Edwin Lutyens and the President's Palace
The reason why were on that long haul flight (see last post) is that the husband is working on one of the architects of new Delhi, who had started life as a recorder of Byzantine monuments in Greece (name W S George, one of Lutyens's side-kicks, designer of the Regal Cinema and a variety of other things in the vicinity).
He had things to do, and I had things to write, snuggled up in the hotel….but he had booked for us to go round what I still find myself calling inadvertently the Viceroy’s Palace (but should, of course, be the President’s Palace), designed by Edwin Lutyens over the 10’s, 20’s and 30’s of the twentieth century, now the residence of the Indian Head of State, not any longer (phew) the Viceroy. This has only been an easy option for a few months, and you can book online. (And the best speedy background to it is a great radio broadcast by Matthew Parris, Simon Jenkins and Jane Ridley; click here.
It was an unexpected – and truly rewarding – experience in all kinds of ways.
For a start, the whole tour of the building is really aimed (rightly) at Indians wanting to see how their President lives. We were put in a small party with a family from the US embassy… not with the wonderfully obedient party of 60 quiet, but subtly giggly Indian girls, with whom we entered the building. All the same, our guide still gave us a lot of stuff about, where the President actually lived, how the butlers worked at contemporary state banquets, and which lights (blue?) meant “clear the table” etc.
For me there were some surprising things. I had not, for example, imagined that I would like the gardens very much. We had signed up to see them on the tour, as it seemed a bit feeble not to. But I confess that I had thought that one Mughal repro-garden was much like another. These were stupendous, and the final butterfly garden was great – circular and full of flowers and butterflies. And if anything the gardens turned out to be more atmospheric than the house. (That's the Obamas arriving for their state banquet in the gardens above, but it doesn't quite do the place justice.)
I am a huge fan of Lutyens (Memorial to Missing of Somme is just brilliant), but I wasn’t sure that the whole architectural ensemble worked as impressively as I had hoped it would. The colour combination (of the Indian stone plus the European style “marble”) didn’t quite do it for me. And it all seemed rather "empty" inside. We had been to the reconstructed Castle of the Knights of St John on Rhodes a month or so ago, a great fascist recreation and also very "cold". The husband rightly observed that the atmosphere was very much the same (and of course it was in a way -- two great architectural assertions of state power).
But, as always in places like this, there were one or two surprises. There were a few museum type galleries (showing things like the kitchen equipment of the Raj, the crockery and colanders... in a kind of sub National Trust "downstairs" display) But in one of these galleries there were some arresting, sometimes eery, photos of the British imperial regime. The one I remember best (I am writing this 48 hours later) is a pic of Lord and Lady Willingdon (Viceroy and Vicereine in the 1930s), posing in grand chairs, with four young Indian princes in traditional dress kneeling in front of them, as if they were their own children. (That's them in a different group above.) It reminded me of all those much more aggressive colonial monuments, in which colonialism is represented as paternalism. This pic -- with its obviously "exotic" clothes (and not just on the princes!), and its gesture to the typical "family portrait photo" -- was a half-touching, half-decidedly-uncomfortable and (I would guess) almost unthinking example of that.