At the feet of genius. Edwin Lutyens may have been dumpy, of lowly birth and hopeless in bed, but his wife revered him. Lynn Barber on the life and marriage of a once pre-eminent designer

The Architect and his Wife: a life of Edwin Lutyens

Jane Ridley <em>Chatto & Windus, 488pp, £25</e

Sir Edwin Lutyens once told the Architectural Association: "I advise everyone to build a house at 19. It's such good practice." Modern architects must read this and weep - most of them go through years of training and are lucky to build anything at all before they are 40. Lutyens had almost no training, and had built a dozen houses by his mid-twenties. He was fortunate to grow up into a building boom, but he was also an exceptionally hard worker.

Edwin (Ned) Lutyens was born in 1869, the eleventh of 14 children. His father was an artist, specialising in hunting scenes, who was successful for a while but later became a crank, obsessed with something called the Venetian Secret - unfortunately too secret for anyone to know what it was. The family moved from London to Surrey when Ned was seven, and at about the same time he suffered an attack of rheumatic fever that left him "delicate" and in effect cut him off from his great ruck of siblings. He spent two years at school, but from the age of 13 was set free to roam around Surrey, drawing cottages, barns and churches, talking to craftsmen and studying building methods, recording a rural vernacular that was fast disappearing.

At 15, he "got the architectural idea" and "then I was fired and went off at work and never went to bed!!". He tried to design something new every day, from town halls and cathedrals to a "twin-screw engine for torpedo boats and launches". Between the ages of 16 and 18, he studied at the South Kensington School of Art, and then worked for the architect Ernest George, but at 19 he got his first commission, to build Crooksbury in Surrey, and thereafter had his own practice. At 20, he met Gertrude Jekyll and built Munstead Wood, which was the start of a long and brilliant collaboration. A Lutyens house with a Jekyll garden, photographed in Country Life, became one of the great status symbols of the Edwardian age.

It is quite funny to think of all these magnates and stockbrokers making their pile in consols and then condemning themselves to a lifetime's discomfort - because that is what living in a Lutyens generally meant. His houses were notoriously cold and dark, with bare stone floors, high small windows, miles of windy corridor and a paucity of bathrooms; as late as 1898, he designed a house with no bathroom at all. Lytton Strachey, who stayed at Lindisfarne in 1918, described it as "very dark, with nowhere to sit, and nothing but stone under, over and round you". Nevertheless, Lutyens remained the most fashionable country house designer up to the First World War.

I had my doubts at first about whether Jane Ridley was wise to call her book The Architect and His Wife. There seems to be a growing trend for this sort of back-door feminism, whereby the wives of great men are supposed to be as important as their husbands, and I do not generally approve. However, Emily Lutyens certainly earns her biographical keep, partly as comic relief (through her theosophical adventures), but also as the author or recipient of the letters, numbering about five thousand, that she and Lutyens exchanged almost daily. They spent far more time apart than together, but they wrote to each other even when they were in the same house.

Emily Lytton was an aristocrat, daughter of a viceroy, brought up at Knebworth, and a self-admitted snob. But it was her dream to be married to a genius, and almost as soon as she met Lutyens in 1896, she knew he was her man. "Do you dance till you are dishevelled?" he asked. "I do." She forgave him his lowly birth, his German name, his dumpy looks, his ghastly puns, because she believed utterly in his work and "I want always to be at someone's feet". Lutyens, too, had an idealistic view of marriage and had saved his virginity until his wedding night. Unfortunately, he never really got the hang of sex and, after he had given Emily five children, she banned him from her bed, telling him: "I have suffered intensely physically during all my married life." To make matters worse, she then took up theosophy, and started mooning over Krishnamurti and reciting: "I am a link in a golden chain of love which stretches round the world." Lutyens was probably relieved to escape to India, where he spent most winters from 1912 onward.

It is a mystery why he got the commission to help design New Delhi, given that he had never been to India and had almost no experience of building grands projets, but it kept him busy for the next 20 years. The battle to realise his vision forms the dramatic core of this always fascinating book, and prefigures the sorts of arguments that arise today when art comes up against political correctness - for instance, over the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. All the Raj administrators from the viceroy down agreed that the new capital of India should look vaguely Indian: it was a matter of political tact. But Lutyens took against Indian architecture the minute he saw it and flatly refused to build in any compromise style. "They want me to do Hindu. Hindon't, I say," he punned. If India wanted a great capital, it should be built to the highest architectural principles, and not as some half-baked pastiche.

Now it is easy to say - and was said at the time, and subsequently - that his refusal to countenance Indian architecture showed that he was racist. This is where it gets complicated, because indeed Lutyens was a racist, as is perfectly clear from letters where he writes about "the sly slime of the Eastern mind". Moreover, his distrust of Indians may well have been exacerbated by his loathing for Krishnamurti. But it is equally clear from his letters that he was not against Indian architecture on racist grounds - that is to say, because it was built by Indians - but because he found it shoddy and intellectually unsatisfying. When it came to decorating the Viceroy's House, he insisted on using Indian fabric throughout - "not because it's Indian but because it's the best".

In any case, he stuck through political thick and thin to his vision of New Delhi. It would have been much easier for him to take his £2,000 a year and give the clients pointed arches or whatever they wanted, but he battled on year after year, from 1912 to 1931, and eventually prevailed. His one huge disappointment, made worse because it was his own fault, was that he agreed to the wrong gradient on the approach road, which meant that the Viceroy's House bobbed in and out of view like a frisky cork instead of sitting tight as the climax of the vista. He also had to endure the tastes of the viceroy's wife, Lady Willingdon, who started painting everything mauve the minute she moved in.

New Delhi was probably his greatest work, but his popularity in Britain stemmed from the Cenotaph and the many beautiful war cemeteries and memorials that he built for the fallen of the Great War. These designs were always bold, simple, dignified, with minimal religious imagery - a long way from the Surrey rookery-nookery of his early domestic architecture. He died on New Year's Day 1944, still busy designing a Catholic cathedral for Liverpool which would have been only slightly smaller than St Peter's, Rome, had it ever been built. His reputation in effect died with him; he left no school of followers and already seemed a dinosaur to the postwar generation of architects. It is difficult for anyone to like all of Lutyens: those who admire his early houses find his later work dull; those who admire the Cenotaph onward find his earlier work kitsch. But, whatever we think of his work, Jane Ridley makes us admire his passion, his dedication, his integrity. This is a truly excellent biography, sympathetic but not uncritical, always interesting and at times absolutely gripping.