In 1898 Edwin Lutyens remodelled a brick building in Varengeville, near Dieppe, for a wealthy Anglophile client. Le Bois des Moutiers is a superb example of British Arts and Crafts design in a surprising location – but its future remains uncertain.
Gavin Stamp, Friday, 1st June 2012
Edwin Lutyens (1869–1944) once remarked of a client that he ‘could not spend his money – until he met me’. It is an obvious truism that architecture (good or bad) needs money, and that was particularly true of the many ravishing houses created by England’s greatest architect. Very few of these were commissioned by members of the old landed aristocracy; most were built for new money – and such clients, or their children, tend to move on. There is not a single example of a Lutyens house in Britain which is still lived in by the family that first occupied it. The only ones that are, perhaps significantly, are both abroad: one in Ireland and one in France. This last is Le Bois des Moutiers at Varengeville-sur-Mer near Dieppe in Normandy, and it is one of the very best – and best preserved (Fig. 1). Lutyens’ biographer, Jane Ridley, described it as ‘a fairy tale in washed pink, perhaps the most magical of the dream houses…’
Guillaume Mallet, Lutyens’ French client, was more interesting than most. He was a former cavalry officer and a member of a Protestant banking family who had been in England as a child during the Franco-Prussian War. Lutyens and Mallet met in 1898, when the architect was in Paris following his appointment to design the British Pavilion for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. The connection was made via Lutyens’ wife, Emily. Her aunt, Theresa Earle, was the author of Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden (1925), a book which was dedicated to Marie Grunelius, an enthusiast for vegetarianism whose cousin, Marie-Adélaïde, had married Mallet. Varengeville was the perfect retreat for this artistic Anglophile collector. Dieppe had long been a fashionable resort for both English and French artists and writers, while the bosky seaside village itself had been visited by Monet and Proust and was the home of the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche.
Mallet had bought a house at the head of a valley running down to the shore; here he would create a wonderful garden full of hydrangeas and rhododendrons (Gertude Jekyll would later send him ideas for laying out the ‘spring shrub garden’). Lutyens’ task was to transform this very ordinary brick building into something rather more interesting. He added an extension at one end, a large music room at the other (Fig. 2) and a projecting porch wing on one side, creating an over- all unity to the asymmetrical composition by the application of roughcast. He also added distinctive chimney stacks and replanned the surroundings to create intimate ‘green rooms’ with walls and arches – much as he had done at Orchards in Surrey. But Le Bois des Moutiers was nothing like the early Lutyens houses which established his reputation; as the French historian Emmanuel Ducamp observed, it ‘relates neither to the English vernacular style he was developing in England at the time nor to the so-called style normand in vogue around Dieppe and Deauville during la Belle Epoque’. If parallels are to be sought, they are in Glasgow rather than Godalming; it is a building to be compared with the work of Lutyens’ famous contemporaries, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Le Bois des Moutiers is one of the few houses in which Lutyens expressed the eccentric originality of the contemporary art nouveau. There are tall, thin oriel windows which may derive from the work of Richard Norman Shaw and A.H. Mackmurdo; the interior of the music room has oak galleries supported on exaggerated ogee brackets, while its big window overlooking the gardens is a rippling concertina of glazing. Most remarkable of all perhaps is the end elevation, a symmetrical mannerist fusion of vernacular and classical, with tile-hung gables above semi-circular dropped mouldings flanking a massive blank chimney breast, and with a central concentration of Hawksmoor-esque keystones (Fig. 3). Interestingly, the founder of Country Life and the architect’s great supporter, Edward Hudson, never published the house; possibly he did not approve of such perversity. It is certainly the case that Lutyens’ more wilful and eccentric houses were all built a long way from London and Surrey – on the North Norfolk coast, on the Rosneath Peninsula in Scotland (in travelling to which Lutyens visited Miss Cranston’s celebrated tearooms in Glasgow), and in Normandy.
Le Bois des Moutiers is, nevertheless, an Arts and Crafts house, carefully built and integrated into the landscape. And Mallet, as a committed Anglophile who collected English works of art, made sure it was appropriately furnished. There was furniture by Morris & Co. and Ambrose Heal, metalwork by Benson, fabrics by Walter Crane, plaster reliefs by Robert Anning Bell, plasterwork by George Bankart and (now, alas, gone) a large Morris tapestry of the Adoration of the Magi by Edward Burne-Jones. The interior manifests a certain English Arts and Crafts austerity and seriousness; it was a place for healthy living rather than comfort. It was also a place for spiritual reflection; indeed, because of Marie-Adélaïde Mallet’s religious outlook, it had an unhappy effect on its architect’s life. Mme Mallet was a Theosophist, and when Emily Lutyens stayed in Varengeville in 1910 she was lent Theosophical books from the locked cupboard in the music room. She was soon attracted to this esoteric religion and quickly became the besotted disciple of the newly discovered World Teacher, Krishnamurti, who would also stay at Varengeville. The consequence was that Emily gave up conjugal relations with her husband, from whom she became estranged for some years.
Today, having survived occupation by German officers during World War II, Le Bois des Moutiers is still in the ownership of the Mallet family and the glorious gardens are open to the public and much visited. But the future of the house is very uncertain as the family can no longer afford to maintain and run it. It might have been threatened by the rigid egalitarian French law which requires that any inheritance is equally split between heirs, thus necessitating its sale, but, much to their credit, in this case the various interested relatives have agreed that the house and collection should be kept together. Antoine Bouchayer-Mallet proposes that a family trust is established so that the house could be used for conferences and cultural events.
But how is that to be achieved in these straitened times? Fortunately, the Lutyens Trust is involved and the Landmark Trust – that admirable saviour of would-be redundant buildings – is interested and, as it already has properties in Italy, a house in an easily accessible part of France would be an appropriate addition to its portfolio. Furthermore, the French government is conscious of the historical significance of the house and would welcome it being preserved for cultural uses, as would the Musée d’Orsay because of the artistic connections of Varengeville-sur-Mer. Le Bois des Moutiers is a tangible expression of the entente cordiale; an English building in a part of France with strong links across the Channel; a brilliant, unaltered expression of the Arts and Crafts movement and one of the finest early houses by a great architect whose other principal work in France is that poignant monument to Anglo-French co-operation and suffering, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. We must hope a way of keeping this remarkable building and estate together may be found.
Le Bois des Moutiers is located in Varengeville- sur-Mer, near Dieppe in Normandy, and is open to the public between March and November. Visit www.boisdesmoutiers.com for more information.
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