The life, times and buildings of Sir Edwin Lutyens

A look at the career of Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, one of the great British architects of the 20th century, and a man whose career had marked impact on Country Life.

Every Tuesday afternoon, we delve in to the peerless Country Life architecture archive to bring you an interesting story from the past — today, it’s a profile of Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens, first published in a series called ‘Great British Architects’, back in 2008.

Lutyens is among the most celebrated architects of the 20th century. His career was intimately bound up with the early history of Country Life, and involved him in work across Britain and the globe, from Washington to New Delhi.

He undertook an extraordinary variety of commissions, including a cathedral, an Oxford college, a home for the Viceroy of India, and even council flats. These buildings were executed in a wide variety of architectural idioms, which reflect his outstanding versatility. In artistic terms, they are characterised by an Arts-and-Crafts inspired interest in materials and the brilliant handling of volumes and planes.

Portrait photo circa 1920s of English architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869 - 1944).

Portrait photo circa 1920s of English architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869 – 1944).

Lutyens was born in London, a sickly child from a large family of 13 children. On account of his health, he was partly brought up in Surrey. Here, he roamed the countryside, and, in visits to a local builder’s yard, learnt about the traditional building techniques that were to inform his architecture.

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He also learnt to draw using pieces of soap on glass to capture buildings and details. After a short period in art school, he became a pupil in the office of the architects Ernest George and Peto in London.

Country Life’s Lutyens-designed HQ building at Tavistock St. ©Country Life

It was here that he became friends (although they later bitterly fell out) with his celebrated architectural contemporary Herbert Baker (the designer of the Bank of England). On the strength of a commission by a family friend to design a house at Crooksbury, near Farnham in Surrey, Lutyens set up in practice by himself in 1889.

In the same year, he met the gardener and writer Gertrude Jekyll. Her skills as a plantswoman combined with Lutyens’ skill as a designer brought about a remarkable partnership in the design of his country-house gardens.

A garden gate at Hestercombe. The garden was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll between 1904 and 1908. (©Country Life Picture Library)

A garden gate at Hestercombe. The garden was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll between 1904 and 1908. (©Country Life Picture Library)

New Delhi and Midland Bank

In 1913, Lutyens was of sufficient stature to be appointed architect to the new Imperial capital of British India at New Delhi. The First World War interrupted this latter undertaking (which was eventually brought to completion in 1931), but subsequently involved him in perhaps his greatest works: the monuments to the dead. The most important of these, such as the Cenotaph and the Thiepval Arch, are works of severe abstract Classicism.

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Rashtrapati Bhavan Mughal Gardens, 1929 Photo: @archdigest

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In the 1920s and 1930s, the scale of Lutyens’ country-house work diminished. It was in this period that he produced the designs for several commercial buildings, notably the Midland Bank in Manchester (1933–35) and the bank’s head office in the city of London (1921–39). He died on January 1, 1944.

England's most beautiful rooms

The hall at Deanery Garden, the house built by Edwin Lutyens in 1901 for the founder of Country Life, Edward Hudson. This 1903 photograph of the main hall exemplifies his tastes and those of the magazine in its early years. The timber framing of the interior underlines the popularity of vernacular Tudor architecture as a British style. Here, the oak framing is thrown into contrast with infill blocks of chalk. The Arts-and-Crafts movement delighted in such contrasts of natural materials crafted by hand. Hudson was a keen collector of 17th-century furniture and this view shows some choice pieces. The photograph is naturally illuminated in the manner of a Vermeer painting, a Dutch master also greatly admired at this time. ©Country Life

The Cenotaph, Whitehall

In July 1919, Lloyd George invited Lutyens to design a temporary catafalque for the peace celebrations in London. Lutyens said that he would create a cenotaph, which he built in timber.

With its subtle massing and recessions of plane, it is one of his most brilliant monuments, and was afterwards remade in stone. The Cenotaph is far more complex than it seems, every line being minutely curved so that they all appear true to the eye.