Great British Architects: Sir Herbert Baker (1862-1946)

Working in South Africa and India as well as in England, Herbert Baker became the leading architect of Empire. Since his death, however, he has generally had a bad press. This is partly because of his quarrel with his sometime friend and collaborato, Edwin Lutyens, who, as the latter remarked, ‘met his Bakerloo’ over the notorious affair of the gradient leading up to Viceroy’s House in New Delhi.

But it was also because Baker was a convinced Imperialist and an establishment figure, who fell foul of conservationists such as the Georgian Group in his later career. A supremely literary architect, he believed in the importance of symbols and of associations rather than, as Lutyens did, in the power of abstract forms. But, like Lutyens, he attached great importance to craftsmanship and the harmonious use of fine materials; as Roderick Gradidge wrote, at the beginning of the 20th century, ‘Baker in South Africa was almost single-handedly creating an Arts-and-Crafts movement of his own on the other side of the world’. Inspired by Cecil Rhodes, Baker was instrumental in the revival of the Cape Dutch style and was a pioneer in the use of a monu-mental Classicism for imperial purposes.

Early life

Herbert Baker was born at Owletts, Cobham, a house he loved and which, in 1938, he gave to the National Trust believing ‘that a small but typical homestead of the seventeenth-century squire-farmers of Kent was not unworthy of preservation’. Tall, good-looking and athletic, Baker flourished at Tonbridge School, where he learned to love poetry, as well as landscapes. After being articled to his cousin, Arthur Baker, he entered the office of Ernest George & Peto from which, in the 1880s, emerged many of the leading Arts-and-Crafts architects.

It was there he first met Lutyens, with whom he went on sketching expeditions. In 1892, Baker left England for Cape Town to seek his fortune. A chance meeting with Cecil Rhodes led to his being taken up by the buccaneering Imperialist, who gave him ‘the opportunity for the architecture which establishes a nation’.

South Africa

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For Rhodes, Baker rebuilt Groote Schuur, a house on Table Mountain, where he combined motifs from the vernacular Cape Dutch houses with the ‘Queen Anne’ manner he had learned in George’s office. Following the Boer War and having met members of Milner’s ‘Kindergarten’ of Imperial administrators, he went on to design some 300 houses in South Africa. The most notable perhaps are The Woolsack for Rudyard Kipling in Cape Town and, in Johannesburg, Villa Arcadia for Lionel Phillips and Stonehouse for himself.

Baker’s horizons were further widened by Rhodes, who sent him on a cruise in the Mediterranean to study the monuments of Classical Antiquity. He put this to good effect after Rhodes’ death in 1902, designing the Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town as a powerful, primitive Classical stoa. As well as houses, Baker-with several partners-designed churches, railway stations and commercial buildings in Africa. His greatest opportunity came in 1909 with the commission to design the Government or Union Buildings for a magnificent hillside site at Pretoria, a monumental Classical pile inspired by Wren’s Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich.


Lutyens visited South Africa in 1910 and would seem to have been jealous of the opportunities for building in the Grand Manner that had come to his old friend. But, having been asked to design the new capital of British India, he secured Baker’s collaboration in the great project in 1913. Baker was given the Secretariat buildings on Raisina Hill, which flanked the approach to Viceroy’s House and the circular Parliament House required by the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919.

Nevertheless, the Secretariat buildings are magnificent and in harmony with Viceroy’s House. The problem came because Baker, quite reasonably, wanted a level plateau between his two blocks. Too late did Lutyens realise that this necessitated a steep gradient for the central axis, which would, close to, block the view of his masterpiece. The resulting row soured relations between the two men for two decades.


Roderick Gradidge believed the ‘Bakerloo’ affair meant that, when he ‘finally returned to London, Baker had lost his confidence. His post-Delhi buildings are rather dreadful’. But that is not fair. Baker did fine work for the Imperial War Graves Commission (when he was again in conflict with Lutyens over his advocacy for the use of the Christian cross), designing the huge cemetery at Tyne Cot near Ypres, the South African Memorial at Delville Wood and the poignant Indian Memorial at Neuve-Chapelle. He worked on several fine memorials in England, above all the War Memorial Cloister at Winchester College of 1922-24, in which a Classical arcade was combined with rustic timberwork and flint walls.

The late Lord Esher hoped Baker would be remembered ‘for the War Memorials, above all the lovely cloister at Winchester, which best express his pious and austere personality’. Baker’s buildings of the 1920s and 1930s are variable in quality. Several were for the Dominions: India House in the Aldwych and South Africa House in Trafalgar Square. Church House in Westminster-used by Parliament during the Second World War-is incoherent but redeemed by the craftsmanship and love of heraldry and symbolism typical of the architect.

The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote in 1940 how Baker’s ‘account of the Art and Symbolism of the House shows that there is a poet in the architect. He gathered around him and inspired a fellowship of like-minded artists’. But what ruined Baker’s reputation was his rebuilding and enlargement of Soane’s Bank of England, as not only did he destroy most of the original interiors, but attempted to improve those that were retained. Baker wrote a fine autobiography, Architecture & Personalities, published by Country Life in 1944. After his death two years later, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.