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The Early Georgian Period

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



1720-1750

TOWARDS the end of the first quarter of the 18th century the Renaissance style, as thoroughly nationalised by Wren, began to decline in favour of a more purely Italian classical style. As shown in the last chapter, Wren differed chiefly from Inigo Jones in that his work bore a far more homely character. With the opening of the century he was still the leading architect from whom the lesser designers took their pattern. He died in 1723, but before his death his influence had declined, and popular fashion reverted to the colder and more formal style favoured by Jones.

The reversion was probably not so much due to any remaining influence of Jones, as to the rising fashion for people to whom building was of immediate interest to travel abroad. They learnt for themselves the origin whence the Renaissance had come, and the stately, spacious style they found appealed irresistibly to the age. It demanded all that was elegant, magnificent, and pompous at no matter what sacrifice of comfort. Noble-men required splendid houses, and the number of smaller houses suited to the purses of the country squires and the well-to-do commercial classes increased steadily. Private individuals became versed in the principles of classic architecture, and their acquaintanceship with the Italian buildings caused a reaction in favour of the style set by Inigo Jones in the previous century, which lent itself readily to the fashionable ideas of the times.

Many of the architects during the second half of the 17th century had never been abroad, and had absorbed their ideas of the Renaissance from men like Jones and Pratt. It was natural that with their ideas thus limited they should retain a good deal of what was traditionally English. Wren, although his work owed its origin to Italy, adapted the style to suit our colder climate, and gave to his interiors a far greater sense of homeliness than had been customary with Jones. In the first half of the 18th century all the leading architects, or at any rate all the fashionable architects, travelled abroad, and came back inspired with ideas purely Italian in feeling.

The result of the rage for the Italian ideal was a great increase in the proportions of the rooms. The hall enjoyed a period of importance, and although it was essentially an entrance place and in no sense a living-room, it was the subject of the most elaborate treatment. In many cases it assumed a degree of spaciousness and immensity that remind one of a Roman palace. The great height to which it was built often caused the addition of a gallery. It became customary to build the ground-floor, in which the hall was situated, somewhat above the level of the ground, the outer entrance being approached by a flight of steps. The basement below was used for the kitchens and other offices.

The palatial type of interior gained in popularity as the century advanced, and another result was in the arrangement of the rooms. They were placed to lead one into the other, so that when the doors were opened a view throughout the whole length was obtained, thus giving an increased impression of spaciousness. Statuary was made considerable use of, and still further added to the resemblance to an Italian palace. Wealthy people when travelling abroad made a point of collecting statuary and other works of art specially for the purpose of using them for the decoration of their English houses. It was the age of studied magnificence. Artists and craftsmen of all nationalities were employed to obtain the finest and most elaborate effect. In this sense it was a golden age for the interiors in that the finest work of the most skilled men was demanded, but it lacked the exalted genius of Inigo Jones or Wren, who realised that extravagance of decoration was not vital to beauty. The "whole tendency was rather towards the theatrical.

The century was remarkable for the number of designers working in the Italian Renaissance style, but all more or less displaying individuality in their treatment. The greatest exponent of the palatial interior was probably Sir John Vanbrugh, who, although possibly the most famous of the earlier 18th-century architects, did not attract a school in the same way that Jones and Wren had done. His ideal was to produce an atmosphere of dignity and magnificence, and he obtained it by magnitude and vastness of proportion. His work well reflects the national temperament at the period. Stone, marble, or plaster were the materials chiefly used in the rooms, and the wood panelling which in Wren's time had been revived was very little in evidence. In cases where its use was called for it was generally painted.

A very striking example of Vanbrugh's work is the hall at Castle Howard, Yorkshire, shown in Fig. 72, and serves to illustrate the princely style of building which he carried out. The dome is supported by four immense piers faced with composite pilasters and bridged by semi-circular arches. Above the piers are large mural paintings. A balcony is built immediately facing the entrance, the balustrading of which takes the form of finely executed ironwork. The mantelpiece is remarkable in itself, positioned as it is beneath the large arch. It shows very strong French influence in its design. The statuary with which the hall is embellished emphasises the stately and grand atmosphere of the whole.

One of the most fashionable designers was William Kent, who had a patron in the Earl of Burlington. He was a man of remarkable versatility, and was as notable for his mural paintings as for his powers as a designer of interior work generally. He was often employed as a painter in houses being decorated under the supervision of other architects, although he was hardly an accomplished master. In his interiors, however, he showed undoubted ability. He travelled abroad considerably, and collected many pieces of sculpture and antiques which were used in the interiors he designed for his clients. To such a height did the rage for the collection of sculpture reach that in some of the larger mansions special galleries were built in which to display it. Fig. 73, known as the sculpture gallery at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, is an example. It was designed by Kent, and exhibits a typical feature in the cove at the far end. The walls are comparatively plain, and have a series of niches above the dado moulding for the reception of statuary. The fire-place is also designed with a niche in the overmantel, surrounded by a carved architrave, and capped by a broken pediment.

Gibbs was employed as a designer in a great number of houses. He followed the trend of general fashion in its demand for magnificence. His work was not of the same gigantic proportions as that of Vanbrugh, and in the treatment of his rooms followed closely what he considered the correct proportions for them as established by the classic precedent.

The drawing-room at Ditchley, Oxfordshire (Fig. 74), is a particularly fine room of his design. The walls are decorated with a series of pictures contained in panels. The latter are formed by carved mouldings broken at the corners and decorated at the headings with human masks and swags and pendants of flower and leaf work. The doors are of mahogany, and have raised panels and carved architraves. One of the headings, with its scrolled acanthus leafage and the egg and tongue enrichment, is shown at A, Fig. 75. At B the heading to one of the panels is shown. The centre portion is occupied by swags of oak leaves and the portion outside the break by a grotesque mask. The marble mantelpiece is of fine workmanship, the upper portion of which takes the form of two pilasters capped by a broken pediment. These are decorated with human masks, shown more clearly at C, Fig. 75. D shows the detail above the picture. The painter's art was made considerable use of during the 18th century, and framed pictures, as in the previous periods, often formed an integral part of the design, as in the room at Ditchley.

An example of a smaller room is given in Fig. 76, and is from Hatton Garden (now removed to South Kensington Museum). The walls are panelled with pine, and, as was customary with all panelled work of the period, were originally painted. The overmantel and the walls immediately adjacent have coved niches, the latter having originally had mahogany doors. The carved moulding around the overmantel niche is broken at the sides near the top, and has shaped corners. The cornice and frieze are supported by brackets carved in the form of human masks. These are shown in Fig. 77, at A, in which can also be seen the carved cornice and the bevelled panels at the sides. Below, B, is the heavily carved heading of the doorway. Doorways were invariably made important features in the 18th century rooms.

Other prominent names occurring in connection with interior decoration are Abraham Swan and Izaac Ware, who enjoyed a period of activity and produced a good many schemes for the treatment of the smaller houses. Campbell and Morris were also notable designers of the period.

The chief tendency in staircase construction during the 18th century was one of lightness. The newels were made of much smaller proportions, and on the upper landings were sometimes completely omitted. The balustrades consisted of turned balusters of fairly stout proportions to take the extra strain imposed by the smaller or non-existent newels. In order to bring the hand-rail up to the correct level in each succeeding flight, the ends were ramped—i.e., they were curved upwards at the upper ends, as shown in Fig. 78.

A useful comparison may be made between this stair-case, dating from the first half of the 18th century, and that at Thorney Abbey House (Fig. 58), which belongs to the preceding century. In the latter, the lower square newel is quite heavy, and is finished at the top with a finial. The landing newel is practically a repeat of the lower one, and the hand-rail is mortised into it. The carriage pieces are heavy and square, and a flat soffit is formed under the stairs. In Fig. 78 the newels are quite slight, and take the form of small composite pillars, upon the tops of which the hand-rail is mounted. There is no square carriage piece at the side, but the stair nosings are returned with scrolled brackets beneath. The con-tour of the brackets is returned under the steps in place of the flat soffit. The fine sweep of the hand-rail at the foot also shows a development from the earlier staircase in which the newel forms the lower termination. Further details of the Bath staircase are given in Fig. 79 at A. At C the carved brackets and balusters of another contemporary staircase are shown.

The use of stone in place of wood for staircase work was considerably increased during the century. Stone staircases usually had wrought-iron balustrades, worked in the manner introduced by Jean Tijou in the previous century.



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