visiting cards at four

Prussian spy meets English understatement: the glorious re-issue of Hermann Muthesius’century-old “The English House”.

The English – by which he meant British – fascinated and slightly puzzled the intellectual German diplomat Hermann Muthesius. On the one hand, we were building the best houses to be found anywhere in the world, he reckoned. This was the turn of the 20th century, the period of great architects such as Lutyens, Lethaby, Voysey, Mackintosh, Stokes – all working in the aftermath of the great Richard Norman Shaw. On the other, our social rituals were baffling. What was all this strange business of leaving visiting cards at four o’clock in the afternoon and holding “At Homes” with regrettable food at nine in the evening?

“The most striking characteristic that the foreigner notices about the English is that their patterns of life are immutable and fixed for all time,” Muthesius observed in his great work The English House, first published in 1904-5 and now at last issued in full English translation. “An Englishman is never in doubt about what clothes he should wear or how he should behave in any given circumstance. Indeed, the rules have assumed so much of the force of law that foreigners often find them tyrannical.”

It was a tyranny of which he approved. Muthesius’ description of the English may seem quaint to us now but there are echoes of that imperial certainty, even today. He quotes Goethe on the nature of young Englishmen, “whose bearing and behaviour is so confident and easy-going that one would think that they were lords of all they surveyed”. If only he had lived to witness the modern British travelling football crowd or stag party.

A Prussian architect, writer and editor sent to the London embassy as cultural attaché from 1896 to 1903, Muthesius promptly went native, adopting the habit of taking afternoon tea with his wife Anna in the parlour or garden of their comfortable and fashionably decorated Hammersmith home, The Priory. He embedded himself with the architectural avant-garde, and packed a huge amount of travelling and research into a very few years. Partly for this reason, and partly because it seemed to be the Kaiser himself who ordered his posting to London, he has sometimes been regarded as a bit of a spy.

Well, he was and he wasn’t (Dennis Sharp, who writes the introduction to the book, discounts the spy theory). At first, Muthesius’ duties included reporting back to the Prussian Board of Trade on things like railways, gasworks and heavy industry. But Muthesius was bored by that stuff. No, what fascinated him was the everyday life of the comfortably-off Brit and our devotion to our homes. He could take any amount of detail, from the duties of servants to the design of rival brands of flushing lavatory. He wanted to improve the architecture of his native country by example. And at the time, Britain had some formidable architects. So Muthesius somehow managed to change the nature of his mission into something that suited his own interests.

The resulting book quickly became the definitive account of the golden age of pre-modernist English domestic architecture, which means the flowering of the Arts and Crafts movement, plus a lot of history and technical detail. Until now, we’ve had to make do with an abridged single-volume translation dating from 1979. At last the missing sections have been added but, more importantly, it now finally follows the layout of the original – divided into volumes devoted respectively to history/development, layout/construction, and interiors. It is very handsomely designed in the generous large-format manner of a century ago. Even its typeface is redolent of the Arts and Crafts movement which Muthesius so admired.

Although he found our food and our cold damp climate disconcerting, Muthesius just loved our house-guest tradition. “It is amiably taken for granted that no special arrangements will be made for the visitor….everything goes on as usual and the visitor is spared the embarrassing feeling – that ultimately obliges him to leave – that he is upsetting the routine of the house. True courtesy lies in the very absence of conspicuous marks of it.”

Then as now, the moneyed classes led a bipolar life between their place in town and their place in the country. Then as now, one-off houses were interesting architecture while the mass-produced homes spreading like a rash across the English countryside were regarded as regrettable tat. He did his duty and looked at some new worker housing (Port Sunlight near Liverpool, and early social housing by the London County Council, got the thumbs-up) but mainly Muthesius preferred to hang out with the Country Life set. Country Life was then a new magazine, the Wallpaper* or Grand Designs equivalent of its day. It could make an architect’s reputation – Lutyens in particular used it as his personal PR machine.

So what was it that Muthesius so liked about the English House? “In every aspect it proclaims an unostentatious, indeed a modest outlook,” he concluded. When you look at some of the grander mansions by Shaw or Lethaby or Lutyens, modesty is not the first thing that strikes us today, but these things are all relative. Like a later Prussian import, architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, he did not like bling, or “external display” as he called it. In the end, what captured his heart was our notorious tendency to understatement. Perhaps he missed some of the ironic nuances of the English way, but the book is endlessly fascinating for its social observation. Oh, and there’s a lot of fine architecture in there too.

“The English House” by Hermann Muthesius, new complete translation in three volume boxed set with introduction by Dennis Sharp, pub. Frances Lincoln, £125 the set.

Text © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, 12th August 2007, as: “Why his home is his castle”.