‘A land where it is always afternoon’; the life and talents of Philip Tilden

Port Lympne, Kent (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Port Lympne, Kent (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

One of the finest skills an architect can possess and cultivate is that of charm; the art of turning an encounter into an acquaintance into a client – and sometimes even a friend.  Such a skill can offer a balance to such flaws as he may have, whilst also being his most effective sales technique.  One such architect was Philip Tilden, a man whose own assessment of his talent and skills usually surpassed that bestowed by his peers.  Yet, Tilden was a sensitive man, attuned to how people wished to live in their houses and who developed a rapport within high society leading to an almost bewildering array of commissions; from the most domestic to the breathtakingly grandiose and who, along the way, managed to design houses for two UK Prime Ministers.

Philip Tilden (b.1887 – d.1956) was an avowed traditionalist.  His memoirs – ‘True Remembrances‘ (though others doubt this!) – which were published in 1954, are full of repeated laments of lost skills, modern taste, and the lack of style. Not that he was ‘anti’ modern materials, but more that he thought they should be used cautiously and subserviently to the traditional ones, saying “Instead of absorbing the new materials and techniques into the body of tradition, and digesting them, we have let them take control“.  His was a world where architecture was national (and hence the international Bauhaus would have been an anathema) and, for him, ‘…Britain was not the home of the acanthus and cypress – it is the home of the Gothic rose, the oak, the ash, and the parasitic ivy‘.

Though he made clear his emotional preference for the Gothic, it was part of a broader love of the ancient, in particular, of the old castles which he was called upon to restore – though circumstances would ensure that he would work with whichever building he was called to look at.  Tilden was a good architect – but not a great one.  Sir Edwin Lutyens, who was his contemporary but not his peer, once complained having seen Tilden’s additions to a house as ‘work so ill-conceived by a man who claims a following and dares to criticise‘.  But such criticism shouldn’t obscure Tilden’s more positive characteristics; his sympathy for historic fabric, his imagination, and his consummate networking skills.

The early part of the 20th-century was still an age where patronage was in the hands of the upper echelons of society.  If one could gain a foothold, the power of the related and intertwined networks of politics, business, and industry could provide a welter of opportunities for someone who could play the game.  Tilden was a master of this – his memoirs are an almost embarrassingly giddy series of anecdotes of he and his wife staying with Sir ——— or Lady ———-, and the delight the hosts and visitors apparently took in each others company.  It was through these connections which provided Tilden with his commissions – from the smallest artistic endeavours to the excessive.

Allington Castle, Kent, 1928 (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Allington Castle, Kent, 1928 (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

He joined the Architectural Association in 1905 and on graduating became an articled pupil to Thomas Edward Collcutt, whom he later went into partnership with, before establishing his own practice in 1917.  One of his first clients was Sir Martin Conway, 1st Baron Allington, the mountaineer, politician and art critic who once said “I have always liked the work of Mr Philip Tilden, but if anyone asks me why, I cannot fully say“.  Sir Martin and his much wealthier wife, Katrina, had discovered Allington Castle, Kent and both exclaimed ‘Of course we must have it!‘ and she had bought it in 1905. Some restoration work had been carried out before 1914, by W.D. Caroe, to make the ruined castle habitable but Tilden was brought in for further changes in 1918 and became firm friends with the Conways, working on the castle until 1932.

Entrance front, Port Lympne (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Entrance front, Port Lympne (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

It was this long period of friendship which enabled Tilden to extend his circle of useful connections.  One of these was Sir Louis Mallet, once our Ambassador to Turkey, who had led a cultivated and international life which had created a prized social circle.  It was through him that Tilden came to know and work with the wealthy Sir Philip Sassoon, the noted politician and art collector.  Sassoon was a renowned host and his architectural requirements were driven by this.  Herbert Baker had built the Cape Dutch-style Port Lympne for Sassoon in 1913/14 and when Sassoon wished to enhance Port Lympne after WWI, he called on Tilden.  With the confidence of wealth (related as he was to the Rothschilds), Sassoon gave full rein to his artistic and stylistic preferences which were far removed from the chaste reserve of the traditional English country house.  With dining room walls painted in lapis lazuli blue and lined with golden chairs and an opalescent ceiling, a Spanish courtyard, and a grand flight of steps in the garden, this was a house for show.

Trent Park, Enfield, north London (Image: Enfield Council via flickr)
Trent Park, Enfield, north London (Image: Enfield Council via flickr)

Yet, barely had the works on Port Lympne been completed, when Sassoon bought Trent Park, in north London, in 1923, which was to become the centre of his social entertaining.  In contrast to the exuberance of his Kentish seaside retreat, Sassoon looked to Tilden to create a more traditional environment, one of lithographs and wallpaper, antiques and books.  This suited Tilden who created a hugely successful pleasure palace:

“…a dream of another world – the white-coated footmen serving endless courses of rich but delicious food, the Duke of York coming in from golf… Winston Churchill arguing over the teacups with George Bernard Shaw, Lord Balfour dozing in an armchair, Rex Whistler absorbed in his painting… while Philip himself flitted from group to group, an alert, watchful, influential but unobtrusive stage director – all set against a background of mingled luxury, simplicity and informality, brilliantly contrived…“.  (Robert Boothby. I Fight to Live (1947)

Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

Tilden was happy to mix in these circles, both for the pleasure they brought and the commissions.  In 1919, Martin Conway and Tilden were at Allington when Conway burst out, ‘You know, Philip, Selfridge is going to build a castle‘. Of course, the ‘Selfridge’ was Gordon of the eponymous department store, who had enormous plans which almost matched his ego, but which certainly outstripped his finances.  We have previously looked at Selfridges’ fascinating plans in an earlier post (‘Harry Gordon Selfridge and his grand plans: Hengistbury Head‘) so no need to go into depth again but suffice to say that the whole episode showed that whilst Tilden could think big, he sometimes lacked the ability to tell his clients the honest truth about the prospects of being able to bring such grandiose schemes as Hengistbury Head or the Selfridges Tower into reality.

More successfully, Tilden was to create a home for a Prime Minister – but this isn’t about Chartwell.  The first PM Tilden worked for was David Lloyd George, the controversial Welsh Liberal, best known as the founder of the welfare state, who had met the architect at Port Lympne.  Lloyd George had decided in the summer of 1920 to purchase a plot of land in Churt, Surrey, where he could have a house built and gardens to tend.  The area he chose was, in fact, wind-swept hillside but compensated by the views.

Bron-y-De, Churt, Surrey (Image: 'True Remembrances' by Philip Tilden)
Bron-y-De, Churt, Surrey (Image: ‘True Remembrances’ by Philip Tilden)

The house was to be called ‘Bron-y-de’, Welsh for ‘facing south’, which was a joke as the house faced north, even though he had bought the estate unseen at auction on the recommendation of his secretary who had assured him it faced south. In keeping with his character, it was a modest sized house – though one room had to be the same size as the Cabinet Room in Downing Street so that his habit of pacing could continue at the same length. Lloyd George was always in a hurry, and so Tilden designed the house so that only the ground floor was brick to reduce the drying time, with a huge mansard roof covering the first floor. Once word was out that the house was to be built, Tilden was deluged with offers of free fittings and materials, however, Lloyd George was a deeply scrupulous man who gave strict instructions that everything down to the last nail was to be paid for.  Despite his modesty, it became apparent that the house was too small, and so Tilden was again employed in 1921 & 1922 to extend the house.  Sadly, Bron-y-De burnt down in 1968.

Of course, the house Tilden is best known for is Chartwell (subject of the earlier guest article ‘Sir Winston Churchill, Chartwell, and Philip Tilden’ – National Trust ‘Uncovered’‘).  Another commission as a result of a long fireside chat at Port Lympne, Churchill asked Tilden to help adapt the Victorian home to his requirements. The chapter in Tilden’s memoirs about the project is almost more an encomium to his client, lavishing praise on all aspects of his life and his interest in Chartwell; ‘No client that I have ever had, considering his well-filled life, has ever spent more time, trouble, or interest in the making of his home than did Mr Churchill‘.  The house which resulted is certainly more practical than beautiful – though it achieves the original goal of allowing the undeniable pleasure of the superb views.

Dunsland House, Devon (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Lost Country Houses)
Dunsland House, Devon (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Lost Country Houses)

Sassoon and his circle of friends was to bring work at other country houses such as Easton Lodge, Essex, Hill Hall, Essex, Saltwood Castle, Kent, Luscombe Castle, Devon, and Anthony House, Cornwall.  Of all the works Tilden deserves credit for, for me, his rescue of Dunsland House is perhaps the most admirable and the saddest.  Dunsland was one of the oldest houses in north Devon and had been owned by the Bickford family who had created a home with some of the most remarkable plasterwork to be found in the county.  Having owned the house for over 300 years it was finally sold in 1945 to a timber merchant who was interested only in the trees.

In 1949, Tilden was sent by the council to inspect the now seriously ‘at risk’ house. Realising that no-one else would be taking on the restoration, Tilden stepped up and bought it – and paid the timber merchant £5 for every tree he spared.  Using his own limited funds, Tilden brought a small section of the house back to a habitable state and moved in, but the project proved too much and he died in 1956.  His actions had staved off the immediate threat of complete collapse and the National Trust took over, finishing the restoration.  Sadly, in November 1967, just as the house was ready to open to the public, a fire broke out and completely destroyed it.

Philip Tilden, October 1925 (Image: National Portrait Gallery)
Philip Tilden, October 1925 (Image: National Portrait Gallery)

A sad loss of not only the house, but also what would have been a fitting reminder of one architect’s love of the ancient fabric of the nation’s built heritage; one who romantically thought that, ‘Most of those who build are interested in what has gone before, and their aim and object is to find out how to restore the present to something like a period that they imagine to be ‘a land where it is always afternoon‘.’  Tilden today is perhaps best remembered for what he didn’t build for Gordon Selfridge and the unexciting work at Chartwell, but he was certainly a principled and thoughtful architect whose views on heritage many would respect today.

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There is a fine selection of images of Port Lympne in the Country Life Picture Library

Further reading:

Harry Gordon Selfridge and his grand plans: Hengistbury Head

Those who dream grand plans in their professional lives can be equally ambitious in their private lives too.  This can be particularly acute when their thoughts turn to building their own homes; that ultimate statement of wealth, ambition, and, they hope, taste.  When Harry Gordon Selfridge came to Britain he quickly spotted an opportunity to revolutionise the high-street shopping experience and he was prepared to invest to do so, starting with a flagship store on Oxford Street in London.  Yet, what perhaps fewer are aware of, was his plan to build a spectacular castle in Dorset – a personal vision of his to create a home which matched his ambition.

Selfridges, 1929, seen from south-west (Image: RIBA Library Photographs Collection)
Selfridges, 1929, seen from south-west (Image: RIBA Library Photographs Collection)

Harry Gordon Selfridge (b.1864 – d.1947) became a giant of the retail industry.  Born in Ripon, Wisconsin, his father was manager of the general store but abandoned his family and then Harry’s two brothers died young, leaving him an only child.  His mother struggled financially, and Selfridge, displaying a precociously enterprising talent started, aged 12, a magazine which made money through advertising whilst he worked at another store. He then worked in a bank, then insurance, before joining the store which became Marshall Field in Chicago, as a stock boy. Over the next 25 years, he worked his way up to junior partner, became wealthy and married a local socialite.

During a visit to London in 1906, Selfridge noticed that the UK retail experience significantly lagged behind the latest innovations in the US and so decided to bring those ideas to Britain.  In his typical style, he did this on a huge scale – his vast 50,000 sq ft store on Oxford Street was a bold statement as to the importance of shopping.  Built in a grand Classical Revival style which echoed that of other areas of Edwardian London, it was actually designed by an American architect, Daniel Burnham, who had been responsible for the influential ‘World’s Columbian Exposition‘ held in Chicago in 1893 which had embedded and popularised the Classical style in US architecture.

Plaster model of proposed Selfridges tower (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Plaster model of proposed Selfridges tower (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

The store was built in phases but to a unified overall design.  The first nine-and-a-half bays closest to the Duke Street corner were completed first, with the store opening in 1909 at a cost of £400,000. The western extension was then built between 1924-29, designed by Sir John Burnet, who had designed the strikingly similar King Edward VII gallery at the British Museum in 1905. Externally, the store as it was in 1929 is the store you see today – but in true Selfridge style, this wasn’t all.  Planned from the beginning, the final piece of this retail jigsaw was more decorative and an early indication of Selfridge’s ability to think big: a 450-ft tower to soar over both the store and London. After five years of lobbying, Selfridge had permission from the Portman Estates and Marylebone Council – now he just needed a design.  It had always been his policy to commission more than one architect on a project, enjoying the differing ideas and so he also employed the well-respected Philip Tilden (who had carved out a comfortable career creating a number of country houses such notably Port Lympne and Chartwell), as well as Burnet. Both architects produced a number of designs all in a broadly Classical idiom but with significant differences (see Tilden’s variations: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4) -but none met with Selfridge’s approval and eventually he scrapped the idea, with only a plaster model to show for it. However, by this time, he had another commission for Tilden.

Between 1916-22, Selfridge took the lease on Highcliffe Castle, Dorset and enjoyed entertaining his wealthy friends from both London and the local area.  Yet, as was typical, this wasn’t enough and so he bought the nearby Hengistbury Head; a mile-long stretch of beautiful cliffs, wildlife, and ancient Bronze Age monuments.  Much to the alarm of the locals, he then announced that he would be building ‘the largest castle in the world‘. A showman’s boast perhaps (considering the competition!) but he set Tilden to work to make this dream a reality; which he did, lovingly creating a series of dramatic panoramas and hundreds of detailed individual designs.

Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Proposal for Hengistbury Head by Philip Tilden for H. Gordon Selfridge (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

Selfridge, of course, had his own vision what this castle would look like – and the brief must have made Tilden shudder (inwardly, of course).  Although Selfridge was rigorously Classical in London, he wanted a true castle and so demanded a mix; a medieval fortress planned on Classical lines with ‘…mighty vistas, balance, and co-ordination of the parts‘.  From early 1919, Tilden created a wonderful series of perspectives which Clive Aslet describes as ‘…dreams of Piranesian grandeur and Watteau-like romance‘.  This architectural hybrid was something of a awkward marriage, the imposing mass of the castle fortifications interrupted by delicate Classical arcades, statues and details.

Proposed Barbican at Hengistbury Head (Image: 'The Last Country Houses' by Clive Aslet)
Proposed Barbican at Hengistbury Head (Image: ‘The Last Country Houses’ by Clive Aslet)

The basic plan involved four miles or ramparts with towers, a ‘small castle’ (to be completed first and lived in whilst the main part was completed) and a ‘large castle’ on higher ground.  This ‘large castle’ was to include (beyond the usual living accommodation), a Gothic hall, a 300-ft tower, a theatre, a Hall of Mirrors copied from that at Versailles, a winter garden, a covered lake, long corridors and galleries for pictures, tapestries and other objet d’art, and at least 250 suites of rooms for guests.  Even the small castle would have been a significant project and the proposals for the main castle firmly moved this plan out of reality and into fantasy considering that, although wealthy, a building on this scale (the plans had to be drawn at 1:64) might even have caused the Morgans, Vanderbilts or Carnegies of this world to think twice – and they were many times richer than Selfridge.

Terrace at Hengistbury Head (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Terrace at Hengistbury Head (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

Although Tilden must have quickly realised that this scheme would never be built in full, and at best only a small portion may be created, he took the commission seriously.  Each month he would travel to see Selfridge either in London or at Highcliffe and update him on the progress of the designs.  Selfridge would often have a selection of his millionaire friends in attendance who would pore over the developments and offer their encouragement and suggestions.  These intellectual gatherings even started to give Selfridge a slim reputation that he was a connoisseur in the grand tradition of earlier country house patrons.

Sadly, Selfridge’s personal life and fortune had both suffered over the years.  His beloved wife had died of influenza in 1918, after which he became increasingly reckless; lavishly entertaining, gambling and taking up with a pair of sisters who performed on stage.  In the decade after his wife died he reputedly ran through an $8m fortune and, combined with the financial impact of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, his wealth could no longer support his lifestyle. So, in 1930, he sold 300-acres of Hengistbury Head to the local council, including covenants still in force today that ironically stipulated that the land could not be built on (though, optimistically, he did retain 33-acres).  By the mid-1930s he was all but penniless and in 1939 he was forced to retire from Selfridges, eventually moving to a small flat in Putney and travelling around on the buses, before dying at home in May 1947, his grandiose plans for the largest castle in the world, a mere memory.

In many ways, H. Gordon Selfridge’s life was a remarkable series of triumphs and frustrations.  His early years clearly led him to a preference for the grandiose statements and a desire to accumulate the trappings of those he considered his social rivals who may have looked down on his humble beginnings.  Of course, he wasn’t the only department store owner with grand ambitions which ran far ahead of his budget – Lutyens‘ original design for the dramatically beautiful Castle Drogo, Devon for Julius Drew, owner of the Home and Colonial Stores, was three times larger than the completed building.  However, the sheer scale of Selfridge’s plans for Hengistbury Head increasingly looked more like an ‘after-dinner’ exercise; something to show and discuss with his wealthy friends rather than something he seriously intended to build.  In this way, he was a consummate showman with an ability to think grand dreams, which is to be applauded. However, in some ways we get the best deal; he didn’t get to create an oversized ego-driven building on a beautiful section of coastline but we do get to admire the incredibly detailed designs which Tilden laboured on for over half a decade to amuse Selfridge’s ambition.

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A new drama called ‘Mr Selfridge‘ on ITV in the UK on the life of H. Gordon Selfridge starts on 6 January 2013 – hence this article.

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More of Philip Tilden’s designs: ‘Hengistbury Head‘ [RIBA Library Drawings Collection]