To mark Remembrance this month, we had the pleasure to interview Martin Lutyens, Chairman of the Lutyens Trust, whose grand-uncle Sir Edwin Lutyens OM was instrumental in designing the Cenotaph and numerous war cemeteries in Flanders Fields.
Hello Martin, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us. Sir Edwin Lutyens was one of the principal architects the then-Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) employed to design the monuments and resting places for the many British soldiers that fell during the Great War, many of which are in Flanders. Can you tell us what inspired his designs, the significance of his works built in Flanders and what makes them so impactful?
By the time WW1 broke out, Lutyens was probably the leading British architect of his generation and had been commissioned (together with Sir Herbert Baker) to design New Delhi, the new seat of government in India. These two architects were at the height or their careers and were a natural choice to advise the Imperial War Graves Commission, under its founder, Sir Fabian Ware.
Among the first decisions taken was that, in the cemeteries, there should be no distinction by race, rank or creed in the grave markers. As to symbolism, some felt that the style of the memorials should reflect Christian ecclesiastical tradition. Lutyens, by contrast, sought a universal symbolism, which could express, for Christians and others alike, the incomprehensible magnitude of the losses, as well as personal grief. He sought and found a language which was timeless and non-denominational - the Cenotaph in London and the Great War Stone ("One great fair stone of fine proportions…raised upon three steps…", as Lutyens described it) which is found in the majority of the cemeteries, are prime examples of where this inspiration led him.
What is it that makes Sir Edwin such an important architect, with regard to his contributions to architecture and design?
A curious thing about Lutyens and his architecture is that he had very little formal education, having been ill as a child and able only to go briefly to school. He was fascinated by buildings from an early age and learnt much about them by studying and drawing houses near his home in Surrey; and watching local builders and craftsmen at work.
His professional training, like his schooling, was also short - nine months' apprenticeship in the office of the fashionable architects, Sir Ernest George and Harold Peto. While there, he met Herbert Baker, with whom he later collaborated in the building of New Delhi. Baker said of him “He seemed to know by intuition some great truths of our art, which were not to be learnt there".
Lutyens's life's work included the design of over 800 works and this prolific output is one aspect of his importance as an architect. Key to this was his meeting Gertrude Jekyll, who was already well known and admired as a multi-talented artist and garden designer. They became lifelong friends; he learnt much from her and she introduced him to many clients.
Architecturally, his early houses were mainly in the Arts and Crafts Style but quite rapidly they developed into the grander ones which made his name. These led on to bigger work: churches, offices, and urban design (an example is the central square at Hampstead Garden Suburb). Meanwhile his style matured and changed, and he came to believe absolutely in the discipline of classical architecture, from which flowed some of his greatest buildings.
Sir Edwin has of course also designed many non-war related buildings, both in the UK and abroad, some of which are very well known. If you would have to choose a lesser known one to visit in the UK, which one would you recommend?
This is an almost impossible question! There are just too many possible answers, ranging from cottages and village halls to bridges, memorials, churches, gardens and much more. A serious answer for your readers would be to contact The Lutyens Trust (email@example.com), who would be happy to make suggestions, based on geography and personal interest.
You have visited the battlefields of Flanders several times yourself. What is your opinion on the efforts Flanders makes with regards to Remembrance?
Visits to the Flanders battlefields and to Ypres and its surroundings are always a moving experience. The In Flanders Fields Museum is a fine introduction to the terrible events which engulfed Flanders in WW1 and the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate keeps alive the memory of all those who fell there: likewise, the close association of the Government of Flanders and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Flanders must have meant much to Edwin Lutyens, as he lost five nephews in WW1, three of them in Flanders. One of these was my uncle, who died near Langemark: my father was in the same action with him but fortunately survived, so Flanders and the efforts of its government to ensure the fallen are remembered, mean much to me as well.
How can we teach the importance of Remembrance to our younger generations?
There is continuing interest in the battlefield cemeteries and memorials among people in the UK. The Lutyens Trust is hugely interested in maintaining and passing on that interest to younger generations. We run visits to Flanders for our members, often in conjunction with the CWGC and also with support and encouragement from the Government of Flanders. With our sister organisation, The Lutyens Trust America, we are at present considering plans for engaging current and future generations of architects and scholars in the study of Lutyens's architecture, including his influence on the architecture of Remembrance.
Many of us know the broad lines of what Remembrance is about. It is about WWI, WWII, the sacrifices of the armed forces. Are there noteworthy recent developments in what we know about the Great War and other armed conflicts? Have new things come to light recently? Are there questions that remain unanswered? Which fields of knowledge about the wars would you like to see studied more?
The most striking thing to me is the extraordinary continuum of interest in the events of WW1 and the appalling conflict that raged along the line through Flanders and onwards to the south. This may not be “New" but seems to renew itself year after year; and there is no doubt that the work of the Government of Flanders plays an important role in that continuous renewal.
To end on a lighter note: what are your favourite places in Flanders, and what would you recommend to Brits visiting Belgium?
Well, it's always a pleasure visiting Ypres and surroundings: the people are welcoming and there are history and memories wherever you go. As to Belgium as a whole, I've been to Brussels many times for work and pleasure; and the message for Brits who haven't been there, is that visiting is a must. And a few days in the Ardennes many years ago remain one of my happiest memories: definitely to be recommended, along with Belgian gastronomy and beer.