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The Wren Period

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



1660-1720

THE restoration of Charles II brought with it a great impetus to building operations in England. Although the civil war had ended shortly before the middle of the 17th century, there was but little to attract the wealthy to build private mansions during the Common-wealth. There certainly were a few important country homes erected—as, for instance, Coleshill House, Berkshire —but it was not until the reaction in public feeling, brought about by the restoration of the monarchy, that building was carried on normally. Inigo Jones, who had died in 1652, left behind him two faithful followers—namely John Webb and Roger Pratt. Both men continued the Italian Renaissance style as introduced by Jones. Another designer who carried out a considerable amount of work after the Commonwealth was Hugh May. He took the works of Ingo Jones as his precept. His interiors were usually rich in decorative detail, and, like Webb, he made considerable use of woodwork in his schemes.

The Jones School, however, was eclipsed soon after Charles II ascended the throne by the powerful influence of Wren. Just as Inigo Jones had dominated the advanced work of the first half of the century, so Wren's was the guiding hand that steered the architectural ship towards the end of the century. His chief energies were directed to the building of churches and public buildings, and his connection with the interior work of private mansions was very limited. Indeed, there is no concrete assurance that he carried out the building of any country mansion. There are several houses in which he is presumed to have worked, but the term "Wren" is usually applied to work carried out in his style, even when the actual design was evolved by a contemporary architect.

Wren's position in the architectural world was rather peculiar. He was openly depreciated and secretly acknowledged as a great leader. In his earlier years he had shown a leaning towards scientific pursuits, and at an early age had won honours in scientific subjects. It was perhaps natural that the older and purely professional architects should be jealous that the young man who had been trained in any subject but architecture should step right into the foreground. That he held a strong influential position at the Court is proved by the amount of important work entrusted to him by Charles II.

His work had a strong individual character, and, like Inigo Jones, he was not merely a copyist of the Italian Renaissance. In many respects his opportunities were far greater than those of Jones, who had founded a school during one of the most troublesome times in England. The peaceful condition of the country, combined with the great fire of London in 1666, gave him just the chance to exercise his gifts. Again, by the time Wren was working as a designer, the educated and advanced style introduced by Inigo Jones had become more universally appreciated. Jones had found the English work curiously mixed in style and ignorant in its application, and his early work stood quite apart from anything that had ever been done in England before. It paved the way for Wren, who lived in an age of greater discernment. Jones and Webb from 162o onwards had given new and refined ideas of appreciation, so that Wren's designs, although thoroughly individual, were not such a marked departure from those of his contemporaries.

His system of house-planning was much the same as that instituted by Jones. The hall remained as. the entrance place, and in many cases the main staircase was built in it. He shared Webb's appreciation of the value of wood panelling for his rooms. When compared with Jones, his work exhibits a far greater feeling of homeliness. The panels were large in proportion, and were framed in wide projecting mouldings, as, for instance, in the saloon at Belton House (Fig. 6o). They were often surmounted by a fine classical frieze and cornice, and the use of a dado was universal. The latter was fixed at the normal height of the pedestal of the classic orders, and the scheme tended towards the architectural. Doors and windows were usually framed by moulded and carved architraves and surmounted by a broken pediment. The fireplaces assumed a degree of importance, and a common feature was the use of a picture in place of the usual overmantel. In fact, the value of paintings in a room was generally recognised, and they often formed an integral part of the general decorative scheme. In some cases their use was limited to the overmantel and above the doors, while in others large pictures in uniform frames were placed in front of the large panels with which the walls were lined.

An important change came over the character of the decoration soon after the accession of Charles II. It was caused by the setting and gradual adoption of a new school of carving by Grinling Gibbons. Elizabethan and Jacobean carvings were vigorous, strong, and full of life, but were essentially barbarous in execution. This was a characteristic that Inigo Jones was at some pains to overcome. He realised the necessity of the carved de-tails conforming to his ideas, not only in general design, but also in feeling. The keynote of his work was a feeling of impassiveness which, although not lifeless or dull, was not obtrusively bold or extravagant. The whole effect was to be imposing, stately, and dignified. Grinling Gibbons created an entirely new character. His work was extremely realistic, natural, and as candidly like its prototypes as his chisels could form it. He chose an extraordinary variety of subjects—leafage of all kinds, forms of children, game, fish, and fruit. He and his school worked in combination with Wren, May, Talman, and other designers. The most noteworthy of his designs took the form of curious combinations of leafage, flowers, game, etc., arranged in bunches, pendants, and swags. They were realistically modelled in bold relief, and stood well out from the groundwork on which they were fixed. Lime wood and pine were his favourite media.

The saloon at Belton House,, Lincolnshire, illustrated in Fig. 6o, is typical of a large room dating from towards the end of the 17th century. It shows strongly the influence of Wren, although he was probably not directly responsible for the building. The walls are panelled with oak, which is carried right up to the ceiling, and is capped by a large cornice moulding. The main panels are very wide, and have intermediate narrow panels decorated with pendants of fruit and leaf age carved in the manner of Grinling Gibbons. They are bevelled at their edges, as was customary at that period, and are surrounded by large projecting mouldings. The doors flanking the mantelpiece, with their cornices and curved pediments, are of extremely fine proportions. The overmantel exhibits a typical feature of the period in the use of the framed portraits. It is surrounded by fine carvings in the Gibbons style, which consist of dead birds, leafage, and flowers. There are two fireplaces in the saloon, that at the opposite end being similarly treated, excepting that the birds are replaced by fruit and floral work. Enlarged portions of the carved details are shown in Fig. 61.

The dining-room at Badminton House, Gloucestershire (Fig. 62), is treated in a more architectural manner than the room at Belton House, and has a series of composite pilasters supporting an entablature. The ceiling is without the fine plaster decoration with which that at Belton is embellished, and is quite flat and plain. The pictures in carved frames form a part of the wall decoration, and emphasise the atmosphere of warmth. The overmantel is treated similarly to that at Belton in the use of the portrait surrounded by carvings in Grinling Gibbons' style. The headings to the doors have also typical Gibbons carving.

An interesting comparison may be made with this room and that at Wilton (Fig. 54), which owes its origin to Inigo Jones. In both rooms pictures form an important part of the decoration, but the atmosphere of the two rooms differs. Wilton is magnificent, rich, and stately, while the Badminton room imbues one with a far greater sense of comfort and homeliness. A great deal of this feeling is no doubt due to the different materials employed, the one having plaster walls, and the other being panelled. The two architects, Jones and Wren, however, had different ideals, and the materials used represent but one of the causes which emphasise the varying impressions. Fig. 63 shows some of the details in the room at Badminton.

Hawksmoor and William Talman were contemporary architects with Wren, and to a great extent came under his influence. Fig. 64 is a fine room, which owes its origin to Talman, and is quite architectural in design. The pilasters are of the Ionic order, and support a carved entablature picked out in gilt. The comparatively plain plaster ceiling is coved at the sides and breaks forward above the mantelpiece. The latter is typical of the period with its framed picture and the mirror. Another usual feature is the ogee-shaped framing to the fireplace opening and the omission of the shelf. The latter, how-ever, was not universal. The fireplaces at Belton and Badminton both have the shelf. The capital of one of the pilasters and the carving of the frame above the mantel-piece are seen at A, Fig. 65, and the ogee-shaped architrave of the door at B.

The panelled room from Cliffords' Inn now in South Kensington Museum, and shown in Fig. 66, is an example of a smaller room of the late years of the 17th century. The usual dado moulding is introduced, and the panels are raised as in the room at Belton House, shown in Fig. 60. The overmantel takes the form of a wooden panel, surrounded by carved acanthus leafage which is centred by an heraldic device. The carved mantelshelf is shown at A, Fig. 67, in which the carved figure of a boy can be seen at the left, a common feature of the work of the period. At B, Fig. 67, is seen the heading of one of the doorways. There are four doors to the room, two having the heading shown at B, while the remaining two have broken pediments of serpentine shape and a carved cherub's head and wings in place of the acanthus carvings at the bottom of B.

The later portion of Hampton Court Palace, built during William and Mary's reign by Wren, contains many interesting features. A mantelpiece and doorway are shown in Fig. 68. The marble framing around the fire-place opening is ogee-shaped, as that at Dyrham (Fig. 64), and there is no mantelshelf. The picture above is flanked by pendants carved by Grinling Gibbons in his usual bold naturalistic manner. At A, Fig. 69, the carved cornice above the door is shown, and the remaining illustrations show the various carved mouldings in the room. The large panels above the dado are stretched with tapestry.

As mentioned in Chapter XI., the pierced panels carved with acanthus leafage, and the turned balusters, succeeded the strapwork of the Jacobean period in the balustrading of the staircases. At Tythrop House, Oxfordshire, is a splendid example constructed towards the end of the 17th century, and is shown in Fig. 70. It will be noticed that the finial which was still in evidence in the staircase at Thorny Abbey House (Fig. 58) has quite disappeared in the present example, the newel being terminated at the top by a broad capping worked in the same section as the hand-rail. The carving shows strongly the influence of Grinling Gibbons in its complex and naturalistic character. The general tendency by the beginning of the 18th century was to lighten the newel and substitute the carved panels by a series of turned balusters. The panelled balustrade, however, was always accompanied by a heavy newel. An enlarged view of the carving is given in Fig. 71.

Wren also carried out a number of staircases in stone, having balustrades of wrought-iron work.

Jean Tijou was chiefly responsible for the introduction of fine ironwork during his stay in this country, in the reign of William and Mary. A wooden hand-rail was fixed above the metal balustrading.



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