Horace Hutchinson: Gatekeeper to the golden age

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    Hutchinson described Royal West Norfolk’s distinguishing features as ‘the absence of the artificiality and the great variety to be found in the holes’

  • Nemu2

    Hutchinson’s first book, Hints on the Game of Golf, was published in 1886. He would go on to write extensively on golf course architecture.

By Keith Cutten

Golf course architecture did not evolve in isolation, but has been profoundly influenced by social and economic factors. Scotland in the early 1800s was a largely agricultural nation. Farming was the primary industry in the interior and throughout the Highlands, while fishing was the major occupation in coastal areas. The game was likely spread by fishermen and merchants, who used the water to reach nearby towns. On arrival, they would venture from the harbours across the ever-changing sandy shorelines, linksland, to reach the populous beyond. With its well-draining soils, undulating topography, natural hazards, and ever-present winds, the links helped to advance the original strategy and challenge of the game. However, the game of golf remained slow growing until the 1840s. The first known examples of golf course architecture occurred during this time.

The industrial revolution allowed ordinary individuals to discover new sources of wealth and the modernisation of the working world saw the advent of leisure time. The proliferation of rail travel allowed golf to spread from the links inland toward the masses. Golf’s popularity resulted in numerous design commissions, almost exclusively given to the top golf professionals of the day. The quality of these early efforts varied greatly, depending on the selected sites, but allowed for quick growth in the game. Without the unique natural characteristics of the links of Scotland, new inland courses evoked characteristics similar to that of the prevalent landscape design style of the era – the Victorian Style. Symmetric and calculated layouts became the early trend, as hundreds of clubs were formed in England. The what, where, how and why surrounding the transition from this Victorian dominance toward a more natural and strategic style, reminiscent of the Old Course at St Andrews, has long been a topic of debate. This research points to a new individual as the primary catalyst of change in golf course architecture – Horace Hutchinson. This change would start in the heathlands of Surrey and Berkshire and spread to America following the First World War, culminating in the era many refer to as the ‘Golden Age of golf course design.’  

Born in 1859 in London, Horace Hutchinson was a wealthy and educated man, who had studied law at Oxford and discovered golf at an early age at Westward Ho! in Devon. In 1886, Hutchinson published his first book titled Hints on the Game of Golf. Though not about golf course design, this book proved to be Hutchinson’s entrance into the field of writing. In 1887, Hutchinson would win his second Amateur Championship, and was widely recognised as an authority on the game. As such, in 1888, Hutchinson laid out his first golf course. The design would become known as Royal Eastbourne, and would become notorious for its wild greens. In 1889, having now dabbled in design, Horace Hutchinson penned the first article on the subject of golf course architecture, entitled How to Lay Out Links and How to Preserve Them, a 12-page synopsis published in C Robertson Bauchope’s The Golfing Annual.

In 1890, Hutchinson achieved his best career finish in the Open Championship, finishing in sixth place at Prestwick. Wisely capitalising on his successes, Hutchinson published what would arguably become his most successful book, Golf, later that same year. Feeling fulfilled with his accomplishments in golf, Hutchinson did what most socialites did at the time and decided to find a new and exciting hobby to captivate his attentions. So, in 1890, Hutchinson moved to London and began a serious study in painting and sculpture. His mentor for the next year would be renowned artist George Frederick Watts, a figurehead of the Symbolist movement in Britain.

Unlike most other artists of his age, Watts was uniquely multi-disciplinary and worked in both paintings and sculpture. Watts served as a mentor for a group of seven painters, poets and critics known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The group associated their work with John Ruskin, whose writings emphasised the connections between nature, art and society. Watts was one of the few artists celebrated by Ruskin in his 1851 publication The Stones of Venice. Further, Watts was also connected to Britain’s Arts and Crafts Movement through both Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. Watts even painted a famous portrait of Morris during the 1860s. In 1886, at the age of 69, Watts was remarried to Mary Seton Watts a Scottish craftswoman, designer and social reformer. The pair would have been well established in the London studio when Hutchinson began his studies in 1890.

Although his studies under Watts would only last one year, due to recurring illnesses which would plague him his entire life, this time clearly had a lasting effect on Hutchinson. In 1920, Hutchinson would pen his last book titled Portraits of the Eighties, in which he would recognise the work of George Watts, William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites (including, most prominently, John Everett Millais and Sir Edward Burne-Jones). Hutchinson even describes his own ‘Watts worship’ in a story relating an event at the Tate Gallery in London. Further, he articulates that posterity is funny and no one can ever predict how time will judge them, but proceeds to declare that Watts will rank ‘with the immortals’.

Hutchinson would spend the winter of 1890 in France, as it was believed that the warmer weather would aid in his recovery. The idea obviously worked as his abilities increased and his new location soon allowed him to recapture his love for golf. After spending the winter months playing golf over the course at Biarritz, Hutchinson published another book, titled Famous Golf Links, in 1891. Also in 1891, Frederick Watts bought land near Compton in Surrey. Both Watts and his wife moved to the area and built a home and studio. In Compton, Mary Seton Watts would establish the Compton Potter Arts Guild and the Compton Arts and Crafts Guild. It is likely that Hutchinson would have spent some time here with the couple before Watts’ death in July of 1904.

In 1892, Hutchinson would create his most celebrated course at Royal West Norfolk, in collaboration with local amateur Holcombe Ingleby. Proud of the work completed he observed “its distinguished features are the absence of artificiality and the great variety to be found in the holes.” In 1897, Hutchinson would become first golf editor of the new periodical Country Life magazine, based in London. From this position, Hutchinson would help dictate the next two decades of golf course architecture in Britain. The magazine covered the pleasures and joys of rural life, and enticed Britain’s growing urban middle class with visions of a better life. As a contributing editor of the weekly golf column On the Green, Hutchinson hand selected those he respected to contribute. Hutchinson brought on Scotsman AJ Robertson, a talented writer and former editor of Golf Illustrated and a young Bernard Darwin from the Evening Standard. Further, Hutchinson invited numerous talents to contribute, including architects Herbert Fowler and Harry Colt, greenkeeper Peter Lees, and top players like JH Taylor and James Braid. While Hutchinson provided articles on all aspects of the game, he used his literary soapbox to publicise the works of the emerging naturalistic golf course designers and generally promoted his vision of golf course architecture.

In 1898, Hutchinson was instrumental in establishing The Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society. Hutchinson served as the Society’s first president, and was joined by friend John Low as captain, Arthur Croome as secretary, and HS Colt as a committee member. Bernard Darwin played in the first match following the Society’s establishment. Members qualify by virtue of their participation in the University Golf Match, a tradition which pre-dated the Society with the first match played in 1878 at Wimbledon Common. These relationships, formed between Hutchinson and the other members of the Society, have been largely taken for granted in the history of golf course architecture. Hutchinson’s playing history, social status, and role with Country Life magazine would have commanded great respect. Moreover, the impacts that Low, Colt and Darwin would have on golf architecture in the 1900s cannot be understated. 

Hutchinson’s influence is further exemplified through his relationship with Old Tom Morris, which was cultivated during his playing years as an amateur. Hutchinson’s unorthodox playing style reminded the Grand Old Man of his lost son. As such, Hutchinson was deeply connected to the Old Course at St Andrews and was made the first English captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in 1908. Similarly, Hutchinson’s friend John Low had served on the R&A Committee on the Rules since its formation in 1897, becoming chairman in 1913 and continuing in that role until his retirement in 1921. Interestingly, Hutchinson’s comments about artificiality and variety in design, regarding his work at Royal West Norfolk (1892), are soon echoed by Willie Park Junior in 1896 with his book The Game of Golf. This book serves as the first writing from a professional golfer on golf course architecture in a chapter titled Laying Out and Keeping Golf Links. It is probably not by coincidence that the title of Park’s chapter is very similar to that of the article penned by Hutchinson in 1889 for The Golfing Annual! Further, Park’s ideas would be extended by John Low in his book Concerning Golf, published in 1903. Again, for Low, a lack of artificiality and variety in the design are key. Low’s book remains the clearest expostulation of the principles of strategic golf design, as well as highlighting the importance of the Old Course at St Andrews. Hutchinson’s influence on the evolution of golf course architecture in the 1890s is significant, and it is most likely that his time immersed in the shifting artistic community of London in 1900 played a major role in his ideas on design.

This article first appeared in Issue 46 of Golf Course Architecture

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