The Elizabethan Period
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE great uplifting movement of the Renaissance which, as shown in the preceding chapter, made its first appearance in this country during the first half of the 16th century, reached its full height in the Elizabethan period. To understand the type of room evolved during that period it is only necessary to realise the great spirit of life, the enthusiasm for learning, and the vigorous efforts to shake off superstitious ignorance, which formed the spirit of renaissance and carried everything with it.
The deeply rooted Gothic domination had gradually lost its influence, and with its decline all the traditional customs of the Middle Ages died away. We have seen how, during the reign of Henry VIII, the early Renaissance had not become, in any true sense, an established style, but was simply the application of a few copied motifs which reached here through the increased intercommunication with foreign countries and the presence of Italian craftsmen in this country employed by Henry VIII. These ideas obtained a firm footing during the Elizabethan period. In the hands of the craftsmen who, with wonderful ingenuity, fashioned them according to their own national ideas, they developed into a new style. Although the building experience of the previous decades, dominated as it was by the Gothic tradition, naturally formed the foundation on which the Renaissance spirit in this country was modelled, it was but a shadow of its former glory, and was to gradually pass away completely.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Elizabethan work was the extraordinary vigour it displayed, not only in the character of its carving and joinery, but in the general fertile nature of its design. Practically every available space was crowded with detail of one kind or another, the whole endeavour being to produce an effect of richness and magnificence. The natural effect of this overpowering flood of ideas, teeming with the inherent life and movement of the period, combined with the introduction of unfortunately misunderstood new styles, was a vigorous but rather meaningless exuberance. The application of a debased form of the classic orders was a favourite motif, and these were altered or elaborated at the whim of the carvers, who, although showing great ingenuity and inventiveness in handling their subjects, did not understand the governing principles of the classic style. So we find a style remarkable rather for its fertility of ideas than for its basis upon correct or traditional principles.
Typical details found in the rooms of the period are arabesque strap work; conventional flowers and leaf work, usually barbarically vigorous in feeling; and repeat designs of various chain patterns and caryatid figures (often used in combination with degenerate renderings of the classic orders). Another favourite feature was the arcaded panel treated in a variety of ways. It was used sometimes in the form of an arch supported by pilasters, in other cases enclosing a perspective view of the interior of a hall, or simply as a decorative part of a design involving various decorative motifs as leaf work. In other cases double arcading was used.
The general plan of the Elizabethan house was designed on Italian lines. The hall was no longer used as a common dining-room for all classes owing to the growth of the small private dining-room, hitherto known as the winter parlour. The hall thereby lost a great deal of its importance, although in the large mansions it was still built of stately proportions, and was probably used for banquets on special occasions.
A view of the hall at the Charterhouse, London, is shown in Fig. 18, which illustrates the way in which the Elizabethan hall was treated. This hall, although of earlier date, was refitted in the second half of the 16th century, the Renaissance roof and the screen being added. The fireplace was built in 1603. The Gothic windows, however, were retained. The screen is a good example of Elizabethan work, and a close view of the details is given in Fig. 19, in which the caryatid figures mounted on pedestals, the free forms of the Ionic and Corinthian capitals, the strap work and the lion mask, all typical of the period, are clearly shown.
The increased desire for privacy which had been an all-important factor in house planning during the previous centuries, and had resulted in the building of numerous small bedrooms and withdrawing-rooms, robbed the hall of its role as a place for general and common amusement, so that the hall was now more of an entrance and state reception-room than in any sense a living-room.
Fig. 22 is characteristic of a withdrawing-room of the period, and contains many interesting features, particularly in the use of a varied scheme of panelling involving large panels subdivided into five smaller panels and double arcading. The room is partially lighted by a bay window situated in the recess shown to the left. This recess is headed by a flat-pointed arch supported by wide pilasters decorated with flutes and surmounted by semi-Ionic capitals. Enlarged details of the panelling are seen in Fig. 23 at A. B, Fig. 23, shows one of the caryatid figures carved on the stone mantelpiece, and C, one of the vases situated just above the cornice. The frieze is of plaster, and consists of a series of panels modelled with various Renaissance details, such as medal-lions, scrolls, and leaf work. The smaller panels are filled with heavy swags of fruit and leafage. This room should be compared with that at Thame Park (Fig. 1o), when the development will be at once noticeable. At Thame the panels are small and placed regularly in unbroken stretches, whilst the ceiling is plain with simple moulded ribs forming a series of squares. The whole appearance is rather one of reticence. On the other hand, at Lyme, although many of the details are derived from the same source as those at Thame, and are but a development of the same ideas with less evidence of the Gothic tradition, the whole tends to present an appearance of display and elaboration. Despite this tendency to overcrowding, Elizabethan rooms are extremely quaint and attractive, and in some respects are more picturesque than the more studied and refined rooms of the following century.
A room panelled and decorated during the Elizabethan period is illustrated in Fig. 16, and exemplifies another form of decoration practised by the Elizabethans in its inlay. The upper panels are in the form of a series of arcades subdivided by smaller arcades, while the lower portion has the favourite five-panel treatment. The outstanding feature is the inlay, which is wonderfully complex and varied. Fig. 17 shows several of the panels and portions of the frieze, from which it will be seen that they are for the greater part filled with arabesque strap and floral work designs, with occasional geometrical patterns. The whole of the inlay is cut in the solid—i.e., the groundwork of oak is cut away to a depth of about 1/8 inch, and the inlays of poplar and bog oak let in. The entrance to the room is through a small lobby built in one corner of the room, as shown in Fig. 15. Its treatment is quite different to that of the remainder of the room, and has led to the supposition that it was the final detail of the room to be erected.
Lobbies such as this were in use throughout the 16th and in the early part of the 17th century, being sometimes used to assist in the exclusion of draughts. They were also convenient when the room was approached by a small spiral newel staircase. The ceiling is quite typical of those in use at this period in smaller rooms. They were usually flat, or in some cases semi-elliptical, and were finely modelled to form designs consisting of series of moulded ribs arranged in various patterns, usually of a geometrical character. These designs, in which hanging pendants and bosses took an important place, as in the room of Sizergh Castle, were usually very intricate, and their excellence of workmanship will be better appreciated when it is realised that they were modelled in situ.
Portions of two chimney-pieces now assembled at the lodge at Kenilworth Castle are shown in Fig. 24, which presents an extremely quaint appearance. It will be noticed that the lower stone portion has lost the Gothic shaping above the fireplace opening, although the pilasters retain many Gothic features. An enlarged view of the central panel is shown in Fig. 25.
The practice of designing a number of rooms leading one into the other was in a large measure dropped during the period, and the use of long corridors or galleries became general. These were built of great length, and made access to the rooms possible without the necessity of first traversing others in order to reach them. This innovation was the cause of the elaboration of the staircases, which assumed a degree of dignity hitherto unknown. Small newel staircases became obsolete, although they were occasionally used in early Elizabethan times for the secondary staircases of houses similar to that illustrated in Fig. 26.
Although of Gothic formation, this shows an advancement in that the treads and risers consist of separate boards. The more usual form consisted of fine well or dog-legged stairs with straight flights and wide landings. Early examples of these straight stairs were constructed with solid wooden blocks built between two walls, and were often quite free of ornamentation. Fig. 27 is a good example.
Indeed, the late Tudor Gothic and the early Elizabethan periods represented the transitional period of the staircase during its change from being a tolerated necessity to becoming an important feature in the house. The whole structure became wider and more imposing in every respect, and assumed a very decorative aspect. In its construction the solid wooden blocks were discarded, and the steps were composed of separate treads and risers framed between outer strings. The treatment of balustrades was varied. Sometimes they consisted of a series of turned balusters. A number of arcadings formed by short square pillars were often fashioned into a free resemblance of the classical orders, and joined at the top with depressed arches. In later examples the whole side was filled in with thick panels pierced through and carved in the form of arabesque strap work.
Fig. 20 shows a fine staircase of the second half of the 16th century at the Charterhouse, London. The wide handrail is supported by square cut balusters in the form of pedestals surmounted by caryatides, and joined at the top with arcading. The heavy square newel capped by a finial is a feature to which the Elizabethans confined themselves almost exclusively. The arcading is continued at both sides of the stairs, that on the wall side being filled in with panels. Closer views of the details are shown in Fig. 21; the inclusion of family crests in the design (in this case a hound's head) was a common feature.
Stone staircases with straight flights were also so built although the more usual type were constructed of wood.