Michael Hall

At home with the English

The English House<br /> by Hermann Muthesius

At home with the English
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The English House

Hermann Muthesius

Frances Lincoln, pp. 788, £

The English House

by Hermann Muthesius

In 1896 Hermann Muthesius, a Prussian architect and civil servant in his mid-thirties, arrived in London to work as a cultural and technical attaché at the German embassy. His mission, apparently instigated by the Kaiser, was to study the domestic architecture of the United Kingdom, a subject that was attracting international interest. The result was Das englische Haus, first published in Berlin in three volumes in 1904–5. This remarkable book surveys not only the architecture but also the decoration, gardens and way of life associated with houses in England. Muthesius deeply admired the achievements of English architects and designers, and argued that Germany had much to learn from their example.

Although this was a period of intense imperial and industrial competition between the two countries, Muthesius’s investigations were in no sense covert. He and his wife, Anna Trippenbach, who was also an author, settled in Hammersmith, not far from the home of Muthesius’s great hero William Morris, who died that year. Muthesius set about visiting houses and interviewing leading architects and designers, several of whom, notably Walter Crane and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, became his friends (Muthesius’s ‘English house’ incorporated Scotland). He thus experienced at first hand Britain’s greatest flowering of domestic design, splendidly depicted in his book’s array of masterpieces by Mackintosh, Norman Shaw, Voysey, Baillie Scott, Walton, Lorimer and Lutyens, and many other lesser known but brilliant talents.

Astonishingly, Muthesius’s book is still the only truly comprehensive survey of the houses of this miraculous period, which is reason enough for its republication today. An abridged English translation first appeared in 1987, sold out immediately, and is today an expensive rarity. In the late 1980s the revival of interest in Morris and the arts and crafts that had begun in the early 1960s was still in full flow and the interiors of many cultivated English middle-class homes paid tribute to the designers Muthesius admired, with Morris chintzes and wallpapers, and Voysey and Mackintosh furniture (or replicas of it). Muthesius would no doubt have deeply admired Habitat — in its Conran incarnation — and Laura Ashley.

It is unlikely that his book will create such a stir now, after 15 years or so of retro-modernism in architecture and design, but this edition is so beautifully done that it deserves to promote a new arts-and-crafts revival. Its three volumes, packaged in a stout slipcase, are handsomely designed and printed on creamy, thick paper. The copious illustrations, presumably scanned from a copy of the original, are if anything even better reproduced than they were in the second edition of the book, published in 1908–11, on which this complete translation is based. Although, given the book’s high price, it is hard to guess what audience the publishers have in mind, I hope its publication is a success, as it might encourage the publisher, Frances Lincoln, to look at Muthesius’s equally interesting 1901 book on Britain’s modern churches, of which an English translation exists but has never been published.

Muthesius’s understanding of the period he chronicles is now so much part of received opinion that the book’s purely historical and architectural elements seem to me less compelling than its sharply quizzical interest in the details of English domestic life. Here you will find minute information about the way tables were laid, pictures framed and even the favourite colours for front doors (white — rather impractical I’d have thought — was the most fashionable). He admiringly contrasts the relaxed informality of the English way of life with the stiff pretentiousness of the Prussian middle classes, yet the customs he records suggest quite the opposite to the modern reader: this is a world in which families wear dinner dress even when there are no guests, in which women keep their hats and coats on during daytime calls (which was why cloakrooms are only for men) and in which children and servants are ruthlessly banished from sight to well-equipped nurseries and service wings.

Any idea that English houses were austere and uncomfortable before the arrival of American domestic technology is contradicted by the admiration with which Muthesius writes about the ingenuity of Britain’s kitchens and the luxury of its bathrooms. He is impressed, for example, by the way that the British, unlike the Germans, refuse to allow the ‘necessary evil’ of WCs to be installed in bathrooms, reserving them for separate rooms and, most surprisingly, states that English houses almost always have well-stocked libraries, something apparently much rarer in Germany. His emphasis on the cultivated luxury of the English house seems to be part of his vision of a newly feminised society, in which ‘the Englishwoman is the absolute mistress of the house’, whose husband is ‘to some extent her guest when at home’ and after dinner prefers conversation with women in the drawing-room to drinking in the dining-room.

I suspect that Muthesius’s vision of English society was distorted by the friends he kept; it must have amused the Kaiser.

Michael Hall is the editor of Apollo.