Lutyens in Northern France, May 2014
After a sumptuous welcome dinner in Boulogne in which we all thought that the amuse bouche was the first course of our menu degustation, this setting the tone for the vast quantities of delicious courses that followed, we arose the next morning to glorious sunshine which was to follow us around for the rest of the tour.
After a short drive through the pretty Picardy countryside, our first stop was the hospital cemetery at Etaples, the largest war cemetery built by Lutyens. No unknown soldiers here as all the fallen buried at the site died in the hospital at Etaples of their wounds. No actual fighting took place in the area.
One of the four great monuments to the fallen, one enters through a very modest pair of gateposts and along a path focussed on Sir Reginald Blomfield’s Cross of Sacrifice. Later, as we left the cemetery, we realised that Lutyens had created a false perspective in the path widening to about four paces at the memorial stone from just over two at the gate. This has the effect of making the stone and the cemetery seem much closer than it is in reality and – on departure – the outside world much more remote; a symbolic gesture we all agreed.
The memorial itself is raised on a mound above the graveyard; its two tall and tapered pavilions topped with stone coffers and flanked with stone flags are connected by a curved wall that has the effect of enveloping the expanse of graves below. Three sets of wide steps set into the mounds lead down into the heart of the cemetery and looking back the wall does indeed cradle the vista.
At Etaples, what was to become a continuing theme of all our visits was first noticed; namely that, in a lot of the cemeteries, the axis is very slightly asymmetrical. We never really got to the bottom of why this was – accidental, on purpose or just as a result of the graves being planted first and the key pieces of structure – the Great War Stone (by Lutyens with Kipling’s inscription), the Cross of Sacrifice (by Sir Reginald Bloomfield) and the pavilions or shelter buildings – came later. Here specifically we noticed that – looking up – the centre and right hand stair cases had fourteen steps and the left hand twelve and that the point at which they came together was considerably off axis with the layout of the graves. Interesting, perhaps not greatly relevant, but a considerable discussion point as the tour progressed.
Etaples was also notable for its small collection of Indian graves (and a single Chinese) and judging by the dates on them – mostly 1919 – they would have died of the Spanish flu. It was perhaps a sign of the times that they were hidden in a little enclave away from the main cemetery. As incidentally, was a small collection of German graves.
Moving on, we paid a short visit to the Chinese cemetery with a gate designed by Lutyens’s assistant J R Truelove. The gate is a bit of a pastiche – being neither Chinese nor classically European but a good old mixture of both. There are no pavilions here and the cemetery is in a very rural setting (for which read in the middle of a field) with marvellous panoramic views for miles around. I don’t think any of us had appreciated that there were legions of Chinese brought over to dig the trenches (amongst other elements of hard labour). All the names on the stones are inscribed in Chinese characters and, in the absence of a religious symbol or military badge, four or five stock phrases – “A good reputation endures forever” being one – were spread amongst the stones.
After the Chinese Cemetery, en route to lunch at the largely rebuilt town of Abbeville, we passed through the charming small town of Rue and stopped to look at its fine church in the “Flamboyant Gothic” style. However the more significant ecclesiastical treat was to come later when we arrived at Amiens, our base for the next three nights, and explored its magnificent Gothic cathedral, the largest in Europe.
The following morning dawned bright and sunny and we set off for the drive which took us from Picardy into Normandy and the coastal village of Varengeville sur Mer, the site of two of only three Lutyens houses in France (all built for the same family, the third being in Grasse).
Varangeville is a charming, rather upscale, village which reminded me greatly of smart New England seaside resorts, albeit on a smaller scale, with lots of different styles of architecture sitting side by side, many second homes and quite a lot of wealth. We went first to the beautifully situated Norman chapel, perched on a cliff top Norman chapel, perched on a cliff top over looking the sea and the coast towards Dieppe. Georges Braque is buried here and he designed a beautiful stained glass window in the chapel – though it has to be said that his was only one of several lovely modern pieces of stained glass, the most recent – two abstracts depicting the crown of thorns two abstracts depicting a crown of thorns – having been installed in the 1990s.
On to Les Bois des Moutiers, to my mind one of Lutyens’s finest country houses anywhere. Our host was the delightfully enthusiastic great grandson of the original owner, M. Antoine Bouchayer Mallet. Himself an architect, Antoine has devoted many years to studying the house and has developed some very interesting theories of some of the architectural symbolism used by Lutyens in the context of the Theosophical adherence of the Mallet family. The house itself is, of course, absolutely stunning and at its best under blue cloudless skies; rhododendrons and roses in full bloom and views over a turquoise English Channel beyond the garden. The house itself is a stylistic departure for Lutyens; whilst it still has hints of his earlier Surrey vernacular style, it is as much as anything else, homage to Mackintosh and an experiment he never repeated. It is therefore completely unique in his oeuvre and this, combined with the almost intact interiors, makes it very special. After a delicious buffet lunch, very kindly laid on by Antoine and his mother, Madame Bouchayer Mallet gave us a tour of the extended parklands, largely planted by her and her late mother since the last war. It was a memorable visit in every respect and brought to mind an extract from my father’s memoires.
“I remember the summer of 1911 at Varengeville, where my father had built a house for Guillaume Mallet, which is still there. It was the hottest and most lovely summer I can ever recall. The Mallet’s chauffeur had a dark, sweeping moustache. He wore leather gaiters and goggles; and we would rush into the Dieppe countryside at the terrifying speed of 20 miles an hour in his early Renault” Robert Lutyens.
Thence on to La Maison des Communes, a much smaller house built the other side of the village from Les Bois des Moutiers and built by the original Mallet for his sister. This is an enchanting, rather whimsical little house, not much more than a cottage but built on an ingenious Y-shaped plan, symmetrical with two of the wings joined both at the centre of the house and by a curved service passage opening on to an internal courtyard. It is delightfully pretty with spectacular views and can only be described as “small but perfectly formed”!
On our return to Amiens, we nipped into the Manoir d’Ango – a striking renaissance manor house, notable for one of the largest dovecotes in France.
The next day dawned to more unbroken blue sky and rising temperatures. This was to be a hectic day, wholly focussed on memorials and taking in two more of the majors, with Thiepval arguably being number one of the big four. We launched the day with three small sites, beginning with Daours where we saw for the first time Lutyens building the pavilions or “shelter houses” in brick rather than stone. Very pretty and very simple, the long axis of the cemetery has planting by Jekyll – the flowers, notably the irises, were very beautiful. Next was a complete contrast at La Neuville where the pavilions were once again stone but very abstract, entirely unadorned and somehow rather ethereal. Here, we noticed for the first time that a few German graves were scattered in the rows of British. Their stone is the same size as Lutyens’s British one but with a pointed rather than rounded top and different calligraphy. We found this a humane and heartening discovery. On then to Corbie where the cemetery extension is not by Lutyens but by his associate Holden – these stone pavilions reflected the last though with even greater minimalism. The cemetery is interesting because the entrance to it, with the Cross of Sacrifice, is in one corner, the cross being raised up as you go in.
From Corbie we progressed to Villers-Bretonneux, home to the Australian memorial to the missing. This was Lutyens’s last major inauguration in 1938. The cemetery is set back from the road (a recent and welcome development as the road has been moved to accommodate a car park and shortly a visitors’ centre). You enter between two lovely – and recently restored – stone pavilions, square in plan and heavily classical in ornament with Tuscan columns, triangular pediments and a series of voids connected by curved and rectilinear arches and windows. Ahead, the ground rises towards the Stone of Remembrance, beyond it the Cross of Sacrifice and ultimately the great tower at the centre of the memorial wall. What is so fascinating about this layout is that Lutyens did unto himself what Baker did to him in Delhi. Just as Viceroy’s house rises into your line of sight above the horizon as you go up Raisina Hill, so too does the great tower which is about two thirds obscured from the perspective of the entrance and rises from behind the horizon as you get closer to it. Did Lutyens protest too much over Delhi?? This was a subject of discussion over several of our dinners and the general consensus (most of us had seen it first hand) was that he probably had!
At the end of the long rise sits the second pair of little stone pavilions evoking their bigger brothers at the entrance but simpler in form and adorned with stone flags. Each is attached to one arm of the E-shaped wall containing the names of the missing and with the great tower where the central arm of the E would be.
Climbing the internal staircase of the tower is an absolute must. It comes out in a little pavilion where the Delhi order sits on the columns unseen from below – and as far as I can tell – seen nowhere else in France. A modern addition is the stone and bronze sculptural table with various places from Paris to Canberra with their miles from this spot radiating on the points of the compass. Outside, one is able to climb up the extraordinary cantilevered staircase for extraordinary views over the fields and vast skies of the Somme.
After Villers-Bretonneux, lunch was sorely needed and we repaired to the delightful Auberge near Thiepval for a restorative break. And then on to Thiepval itself. We commenced the visit with a stop at the excellent visitors’ centre in which our guide, Michael Barker, played a major part in its creation. Someone noticed that the inauguration of the memorial had been set for 3pm on the 16th May, 1932. We were there at 3pm on the 16th May 2014! It would have been perfect serendipity had we not seen the footnote that said that due to the assassination, 10 days earlier, of the then President of France, (Paul Doumer) the whole thing had been postponed until the 1st of August 1932. Oh well, nice try!
Words cannot begin to do justice to the experience that is Thiepval. It is not simply a question of the majesty of the great abstract arch, a triumph of its architect, but the sheer number of names inscribed over virtually its entire surface. The cemetery behind is relatively modest and split fairly equally between British and French markers but the sheer scale of the undertaking and what it represents is deeply moving and entirely heart-breaking.
Our final visit of the day was to the pair of Serre Road cemeteries. We didn’t give much more than a passing glance to No 1 as our destination was No 2, by Lutyens and with the second largest number of graves after Etaples. This almost brought us back full circle to the Australian in style. The classical language is very similar on a greatly reduced scale as this is a cemetery rather than a combined cemetery and memorial. The single pavilion gate into to the site points directly at the pair of much smaller pavilions joined to the back wall. It is very attractive and beautifully conceived without the enormity of the Australian.
And so back to Amiens and dinner in the thriving riverside restaurant quarter where it was warm enough to eat al fresco and watch the world go by, chilled and enjoyable whilst giving us all time to reflect on what we had experienced today.
Our first visit the next morning was to Baker’s Baker’s South African National Memorial. Whilst we all agreed that the Baker buildings lacked the “harmonic” of Lutyens (as so thoughtfully and aptly put by one of our crew), we all hated the insensitive and modern visitors’ centre (so different from the hidden subtlety of Thiepval’s) and felt that the way an internal courtyard had been constructed around the memorial cross (different from the Cross of Sacrifice) made the whole thing look like an empty swimming pool belonging to a footballer’s wife! That all said, the woodlands one strolled through were peaceful and beautiful and the exhibition contained within the hated visitors’ centre was interesting and informative.
On then to another series of smaller cemeteries starting with Lutyens’s first inauguration at Warlencourt followed by Grevillers British and New Zealand memorial to the missing where we found the stone of an NZ recipient of the Victoria Cross. Both of these are similar to Daours in that the simple classical pavilions were largely brick rather than stone, two at the first and a single larger one at the second. From there to Croisilles and the fine abstract layout of steps and path ways in which Lutyens accommodated a very difficult sloping site. I think it is fair to say that most of the group found this the finest of Lutyens’s smaller sites as it is so intellectually clever in the way it is laid out.
Following lunch in one of the two great squares of Arras we moved on to the last of the big four – Le Faubourg-d’Amiens. This is a fascinating and asymmetrical colonnaded building, built around the Royal Flying Corps memorial by Sir William Dick-Reid which is situated about two thirds of the way along its flank. We indulged in much speculation as to possible games that were going on with false perspective in the height of the columns from one end to the other, but in the end we couldn’t prove the case one way or the other with photos alone – plans to be studied in due course! This is a construction that would be interesting on its own merits were it not for the extraordinary levels of sublime quality of the other three!
The final stop of the day – and what a stop – was at the amazing Vimy Ridge Canadian Memorial. Nothing to do with Lutyens, this Expressionist sculptural edifice with twin towers soaring out of the scarred fields (complete with red signs telling us to keep off due to unexploded shells) has an amazing dramatic impact. Totally different to the work of Lutyens, this was admirable for its quality in the way that Baker’s building that kicked off the day just wasn’t.
And so on to Lille where we checked into the Hermitage hotel, which from the 15th century to the 1990s was a hospital, complete with chapel. An astonishing conversion has created a destination in itself (with prices to match unfortunately!). This was to be our final evening and we certainly spent it in style and enjoyed a delicious dinner with a talk from our guest speaker, Tim Skelton, co-author of Lutyens and the Great War. Tim gave us a fascinating insight into the logistics of co-ordination of all the architects and subordinate teams who worked with Lutyens, Baker, Blomfield and others in the creation of all the magnificent memorials and cemeteries we had seen. He gave us great insight in to how the various teams worked and were put together and told us something of the finances of the project – how £5 on average per grave might be spread across several sites, some getting more and others getting less.
Our final day, still hot and sunny, began at Tyne Cot at Zonnebeke designed by Baker to commemorate the vast numbers of dead at Passchendale and the biggest Commonwealth war grave in the world. I think we all found this a far more satisfactory piece of architecture than the South African of the day before. The visitors’ centre here was sensitively handled with a very moving and evocative exhibition.
On then to our penultimate visit to Ypres where we passed through Blomfield’s Menin Gate into the wholly rebuilt (as a facsimile of how it had been before it was destroyed) historic city. We also saw Blomfield’s St George’s Church adjacent to the Eton war memorial (apparently, we couldn’t find it!) and containing within plaques to the fallen of many of Britain’s great public schools. Those of us who felt strong enough made a visit to In Flanders Fields Museum where the images of war were so strong that they were covered with hinged screens above the reach of children. I was not one who felt sufficiently strong! Our final stop was the Ploegsteert memorial by Bradshaw (a colleague of Lutyens), a building that is not particularly memorable – perhaps only for its misaligned perspective and columns – but which is flanked by a very memorable pair of lions sculpted by Gilbert Ledward, one of whose mouth is closed the other displaying a fine set of teeth – they weren’t meant to be fun but they were very comic book!
Finally back to Lille where we parted and went our separate ways. This was an amazing five days in which we all learned a lot and were all moved greatly along the way. Lutyens certainly made a mark in Northern France and whether it was the whimsy of Les Communes, the extraordinary beauty of Les Bois des Moutiers or all the sombre immensity of his memorial work presented in form from the abstract to high classicism, his body of work in this relatively small corner of a foreign field is really quite remarkable.
– Candia Lutyens May 2014