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The Georgian Period Of England

( Originally Published 1910 )



UNTIL the end of the Empire in France the court dominated the nation, how-ever much that may have been to its disadvantage. The kings were always Frenchmen by birth, and though often weak in statesmanship or morals, they at least were strong-willed enough to control and ingenious enough to outdo their nobles in extravagance and profligacy.

England, on the contrary, at this time suffered from the rule of the foreign Georges. These Germans were bourgeois to the finger-tips, uneducated, unrefined, without taste, and indifferent to the arts and industries of the country. How could any nation develop good taste with a court life such as this dominating the social life of the people ?

The English people, saddled as they were with a most dreadfully common court, and inoculated with the harshness of the puritanical rigidity of line which had shown itself in the Perpendicular Gothic, were nevertheless interested and influenced by this new mode of expression, the Renaissance. They had turned to the French and to the original Italian for inspiration, and these people, to say the least, were not puritanical nor were they bothered overmuch with conventions.

The English people did not get, however, all that these Latin people were capable of giving to them from the fulness of their freedom and independence. They received and assimilated only that which their peculiar temperament enabled them to comprehend, and this fact colored the translated Renaissance to such a degree that the Georgian expression is a thing distinct and apart from the work of the contemporaneous Latin races.

For a parallel we may use the Greek and the Roman as an illustration of this. The Greek classic was extremely fine, clever, and subtle in outline and proportions. It is a truism in the story of styles that this almost super-human refinement of the Greek has never been equalled except, perhaps, in the Gothic of the thirteenth century. This doubtless explains, why the numerous attempts to introduce the pure Greek classic in the modern evolution of architecture has been abortive. This high note has proved too high, too fine, and too subtle for our enjoyment and use. Few individuals even have been able to reach this supreme height in the constructive arts, so that the Greek remains a thing apart, a style to be admired, to be applied but rarely assimilated.

When Greek architecture was accepted and adopted by the Romans, who had no such keenness as the Greeks and no creative power, these subtleties were not under-stood or even discovered, and the fine laws of proportion and the delicate line of the curves disappeared. Thus the curve of an egg, a line struck with a free and clever hand, might be considered Greek, while the outline of a billiardball, which is a true curve made with a compass, is distinctly Roman.

This same difference appears again in Renaissance times, the French paralleling the Greek, and the English interpreting the French and Italian with the Roman lack of imagination.

Corroyer says, "L'architecture anglaise avec sa structure massive ornee de details, formee par des lignes verticales, rigides, seches et dures comme le fer, et l'architecture francaise, gracieuse et ferme a la fois, souple et forte comme I'or, plus solid et resistante que le fer sous I'apparence d'un art plus parfait." Freely translated, a comparison between the dryness and rigidity of iron and the flexible quality of gold as exemplified in English and French modes of architectural expression.

The New York City Hall is the most beautiful and perfect type of this English Renaissance period in America, though built at the commencement of the nineteenth century (Fig. Ioi). It is really a translation of the Italian style, by the English in England, transplanted here. It is contemporaneous with the style of Louis XVI. of France, and has precisely the same motifs, or parts, and the same classic detail. Yet if it were discovered in Versailles it would be recognized instantly as English, largely by its slight rigidity of mold profile and its lack of the distinctive French keenness.

There being no royal stimulus for the arts in England it became the habit of the people to force creation while deploring the lack of taste and refinement in their rulers. Sir Christopher Wren, who did so much for the Renaissance in England, lived well into the reign of the First George. He had continued the custom of studying Palladio and the laws of the ancient Romans, which had been established by his predecessors. That he received 8s. 4d. per day with an allowance of 46 per year for incidental expenses had no appreciable effect on his creations.

He was followed by John Gibbs, Sir John Vanburgh, Sir William Chambers, and others among the architects, and by Chippendale, Thomas Johnson, Grinling Gibbons, Sheraton, Hepplewhite, Pergolesi, and the brothers Adam among the allies. The arts of inlaying, carving, and turning, and the creation of mantels, ceilings, furniture, and all other accessories reached a high point of excellence during this period.

My Lady and My Lord were cajoled and flattered by these decorators and architects as only the hungry next class can flatter on that tight little isle. It became the mode to patronize these creative shopkeepers, and naturally the shopkeeper made the best of it. It is extremely surprising that these wonderful men were willing to bow to the class distinctions that had developed greatly at this time, and thus to accept the condescension of their intellectual inferiors. It is more amazing still that it seems to have effected no degradation in their art.

Dear old Sam Pepys had the same servile respect for a title, and so also did that great literary group—the fathers of modern English literature. We must recognize in this a marked difference in point of view between the secondary class in the Middle Ages, who fought for the free cities, and the cultivated, creative group of this period. That creation of Hopkinson Smith's, the "Mussulman " who "put off his shoes at the vestibule of the mosque, worshipped God on his face according to the code, and then, standing erect, looked God squarely in the eye, for he was a man," compels a comparison which is not to the credit of these creators of charming and beautiful things.

The great trading companies of this time brought to England styles and types of the Far East, and some of these forms had much influence on the creations of the Englishmen. Here again commercialism, or trade, shows its partnership with the arts. The arts of the Far East were borrowed and adapted in bewildering fashion until you stand breathless in admiration before the most intricate and delicate craftsmanship. Many fine examples of these pieces have been brought into this country, and may be studied in collections as well as in the Fifth Avenue shops of New York.

Louis XV. and XVI., Rococco, Baroque, Chinese, Indian, Greek, and indeed every style that had preceded them, were all fish for their basket. In this work, Anglicized and adapted from the arts of the world, these worshippers of titles have given us results that have never been equalled. This is due, without doubt, to the independent cleverness of the court lady. So we must for-give these weaknesses as we already have forgiven Pepys, Fielding, Smollet, Richardson, and old Boswell—for we love them all. This is our heritage, and as colonists we have taken both facts and fancies for ourselves.

If we were able to eliminate from our vocabulary of architectural style the word "Colonial" and substitute "Georgian" in its place, we could better adjust our point of view to the appreciation of the many wonderful examples of this English revival of the classic here and in England, accepting them as belonging to a single style, as they do (Fig. 102). The entrance colonnade to Hampton Court Palace, built by Sir Christopher Wren (1689-1694), would be considered Colonial architecture if it existed in this country, with its double columns, classic horizontal cornice with balustrades above, and the usual urn crowning the posts at the corners. Somerset House, which was built by Sir William Chambers in 1776, is an-other example of a later revival of classic reflected in our so-called Colonial. In this case the Roman Tuscan, the Doric, and the Corinthian orders, with the arches and vaults of the Italian fifteenth-century classic translation, are used.

It was during this period (in 1762) that Stuart and Revett published the result of their studies in Greece.

This work had a great influence on the expression of the time. Palladio first, the French of the Louvre and the new translation in Paris, and now the pure Greek inspiration. It is delightful to note the manner in which our English forebears accepted and adopted these examples of an expression of another time and another race, and how the brilliancy of this earlier language enamoured them to such an extent that they not only lost their heads but forgot their native domesticity; their hearts also weakened. Form and fitness dominated. The oil and water did not mix, and we have as results palaces and manor-houses in which the utilitarian yields to this desire for form.

Lord Chesterfield is impressed by this, and quotes:

"Possessed of one great house of state,
Without one room to sleep or eat,
How well you build let flattery tell,
And all mankind how ill you dwell."

The French nation, with its Gallic temperament, had conquered the expression of the earlier pagan, whereas our English predecessors yielded themselves to the seduction of extreme cleverness and merely copied.

Greek architecture in the hands of the Latin became a new style, while this same expression when used by the Anglo-Saxon remains Greek to this day.

While this Greek influence, which grew under the hands of Henry Holland, who died in 1806, and of Lord Elgin, who had pilfered the Parthenon frieze and the master-pieces of Greek sculptors in the beginning of the nineteenth century, had a certain effect on the style of the English, it did hot become part and parcel of the national architecture. It did, however, carry through with its peculiar aloofness into our own country, where it colors towns and cities alike. Here it is frequently called "Colonial," though the colonies had already given birth to the nation when the Greek invasion took place. As a peculiar illustration, the architecture of old New York is essentially Greek today. The houses of Washington Square, of Gramercy Park, in the neighborhood of the Battery, in the quarter where St. John's Park formerly stood, and indeed most of the work which remains to us from the time which precedes the Civil War, are Greek, still pure as the architects copied it, and not in any sense evolutional. The Greeks had taken Holland.

On the other hand, to return to our English Georgian, this Greek influence was opposed by such men as the great English architect Sir William Chambers, who continued the study of the Italian worthies, Palladio and Vignola, and influenced the growth and adjustment of the Roman classic throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century to such an extent that the work of Jones and Wren, with his own creations, became firmly rooted in English soil.

This is Georgian, the efforts of these three great men and their associates, and the end of constructive architecture in England for many a day.

The Third George lost the American colonies because of his stupidity and stubbornness. Then the ogre Napoleon isolated the tight little island to such an extent that all impetus in the arts died out. England was compelled, because of this isolation, to live, like the bear in winter, off her own fat, and, like the bear in the spring, she came out lean and lank without inspiration or impetus.

Beginning in the nineteenth century with the Victorian Gothic revival, which was without reason or logic and therefore ineffective, and with what has been called "Victorian Classic," we have the black-haircloth period, the memory of which is still with us. This oddly parallels an artistic retrogression in other countries.

William Morris and the brilliant group of artists associated with him in the latter half of the nineteenth century, in the "pre-Raphaelite" movement, were directly responsible for the disappearance of the marble-topped black-walnut table and the slippery black-haircloth sofa with all their attending horrors. They studied the arts and literature of Italy, and applied their discoveries with splendid effect. Gilbert and Sullivan, who gave us the immortal "Pinafore" and "The Mikado," belonged to the group of men in this movement. Though they did not deal directly with problems of esthetics, their works had a marvellously wholesome effect on the life of the nation. That the influence of the strong man Morris and his associates is lasting there can be no question when we turn from the horrors of wax flowers and immortelles in hair to the Morris recognition of truth in constructive art.

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