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William Morris and Edwin Lutyens in Normandy: “The Noblest Works of Human Invention”

As summer advances and turns into autumn a wide and impressive variety of tributes are being paid this year to the ten million soldiers who died during the First World War. The 8th of August marked the centenary of the Battle of Amiens, which, although not decisive in itself, is seen in the light of history as marking the beginning of the end of that war. The centenary was marked by a service in Amiens’ thirteenth century Cathedral attended by representatives of Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Ireland and the United States, and the lead article in the London Times the following day commented that although the German generals did not lose the war at Amiens ‘they lost the will to win’. June next year will see another such landmark centenary, the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, so what better moment to make a centennial visit to Normandy and Picardy?

We plan to follow in the footsteps of William Morris, who first visited Amiens with Edward Burne-Jones and Cormell Price in 1855; the cathedral inspired him to write ‘A Night in the Cathedral’, a short story which was published in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine the following year. He later described the cathedrals of Amiens, Rouen and Beauvais as being among ‘the noblest works of human invention’, remarking of the latter that ‘seen by twilight its size gives one the impression almost of terror: one can scarcely believe it.’ William Burges was also an admirer, making four separate visits to Amiens and Rouen but, like Morris, he reserving his greatest admiration for Beauvais, which he visited no less than eleven times; on one of these occasions perching precariously on a scaffold the better to draw the cathedral’s mighty apse.

Claude Monet shared Morris’s love of Rouen with its craggy gothic facade, which he painted many times at different times of the day. Slightly north of Rouen and on the coast he also painted the church in the beautiful little village of Varengeville, where we will visit Le Bois des Moutiers, one of Sir Edwin Lutyens’s earliest and greatest country houses with gardens laid out by Gertrude Jeckyll. The house, built in 1898, was commissioned by Guillaume Mallet, who had purchased five hundred acres of virgin countryside falling away to the sea, where, in addition to the house, he created what are now world-renowned rhododendron and azalea gardens with the English Channel as a backdrop. The house is still in the possession of the family and we will be welcomed by the present occupant. In 1998, the centennial year of Le Bois des Moutiers, I had the good fortune to be Master of the Art Workers’ Guild (Lutyens had been Master in 1933) and organized an exhibition, encouraging members to produce work inspired by the house and gardens. For that summer the Guild lent to Le Bois des Moutiers the bust of William Morris, the portraits of Lutyens and Robert Anning Bell, whose polychrome plaster reliefs decorate the bedroom corridors, and the Master’s chair. The opening of the exhibition was celebrated with a concert of English music in the great, double-story music room, attended by the British ambassador and his wife, along with the préfet of the region and the mayor of Dieppe. That evening many speeches were made lauding l’esprit de Guillaume Morris.

Le Bois des Moutiers is the earliest but by no means the only building by Lutyens in Northern France as, in the wake of the First War, he became the principal architect for the British War Memorials, several of the most important of which, including the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval, we will also be visiting. As Fiona MacCarthy so poignantly wrote in her 1994 biography of Morris ‘Those long straight roads of Northern France remained in Morris’s mind as they would remain in the memories of the English veterans of the First World War.’

Elaine and I will make a recce to Normandy and Picardy in October to scout out good hotels, plan our route and make further contacts with museum directors and others to ensure a very special tour for next June.

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