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1914 An Indian Summer

At the Summer Exhibition of 1914, one of Britain’s largest imperial projects, the proposed design of the heart of the new Indian capital at New Delhi, was revealed to the British public. The impact of this event is hard to overestimate. Today, architects publish new commissions on their websites, and architectural renderings of new designs appear swiftly in the press. During the first half of the twentieth century, however, this was not the case, and the Royal Academy remained a major venue for architecture. Even as its influence in the broader art world slipped, the Summer Exhibition was often the place where critics and the public first encountered important new architectural designs.

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The presentation of the new Indian capital in 1914, then, was necessarily impressive. The design was primarily the work of two architects, Edwin Lutyens, who designed the Viceroy’s House, and Herbert Baker, who designed the Secretariats (Fig. 1). A large watercolour perspective by William Walcot showed the Secretariat buildings raised on wide red stone plinths built into the side of Raisina Hill, a wide plaza opening between them to reveal the façade of the Viceroy’s House—a distant palace hovering on the low horizon (Fig. 2). In addition to moody architectural perspectives, Walcot was known for his imaginary views of the grandeur of ancient empires. With its domes, columns, and towers arranged around axial vistas through courtyards and colonnades, the rendering of New Delhi evoked one of his views of ancient Rome. Ground and sky dissolved together in warm washes, and the edges of the domes and towers disappeared into haze. Yet the shadows of cornice and plinth were sharply delineated so that the buildings read as apparitions rising out of the mist. The architect Edwin Lutyens loved the way Walcot’s watercolours seemed to radiate the heat of India.1

The impact of the design was immediate, fuelled by the climate of uncertainty and patriotism as the clouds of war gathered over the Continent. In these drawings, Britain confidently reiterated its presence in India. The design was reviewed in the English-speaking press around the world. Critics lauded or loathed it, depending on their aesthetic preference or political stance.

However, the rendering of the design was not accurate. Walcot’s watercolour, taken from a high vantage point somewhere in the air above King’s Way, made the area between the Secretariats appear as a wide plaza with the Viceroy’s House on its distant edge, where the house’s portico and dome dominated the vista in the same way that the United States Capitol overlooks the Mall in Washington. (Washington had, in fact, been one of the Delhi Commission’s models). In reality, instead of flanking a wide plaza, the Secretariats were to be set on either side of a steeply inclined boulevard that climbed the hillside to reach the plateau on top. The steep incline of the hill would mean that unless the new road were excavated to a shallower incline, only the dome of the Viceroy’s House would peep above the crest of the hill. Thus the building that was meant to be the focal point of an entire city, the symbol of the British Crown at the heart of Indian government, would hardly be visible from the main approach. Yet the watercolour at the Summer Exhibition did not reveal this and even its architect was fooled.

Lutyens apparently had not realised the implications of the planned gradient. And hanging on the walls of the Academy and echoing from there in press reports throughout the empire was a reassurance that things would be just as he intended.

How did the perspective come out so wrong? Walcot had chosen a vantage point that no human being would ever see, not obviously a soaring bird’s eye, but still a view several storeys above the road. This was normal artistic license for an architectural perspectivist—the artist and the architect he worked for wanted a drawing that would give a sense of the massing and layout of the entire design, while emphasising its grandeur. But even that did not fully explain the discrepancy of a flattened approach road. Had Baker purposefully provided deceptive sketches to Walcot? Lutyens later came to believe so. Despite his best efforts, Lutyens was never able to convince the New Delhi authorities to correct the gradient. They decided it would be too expensive. He called the incident his Bakerloo, and felt that it was one of the greatest disappointments of his career.

Over the following years, as the buildings began to rise on their foundations and it became clear that the gradient was not as Lutyens had expected, the Academy watercolour became central to the debate over whether the gradient should be reduced at additional expense to the taxpayer. A provoking question arose—did the display of the drawing at the Academy constitute a sort of contract with the public? Lutyens and some members of the Imperial Delhi Committee felt that this was the case. As the historian Robert Grant Irving has summarised, Lutyens and his allies “felt certain that had Baker submitted a true perspective from the Great Place or Court, showing only the palace dome above the inclined way, the Royal Academy or public opinion would have rejected the drawing.”2

Blurring the lines between politics and aesthetics, the Selection Committee had taken up an important role in the mediation of public architectural design, and the halls of the Academy itself were characterised not merely as testing grounds for public opinion, but as serving a key purpose in civic life.3 For Lutyens and his allies, at least, display at the Academy was akin to design review, and they insisted that deception at the Royal Academy constituted a disruption of the democratic process.

  1. Gavin Stamp, The Great Perspectivists (New York: Rizzoli, 1982), 20.↩︎

  2. Robert Grant Irving, Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker, and Imperial Delhi (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 146. Irving’s Indian Summer provides the most thorough treatment of the gradient controversy.↩︎

  3. And indeed, the Academy would go on to have a key role in founding the Fine Arts Commission in 1922. Mary Anne Stevens (ed.), The Edwardians and After: The Royal Academy 1900–1950 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1988), 15.↩︎

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Explore the 1914 catalogue