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Nashdom   Taplow   Bucks   1909

The Austerity of Whitewashed Brick — The Dining-Room Table — A Fireplace Wind Dial— Originality and a Phrase of Coventry Patmore — Urbanity in Architecture.

The lower reaches of the Thames are not rich in houses that have a history, but the modern houses in the district are many, and Nashdom, built for the late Princess Alexis Dolgorouki, is one of the most interesting. The site was small, and the contour of the ground determined that the house should stand by the roadside. The elements which went to its design were of the simplest--whitewashed brick walls, red-tiled roof and green shutters. The conscious austerity of the mass is relieved by no ornament save the conventions of the Doric porch, the quiet mouldings round doors and windows, and a cartouche of arms. On the south-east side two curved bays break the line, but otherwise Nashdom is almost nakedly severe. In the hands of a less skilled designer, such a conception would have taken shape as a barrack. As it is, the house has a character of distinction which marks it as an English variant of eighteenth-century Italian and French mansions, yet without a mark of foreign detail. Nashdom is a tour de force in whitewashed brick. Its nearness to the road has impressed on the plan the character of a town mansion rather than of a country house. From the entrance door we ascend twelve steps to get to the ground floor, level with the garden front. On this side is the range of reception-rooms, amongst which the dining-room seemed to me typical. The round dining-table was equipped (I am writing of ten years ago) in an entertaining way, with a hint of the garden. Its middle was occupied by a round pool, and amidst miniature rockwork there bloomed forget-me-nots and other delicate flowers in their seasons. A tiny fountain tinkled and electric lamps, secretly disposed, added brilliance to the gold fish inhabiting the pool. The treatment of a landing fireplace deserves a word. Over a hundred and fifty years ago Isaac Ware suggested that the blank space in the panel of an overmantel might be filled with a wind-indicating dial. Sir Edwin Lutyens has been doing it for many years. The dial, round which the wind-pointer swings, is decorated with a map of the district, so that the compass lettering on the outer ring serves to mark both the direction of the wind and the position of the surrounding landmarks. The mechanism of the pointer is simple. A small additional flue is provided in the chimney, down which runs a rod connected by cogwheels both with the weather-cock outside and the pointer on the dial.

At the south corner of the house the ground drops suddenly, and has given opportunity for a retaining wall and great stairway, devised with a fine realization of the possibilities of the site. There is a largeness of idea in the treatment of the stairway, which is altogether admirable. Laid out without any artfulness of curve, it relies wholly on the masculine disposition of its platforms and walls, and the white mass of brickwork seems to furnish the house with an inviolable buttress.

To most observers it will appear that Nashdom is invested with the quality which, for want of a better name, is known as originality. Hackneyed in use and idea as this word is, it may be accepted as reasonably descriptive if it carries the limitations of meaning which Coventry Patmore laid down. He claimed that originality, in art as in manners, "consists simply in a man's being upon his own line; in his advancing with a single mind towards his unique apprehension of good, and in his doing so in harmony with the universal laws." The sort of sham originality which finds its issue in antics, oddities and crudities of architectural expression is, in fact, violating those reasonable laws which have crystallized as traditions of design and building. True originality finds its outlet "in upholding those laws and illustrating them and making them unprecedentedly attractive by its own peculiar emphases and modulations." It is precisely in this fashion that Sir Edwin Lutyens succeeds in giving a personal character and distinction to his work. In some of his earliest buildings there are conceits that cannot justly resist the harsh name of quaint, but, as his art has matured, they have dropped away. He has been content in his later work to follow the narrow path of tradition, but always with emphases and modulations of his own. It has already been said that the exigencies of the site have impressed on it some of the characteristics of a town house. Town manners have given to the word urbanity its significant shade of meaning, and, despite the severity of mass and outline that marks the design of Nashdom, the repose with which it is instinct gives it an over-veiling sense of the urbane and makes it soundly domestic. Without that urbanity, without the hint of the spirit of Versailles in its great garden stair, without, in fact, the originality which brings personal emphases and modulations to give vitality to the usual, Nashdom would have looked like an institution instead of a dignified country house.

For a basis of comparison in this austerity of character we must look to Italian examples, such as the great Roman palaces. There is a hint of Roman largeness of idea in the Doric porch, which forms so effective a link in the dual design of the house. But when all is said, the singular interest of the house is its uncompromising assertion of the right of whitewashed brick to a place among the materials of right use in a great mansion no less than in a wayside cottage. It is a claim of the humble to pride of place, and the claim must be allowed.

Nashdom, with its atmosphere of mingled opulence and austerity, is a fine exercise in that simplicity which has in it a hint of arrogance. It is the more interesting to the student of Sir Edwin's work because its character is remote from the broad humanism that marks his work in the English spirit of the early eighteenth century.
Sir Lawrance Weaver, Lutyens Houses and Gardens (1921), pp. 156-62.




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