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Edward Maufe: Architect and cathedral builder, by Juliet Dunmur

14 February 2020

William Whyte reads a revealing biography of Edward Maufe

TEN years ago, the archivist of St John’s College, Oxford, made an unusual discovery: a cobweb-covered object that had been con­signed to the corner of a dusty cellar. It was the bust of a distinguished-looking man in a bow tie, the architect Sir Edward Maufe.

As an alumnus, the mind behind Guildford Cathedral and a host of other high-profile projects, a Royal Academician and a Knight of the realm, Maufe had once been fêted by the college. He was commissioned to build for it, and was made an honorary fellow. But fashions changed, Maufe was sacked and was replaced by a more modern archi­tect, and his bust was consigned to a storeroom.

The story of this sculpture is, in one respect, entirely representative of Maufe’s career. He became one of the pre-eminent architects of mid-20th century Britain. Especially fêted for his church buildings and famous for de­­signing one of the few cathedrals built for 500 years, he also built for banks, Oxbridge colleges, the Inns of Court, and the Com­­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mission.

He was, as this suggests and as the sculpture depicts him, an eminently Establishment figure. At the opening of Guildford Cathedral, the Duke of Edinburgh took one look at the vestments that Maufe and his wife had designed for the Bishop and declared: “It is all very well, Bishop, your prancing around like that: you have been dressed by the Maufes. I have to go to Moss Bros.”

Maufe was an architect whose work trod a delicate line between tradition and innovation, offering a polite and decorous version of both. His buildings, as one reviewer once put it, embodied “Modernity with manners”: a style that appealed to the leaders of Church and State in the interwar era, and which quickly went out of fashion when more radical modernists reigned su­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­preme.

© Guildford Cathedral ArchivesAlfred Rose, Alan Collins, and Edward Maufe (right) with the 15-foot Golden Angel weather vane of Guildford Cathedral, December 1961

On its own, however, this image is misleading, because Maufe was more — and much more interesting — than just the patrician that the statute at St John’s ostensibly de­­picts. He was not even born Edward Maufe, but Edward Muff, the scion of a Nonconformist dynasty of drapers. The family moved south, changed its name, and moved up in the world; and he moved on and up with it.

He was also a far more complic­ated and progressive figure than one might imagine at first sight. His wife was a pioneering career woman, a director of the fashionable furniture shop Heals, and a hugely influential designer in her own right. She also changed her name in the interests of social advancement, dropping Gladys because it was “a servant’s name” and choosing to be called Prudence instead. Strikingly, the sug­gestion that she do this came from her lover’s mistress; it emerges that the Maufes had an unconven­tional marriage, to say the least. Quite quickly it became a ménage à trois with Prudence’s employer, Ambrose Heal: a married man, who was apparently incapable of sexual fidelity even to his mistresses. It is an index of just how interwoven their lives and loves became that Heal holidayed with the Maufes, while the Maufes designed a house for Heal and his wife.

Juliet Dunmur is Edward and Prudence Maufe’s granddaughter. She is also an excellent biographer, drawing on family papers and arch­ival research to offer a fascinating insight into Maufe, his marriage, and much more besides. Her book is tremendously revealing and a real pleasure to read. It is also nicely illustrated. It may not persuade all people to love Maufe’s work, but it should enable them to appreciate it better — and to understand the man and the world that produced it.

Estate of Edward MaufeMaufe’s perspective drawing for the Clubland Methodist Church in Walworth, south London

As for the bust of Maufe: we rescued it from its dungeon and it now sits in my room — the room, I discovered from this book, that Maufe himself had lived in as an undergraduate. It seems an encour­aging sign. Perhaps it signals some­thing of a renaissance for this fascin­ating man.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.


Edward Maufe: Architect and cathedral builder
Juliet Dunmur
Moyhill Publishing £20

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