliff top, and continues from there.

The restored entrance towers on the south-western side of Kingsgate Castle.

MRG: How did you go about choosing the case studies of individual houses and buildings?

TBC: I’m always interested in buildings that are not obviously attractive but which have a lot to say about the period in which they were designed. My book is unlike other books on Edwardian architecture in that it doesn’t concentrate on the well known houses, even though they were often very beautiful and inventive. I’m more interested in those that tell you something about how people, famous or less so, felt about the important things in life. I’ve chosen the garden suburb of Gidea Park as one of my case studies, in preference to Letchworth or Hampstead Garden City, because of the fabulous variety of pretty, small, cheap, intelligent houses there. They are not enormously picturesque as a group, but individually they say so much about the high level of debate about the contemporary importance of domestic architecture and detailed design.


MRG: You mention your interest in Edwardian architecture began as a child, what was it that particularly appealed to you about the architecture?

TBC: My brother said the other day that Kingsgate Castle, where my book opens and where we had a holiday flat in the 1960s, made an enormous impression on me as a child, and evidently I haven’t been able to forget it. I do find that in my writing I return to buildings I knew from my earliest years – in Thanet, in Hammersmith and Kensington, as if trying to understand what was so powerful about them.


MRG: A large section of your book deals with contemporary architectural publications. How do you conceptualise the link between such texts and architectural design of the time?
Do you see Edwardian publications on house design as influencing architects’ decisions or vice versa?

TBC: I learned two very striking facts about this. The first is the astonishingly high level of interest and informed, detailed information contained in books published for the general public at the time. Essentially, Edwardian architects solved the problem of how to design houses in the sense that they addressed all known design and technical problems with an unprecedented level of skill, and their clients could easily see that. To some extent, everything that has happened since in domestic architecture over the last century has been experimentation, rather than problem-solving.

But the second fact is that when addressing the big questions of what houses should, in general, be like, it was a pair of talented writers from Country Life magazine, and not the architects, who could see what was going on. What the architects themselves had to say was by comparison fairly uninteresting and not especially accurate, either. The good news for critics like me therefore is that we do have a reason to exist: designers themselves cannot always see what they are doing, or why, or how to communicate with their own public.  

The mediaeval and Tudor Brinsop Court, Herefordshire, was remodelled by Tipping for his friend Hubert Astley from 1911.

MRG: The book often addresses questions of Old and New, and the balancing act between these. Is this something of which the Edwardians were particularly conscious? Or is this an anachronistic/retrospective preoccupation?

TBC: I think that this is the key theme of the whole book, and it certainly stands out as something special to the period which has got lost since. The two writers I was referring to were H. Avray Tipping and Lawrence Weaver. The buildings that Tipping liked best were the palimpsest ones – where architects over the centuries had altered or remodelled buildings. He published these in Country Life regardless of whether they were old or new. Many of Edwin Lutyens’ best known buildings are in fact remodelled old ones, even when they don’t look it. Sometimes it seems that the more historical styles these old-new houses incorporated, the better – apart from English eighteenth-century Palladian, which the writers of the period almost universally hated, perhaps partly because it doesn’t lend itself to remodelling. This approach is to me a sign of a great joy in designing and building; it’s technically ‘anachronistic’, but it’s wonderful.


MRG: Would you say that Edwardian architecture inherited or contributed to a kind of palimpsest of styles? For example, Chequers Court in Buckinghamshire.

TBC: Chequers Court is exactly one of these palimpsest buildings. It is only recently that most people – sadly only most, not all – have stopped referring to buildings as ‘mock Tudor’, ‘pastiche’, or whatever insult came to mind if it wasn’t built at the same time in the same style from the outside to the interior. But there isn’t some golden rule that says you can’t mix styles or play about with old ones. The late architectural historian David Watkin used to say that all buildings are artificial and the moralistic argument that there should be something ‘natural’ about them is very odd.


MRG: Can you tell us a little more about the Barn at Sutton Courtenay by Walter Cave? What is surprising about this building, and how do you interpret Cave’s rationale and philosophy around the adaptation of the barn as studio? 

TBC: The Barn at Sutton Courtney is one of the most unexpected buildings in the book. Firstly, it looks like it was, in 1912, one of the very first barn conversions in the modern sense – that is, rather than the barn being converted into a conventional house, as often happened with old buildings, it was restored as it had been, and furnished minimally and in genteel good taste. The second thing about it is that it was commissioned by Margot Asquith, the wife of the Edwardian prime minister H.H. Asquith, who was a voluble person who wrote interminable diaries and autobiographies; yet she recorded nothing about how this unusual commission came about. The Barn is located by the Thames in the garden of the new house she commissioned from Cave at the same time, and it has been excellently extended in recent years by its current owners. Robin Forster’s photograph of it is one of the most beautiful in the book.

The barn on the riverfront at Sutton Courtenay, restored by Cave in 1912.

MRG: A theme that you draw out is the idea of returning and remaking the past (especially concerning Edwardian treatment of Jacobean houses). Would you say this is more of a social or aesthetic yearning, or indeed both?

TBC: I think that architects come a long way down the ‘food chain’ of ideas, partly because buildings take a very long time to take shape, and many ideas don’t get built at all, but also because architects are drawing much more than they admit on the ideas and the language of the people they design for. So I would guess that the origins of this are social rather than aesthetic. Another of themes in the book is how Liberal Party politicians all through the second half of the nineteenth century were united in supporting some form of ‘land reform’, that is, greater control of land belonging to those who lived on it rather than to the big landowners. That seems to have triggered an interest in Tudor architecture as being reminiscent of an imagined golden period in Elizabethan England when more of the population were genuinely invested in their own homes. Another characteristic of Tudor buildings is that unlike Palladian architecture, they look as if their owners might have built them themselves – claimed the land back by hand, and by their own labour, as it were.


MRG: You have addressed the issue of Realism in Edwardian architecture and its evidence in the architects’ practice… Do you think that Realism has gone too far in current architectural trends?

TBC: Fashions in designs for buildings go in cycles but I don’t think that architectural realism has ever gone too far and it has produced some of the masterpieces of British architecture. By realism, I mean a way of designing that expresses what the materials are doing, and how they fit together, and also that a building as a whole is expressive of the ideas and activities it contains. That’s something we should go on learning from. It is a story that begins with A.W.N. Pugin – who really changed everything in British architecture from top to bottom – and in the book I trace its development through George Devey, one of the great mid-Victorian architects whose work is very much underappreciated. These people had extraordinary sensitivity to the details of buildings.

Another theme of the book is the relationship between architecture of this type and the development of archaeology over the nineteenth century. Lord Avebury, who commissioned Kingsgate Castle, was amongst many things an archaeologist and the venerating son-in-law of General Pitt Rivers, who is thought to be the father of modern archaeology. When Avebury built his castle, he did it not as a piece of romantic fakery but as a demonstration of the elemental power of ancient building.


MRG: “Edwardian architecture seems to succeed in resolving conflict between two poles, the rational and the sentimental”.
How does it achieve this?

TBC: It’s this combination which Country Life did so well. The magazine published photographs of charming cats and dogs, and odd romantic sights, and of children splashing joyfully in a stream, and at the same time it was publishing the only methodical, rational architectural critiques and manifestos in the British press.

I am intrigued by this. Most people who trained as an architect when I was, which was from the late 70s to the mid-80s, were indoctrinated with the puritanical idea that architecture shouldn’t be enjoyable and it certainly mustn’t ever be sentimental. Yet these are important aspects of life. Astute Edwardians critics had a fondness for early nineteenth century Tudor-gothic architecture of the kind that both the gothic revivalists and the modernists really hated – and I think it was because these buildings were sometimes clumsy and fun, and not po-faced and perfect. If Country Life used sentimental themes to tempt their readers into reading their more serious articles, then they succeeded, evidently.

Charles Mallows’s Three Gables, Biddenham, near Bedford, 1900.

MRG: I am struck by the way the architecture in your book is inextricably linked with literature.
You have written about the language of magic, escape and dreams in the literature; how would you say this manifests itself in building design or architectural trends of the era?

TBC: The most exciting discovery was that some of the fantastical elements of the best children’s literature of the period were not fantastical at all – they were real. I am thinking in particular of E. Nesbit’s stories. Two of her most famous books, The House of Arden and Harding’s Luck, are about children reclaiming and rebuilding an ancient castle – which to me as a child sounded extraordinary. But where she lived in Kent she was surrounded by recently rebuilt castles: Saltwood, Lympne, Hever. Hever had a recent ‘enchanted garden’ of the kind she wrote another story about. She probably knew about Kingsgate. She was describing what was actually going on. The most satisfying discovery of the whole book for me was of a hidden political joke she makes about Lympne Castle. I’ll leave it to you to find it.

The enjoyment of the company of children is another appealing link between these Edwardians and the early nineteenth-century writers and designers they admired, and a strong contrast to the ‘seen and not heard’ attitudes that came before and after.


MRG: Is there such a thing as a quintessentially Edwardian house? And which of your chosen case studies would you pick out as an example of this?

TBC: Each quintessential Edwardian house will by definition be different from another one, because the link between them is the richness of exploration of style and detail. But there are some examples which are quite extraordinary. One of the pioneers in my book is Earl Carrington, who is an interesting figure as a politician because he was on the one hand a radical, active, and personally extremely generous, land reformer, and on the other, one of the hereditary Lord Great Chamberlains, in attendance on Queen Victoria and a close friend of Edward VII. He restored and remodelled a farmhouse on his estate in High Wycombe to create a new residence for himself, in the process turning an old barn into a grand, plastered, be-columned drawing room. It was an extraordinary thing to do. At the more intellectual end of the scale, the architect C.F.A Voysey remodelled the interior of a plain 1860s house in Hampstead so that the old and the new, whilst completely different to each other, are beautifully resolved at the points where they meet. This is in my opinion a very powerful way of designing, and in many respects Voysey stood head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries. But in their own ways, the many and varied Tudor houses that incorporate the old and new seamlessly within them are all quintessential Edwardian houses.  

Lympne Castle from the west, with the mediaeval round tower to the right.

MRG: Are there houses that you didn’t manage to include but would have liked to? Can you tell us about one of these?

TBC: The book focuses on the houses of national politicians and that means that many (although not all) of them are in the south east, from where the clients could reach Westminster in reasonable time. Some, like Lords Avebury and Carrington, spent an enormous amount of time travelling as it was. So I would have liked to look at some of the greatest houses further afield. I have included a fine remodelling of a house by the York architect Walter Brierley, and I am sorry that I couldn’t include more – whether his own ‘Tudor’ house Bishopsbarns, which has beautiful plasterwork and detailing, or by contrast his baroque extension to Normanby Hall in Lincolnshire, a work much admired at the time.


MRG: Is there a figure in Edwardian architectural history that you wish more people were aware of, or knew more about?

TBC: Funnily enough, the first figure I would choose is the Victorian George Devey, because I think that his ideas and careful realist buildings had an extraordinary impact on the best Edwardian buildings. Of the better known architects of the period, I would say that the one whose work always rewards another really thorough look is M.H. Baillie Scott, for the richness of his planning and the quality of his work. But I have presented here several half-familiar characters – Charles Mallows, Geoffry Lucas, Charles Spooner, Walter Cave, and my own favourite W.H. Romaine-Walker who remodelled Kingsgate Castle and designed fabulous, lush houses – whose work will give great pleasure to anyone who investigates them.


All photographs courtesy of Robin Forster © 2019


The Edwardians and their Houses by Timothy Brittain-Catlin is available NOW from the Lund Humphries website

Hardback • 224 Pages • Size: 260 × 210 mm
121 colour illustrations and 70 B&W illustrations
ISBN: 9781848222687 • Publication: April 01, 2020 





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