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South Africa Again : Metamorphosis at Luton Hoo

Nikolaus Pevsner in the 1960s thought the interior of Luton Hoo the finest work of its date and style anywhere in England. Certainly there are few grand houses that so perfectly evoke the sumptuous taste of Edwardian new wealth with its festoons, gilded ribbons, rich panelling and almost overwhelming marble fireplaces. Inevitably some of the house's original furnishings have disappeared, partly as a result of the vicissitudes of the Second World War, when Luton Hoo became the headquarters of Eastern Command, but the vision and cosmopolitan taste of the Julius Wernhers are still much in evidence.

The favourite style of Mewès and his English partner Arthur Davis was Louis XVI, but at Luton Hoo one also detects the influence of Jacques-Ange Gabriel, the creator of the Petit Trianon. Mewès, originally from Strasbourg and of Baltic Jewish extraction, had been one of the architects of the 19OO Paris Exhibition. He has been described as having had a "magnetic" personality, and was known in the architectural world as "Le Patron". His debut in London had been the decorating of the Interior of the Carlton Hotel, where New Zealand House now stands, and this gorgeous affair so impressed Albert Ballin of the Hamburg-Amerika shipping line that he was forthwith commissioned to design and decorate those great "floating palaces", the Imperator, the Amerika, the Vaterland and the Kaiserin Augusta-Viktoria. Mewès, having been awarded the Légion d'honneur, quickly built up an international reputation, with representatives in Germany, Spain and South America, as well as in England. Arthur Davis ("bon viveur, elegant") had been associated with Mewès since 1898, when he was aged only twenty. He too was Jewish , and had been a prize-winning student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Later he was to design the interiors of the Queen Mary, the Aquitania and the Franconia.

Plans for the Ritz in London and another in Madrid were under discussion when work began at Luton Hoo at the end of 19O3. At Luton Hoo the original exterior was to be mostly retained, but in the case of the London Ritz an entire new building had to be designed and erected, Parisian in style with a mansard roof and a pedestrian arcade like the Rue de Rivoli. As with the Corner House in Johannesburg, a steel frame was to be used, the first in London. Mewès and Davis's next important building was for the Morning Post, at the Strand end of the Aldwych: Inveresk House is still in existence, though spoilt by later additions and alterations.

Luton Hoo was the firm's first major private project in England. In due course it made alterations for a score or more houses in Mayfair and Belgravia, notably 88 Brook Street for Mrs Henry Coventry, 16 Charles Street for Mrs Ronald Greville, later to become the Guards Club, 38 Hill Street for Carl Meyer of Rothschilds, and 49 Belgrave Square for Otto Beit. It also put on extensions to the Cavalry Club in Piccadilly (not considered a great success), and alterations were made to country houses such as Polesden Lacey, Leeds Castle, Combe Court, Norbury Park and possibly Tewin Water. Mewès's work for Hamburg-Amerika led to commissions from Cunard. One of the firm's most spectacular remaining monuments in London is the Royal Auto- mobile Club in Pall Mall, completed in 1911, with a medley of styles (not improved since by over-painting), and including in the basement a magnificent swimming-pool, supposedly "Byzantine" in conception, but reminiscent of sets for the great Hollywood epics and vying with the "Pompeian" pool on the Imperator.

The building firm used by Mewès and Davis at Luton Hoo was George Trollope and Son, but much of the main and most elaborate decorative work was to be done by Hoentschel of Paris, who had previously been employed at Bath House. Under the circumstances it could seem odd that Julius Wernher should decide to undertake a four-month journey to South Africa just as reconstruction at the house was about to begin. But he had urgent and worrying decisions ahead, with huge fortunes at stake.

A slight market recovery had inevitably followed the war, but as Julius himself told Samuel Evans towards the close of 1902, people were already losing "pots of money". This applied particularly in France, where small investors had had their hopes mercilessly raised about prospects on the Rand by Johannesburg operators. Then there were the worries about black African labour. Wages had been raised, but made little difference towards attracting more workers, and the controversy about importing Chinese labour had become increasingly strident. The London partners were also becoming uneasy about the state of management at the Corner House; as Julius put it, there was not enough "pulling together". Percy FitzPatrick, of whom he was fond, was often suffering from his ulcer, and much preoccupied by public work. Evans and Schumacher had "no sense of vision". There were complaints about Reyersbach's tactlessness, put down in Julius's words to his "not being a gentleman". It was of course acknowledged that pressure of work in the Corner House was immense, and that periods of rest for partners were vital, not to mention occasional "refresher" trips to London. The trouble was that there were simply not enough competent people to hold the fort during these absences.

Worst of all, Beit had had a stroke and for a while had been partially paralysed. This had actually happened at Johannesburg in January 1903 - some people unkindly saying that it was because of the shock of seeing Thomas Cullinan's rival new diamond mine near Pretoria. Others blamed the great heat, which seems just as probable. Luckily, "Dr Jim" had been to hand to look after Beit.

Rumours about the Premier had suggested that its potential was far greater than anything at Kimberley, but Francis Oats, on behalf of De Beers, and Reyersbach had been sceptical, believing that the mine had been "salted -that diamonds had been fraudulently introduced from elsewhere. Beit evidently thought quite the opposite, and according to FitzPatrick actually lost his temper, a rare event. "He burst out with: "Do not talk damn nonsense... Look here, Oats, you always were a damn fool. You are a damn fool now."

The Premier certainly was not salted, and Oats's attitude was to prove an expensive mistake, for -as a joint enterprise with the Transvaal government- it was to prove an unfriendly rival to De Beers for many years, with its own selling organization in London. Blue ground was discovered in April 1903. The diamonds tended to be small, with at least one notable exception, namely the famous Cullinan diamond of 3,025 3/4 carats, the largest ever, which was found in 1905 and later presented to Edward VII, two of the largest gems from it forming part of the Imperial State Crown and the Royal Sceptre.

Beit never quite recovered from the stroke. On 20 February Friedrich Eckstein wrote to Samuel Evans to say that Beit had, "thank God", left for Hamburg. "If he had stayed much longer he would have been dead in a fortnight." On Beit's return Julius found him markedly less interested in the business, and knew that his own load of work would thus be increased. Julius now was suffering from indigestion and had developed eczema, which involved having to take an "oil treatment" and was to recur for the rest of his life.

However much Julius was determined to keep out of politics, he was frequently consulted by the major politicians of the day, Conservative Unionist and Liberal, many of whom became his friends. He also saw Milner when in London, but was sceptical about the results of his promoting agriculture in the northern states. On the question of colour, he was fairly open-minded. On 13 May he wrote to Evans, making one of his rare comments on the subject:

Our struggle and difficulty are in the present and near future, and I think with you that the ever-increasing Kaffir population will present many difficulties. But surely the best way to prepare for them is to get them to work in good time and settled with regular wants. I consider the Chinese necessary as a stopgap to be got rid of when it suits. I cannot understand the objections to a trial at least. We all feel [that] for some years to come we must have outside help and the problem has to be faced. If we go on as at present topheavy, in every respect, there must be a fall and as we and others have been the channel to convey millions [of pounds] to South Africa we cannot stand by and see the confidence go because the agitators object.

On 4 July Julius told Evans that Chamberlain had denied any possibility of an election that year. A change of government might lead to unrest re South Africa, and first and foremost the resignation of H. E. [Milner]. Here he was primarily referring to the great new topic in Britain, that of Tariff Reform and Imperial Preference, proposed by Chamberlain on 15 May at Birmingham in what has been described as one of the most sensational speeches in modern politics. To question the efficacy of Free Trade was to many Britons like disputing a religion. Julius was to be strongly in favour of Tariff Reform during the debates of 1904 and 1905, and it was the one political subject on which he felt he could not keep his silence.

In October he launched his 2 million African Ventures syndicate, "with a view to steadying the market and regaining the confidence of the Transvaal mines". Old friends subscribed - Porgès, Kann, Carl Meyer, the Rothschilds, Max Michaelis, Ernest Cassel, Jim Taylor - as did members of the Diamond Syndicate in London and various Swiss, German and French banks, including the new Banque Rouvier, which had absorbed the Banque Française after it had got into difficulties as a result of the Anglo-Boer War. The president of the new bank, Maurice Rouvier, was a politician as well as banker, and soon left the post to become Minister of Finance in the French government: a useful contact for all concerned. Wernher, Beit also arranged for stock options to be made available to twenty-two leading French journals, "on the understanding that they must write first of all in favour of the importation of unskilled Asiatic labour being allowed in the Transvaal". Other "Goldbugs" on the Rand, such as the Albus, Neumann, and the directors of Gold Fields, followed suit with subsidies to these papers.

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