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Renaissance In England

( Originally Published 1920 )

Our first glimpse of Renaissance art we owe to Italianised ecclesiastics. Traces of their influence, chiefly in the way of wood carvings, are to be found associated with the reigns of Henry VII. and Henry VIII. Indeed, the latter, before he broke with Rome, delighted to call foreign artists to his Court. Soon, however, politico-religious causes made intercourse with the politer parts of Europe well-nigh impossible, a state of affairs that lasted for many years. While, therefore, traces of the classic style are to be seen at this period curiously mingling with the Gothic, they are few and slight. Times were out of joint, and were scarcely more propitious under the youthful Edward and later his gloomy sister, Mary. With Elizabeth on the throne, clouds rolled by, once more the Tudor sun in splendour shone forth on a freely breathing, eagerly enterprising people. There was a brave show, much spending of monies by Courtiers in honour of their Peerless Mistress, while an emulation for connoisseurship in art became fashionable. We had begun even under bluff, but erudite King Hal to exploit a particular vein of native literature and art; under his daughter while this was fostered, we also sought some of our learning .in perusing French renderings of the classics, and derived some of our art ideas from the Flemings and Dutch. Now, the Renaissance came slow footed to the Low Country, deprived of some of the brightness, of some of the wayward naughtiness as regards decoration, slightly coarsened by its passage through Germany. In the Low Country it was a matter of adaptation rather than of adoption, and when it was imported thence to our shores the formalism of classic lines had been softened, rounded, made somewhat more homely by a fruitful union with the Burgundian Gothic of those regions. It shaped the Elizabethan, and much more the Jacobean style, in which the Gothic and Classic are made to blend with a brick and mortar symbolisation of a new era, ushering in the rise of the yeomanry and petty gentry, above all of the merchant classes. Feudal-ism was departing, and a novel sense of ease dawning. It was the age of the comfortable Manor Houses and solid, not unhandsome town dwellings of the successful men of commerce. Often timber roofing gave place to boarded ceiling, carved wood ceilings, and those characteristic plaster ceilings, seen at their best under the last of the Tudors and the first of the Stuarts.

During this period, if decoration included classic lines and geometrical designs, the feeling expressed was native. We have squares, octagons and diamonds and scrolling, all common enough on the Continent, but with us the arrangement of pattern, the strap-work, and more particularly the marked introduction of heraldic devices—whether we have full coats of arms, or badges, crests, mottoes, cris-de-gruerre—was thoroughly English. Even Celtic knotwork was acclimatised by being broadened, made more open and less involved, and almost invariably (though not always) deprived of those queer terminals, the reptilian claws and tails caught in elongated half bird-like, half snake-like jaws, which was so distinctive a feature of the whole school of knotwork, represented by Runic cross carvings and the illuminations of the " Book of Kells " and other manuscripts.

With the advent of the Stuarts travel became more easy to Englishmen, and once more direct communication with Italy was opened up. While James was a pedant, he was a discriminating Mæcenas. He was not slow in appreciating the genius of Inigo Jones, the former carpenter apprentice, whom William, third Earl of Pembroke had sent to Italy in order to perfect his skill as a designer and to give play to his innate taste for ornate gardening. Jones had made the best use of his opportunities while travelling about the peninsula and specially the facilities that his entrée at the Vatican afforded him.

We can still study his small quarto sketch-book filled with minute notes and pen and ink drawings, showing how closely he studied the work of the classic period and the revival. At the Court of James as designer of scenery and machinery for Ben Johnson's masques, no doubt he had opportunities of displaying his admiration for Palladio and his whole-hearted adherence to severe laws of proportion. That ordered style with its suggestion of power and majesty appealed to James, who made his protégé first Surveyor to Prince Henry and then Surveyor General of Works. In both capacities he did much worthy service restoring and adding to Royal Palaces. His most ambitious task was the drawing up of plans for the total reconstruction of Whitehall Palace in the classic style, but the only part he actually carried out was the Banqueting Hall, which later became a Royal Chapel, and is now the United Service Institute Museum. Greatly criticised as this has been, it is - only fair to remember that what we have is merely a fragment of a huge Palace, with long water and garden fronts and seven great courts.

It is remarkable that in this as in other pieces of his work, Inigo Jones showed himself in the matter of main design a student of pure Greek forms, careful of proportions, restrained in decoration, except where sculptural pediments and statuary are concerned, but betrays a predilection for the middle Renaissance period in the matter of internal decoration. This is particularly noticeable in his treatment of ceilings. In his friezes the acanthus is developed moderately, garlands are long and slim, not paunchy swags, and the masks are those of Attic Tragedy and Comedy, not the fantastic grotesque of the post Raphael period. On the other hand his ceilings are generally coved and corridors barrel vaulted. He dispenses with deep coffers and uses flat surfaces broken up into squares, oblong and oval panels by means of broad, flat moulded bands, ornamented with rather open running plaited device. In his design for the Whitehall Chapel we see a coved ceiling with shallow coffers ornamented alternately with quatrefoils and cherubs, while at the angles garlands of oak run up a flat band. The frieze is composed of oak garlands held up by leopard's masks. Jones made good use of both military and heraldic symbols, but generally on his friezes in preference to the ceilings. The large flat ceiling of the Banqueting Hall is divided into nine panels by broad bands adorned with the open plait. There are seven oblong and two square panels. The middle and largest panel contains a great oval, formed by a frame with the plaited device. The inner edges of the panels are decorated with a bead device. These panels were specially devised to frame paintings and are filled with canvases by Rubens. In another typical example, designed for the King's House at Greenwich, Jones had a rather deeply coved ceiling with large circular framed panel, surrounded by four oblongs and four small circles. Here again the flat surface on the bands was adorned with a running open plait design, while the bevelled edges bore beading and plain voluted wave forms, the latter in happy deference to the naval character of this Royal seat. Work very similar in style by him is to be seen at Rainham, Coleshill, Ford Abbey and elsewhere. He used his plaster in rather heavy masses, but put on the decoration in continuous patterns, treating the moulded plaster to form imposing frames to pictures, not as complete works in themselves, thus differing from the early Renaissance plasterers of this country. As a result of this and the repeat type of patterns, sculpturing in situ as in early periods gave way to the practice of moulding the bands and corner devices, which were afterwards fixed in position, a method also adopted in dealing with cornices and friezes. Both in architecture and decoration Inigo Jones' influence was very great and lasting, but with the exception of his son-in-law disciple, John Webb, few worked on so solid a basis of study and with the ability to express sturdy individuality within strictly defined lines. After him the deadly tendency to formalism asserted itself. Architect and decorator appear constantly at variance, exaggerated and inappropriate ornamentation often accentuating commonplace and faulty design.

This decadence, however, was arrested for a time at first by a reversion under Puritan rule during the Commonwealth to modified forms of Gothic and Jacobean, with all attempts at decoration kept severely in abeyance, and then by the accuracy and taste of Christopher Wren. Both by temperament and training as a mathematician Wren's natural leanings were strongly in favour of classical revival in architecture. Circumstances having early thrown him in the way of putting up public buildings he soon showed what an ardent adherent he was of classic style in all its purity. At the same time he was no slavish imitator of Palladio and the other Italians, boldly daring to differ from Vitruvius himself when circumstances justified departure from prescribed rules, as St Paul's Cathedral bears witness. As a decorator he was far more florid than Inigo Jones, which is clearly seen in his deep, bold friezes and imposing ceilings. He had a love for the foliated scroll work of the early Renaissance workers. He usually employed heavy plaster or carved wood framing above the cornice and round his panels. This work is assertive, filling up a good deal of space, strongly modelled ; even his plaster work is so deeply undercut as to suggest the carver, rather than the modeller. Wren's taste was pure, how-ever, and never led him to use grotesques. Even his arabesques are few, his acanthuses, foliated scroll work, and floral forms although conventionalised are clearly based on nature, and we do not find him blending purely constructionalt motives with floral growths. Consequently there is a freedom in the flowing character of his decorations that prove a pleasant corrective to the rigidity of vertical and horizontal lines, varied by formal arch curves, of the building ornamented. By way of outlining his heavy framework, he was fond of using the rounded, rope-like garlands of bay leaves, twined round with ribbons, but though these are formal enough, the leaves are so strongly moulded that the design is quite graceful.

It must be remembered that Grinling Gibbons worked under Sir Christopher, and his carved woodwork has all the characteristics of the great architect's love of emphasis in decorative detail, and much of the middle period of Italian Renaissance exuberance. Gibbons appears to have worked much from nature, but he and his compeers introduce the conventional often effectively, often, too, with the result of suggesting heaviness. The cornucopia and long-beaded anthers in cup-shaped flowers are apt to be repeated with fatal facility by this school.

It is curious to observe that after Inigo Jones the knack of blended heraldic symbols (not only the more difficult full coat of arms, but even the most adaptable of devices) with floral and formal decorative motives, possessed in so high a degree by the Gothic and early Renaissance artists, appears to have been lost. Certainly heraldry was employed lavishly enough by later decorators, but not happily. There is always a note of incongruity about it which betrays a curious poverty of invention when we contrast the later with the earlier work.

William Kent, who is perhaps the next most conspicuous figure in our branch of art, was a capable decorator, a common place architect, and an altogether inferior painter of genre. Yet he probably painted more ceilings with inflated allegorical and historical subjects in this country than any other man with the exception of Verrio and Laguerre. As a designer he had considerable invention, though decidedly tainted by exaggeration and lack of taste. We may take a specimen ceiling which he gives in his own book, a ceiling which he designed for a private house (fig. b). It will be seen that the large oval is surrounded by heavy, rather heterogeneous decoration, in which children's heads and peacocks are jumbled wih floral arabesques. If we compare this with Inigo Jones' Greenwich ceiling (fig. a) the decadence is all too obvious. Some very characteristic work of his is to be seen at Kensington Palace. The plaster is heavy and lacks sharpness of outline. The design is generally involved. In the Presence Chamber we have a coved plaster ceiling by Wren, but decorated by arabesques in bright reds, blues and gold by Kent. Perhaps his most startling performance is the Cube room, which he both built and decorated. It has a coved ceiling with a flat top decorated with a huge star of the Garter. The coves are covered with octagon panels enclosing a large flower, and with flowers painted between the panels. At the angles are broad bands with erect full figures of nude boys and garlands running up to the flat panel. Above a strongly projecting moulded cornice is a heavy rope of bay leaves bound with ribbons and looking like an unwieldy snake. The frieze consists of voluted wave forms. A garish blue and a profusion of gilding accentuates the heaviness in an unpleasant way. It is but fair to say that this ceiling has been restored, so the assertive tone of the blue may not be the choice of Kent. At Lord Burlington's Chiswick house, Kent carried out a very similar combination ; his octagonal hall had a vaulted ceiling, with deep coffers and heavy ornamentation, the whole vividly coloured, but with full-bodied pigments, not the pure tints that gave lightness even to coarse work of the early masters.

A further downward step is noticeable with the work of the brothers Adam, who came within measurable distance of the brick box with cheap stereotyped classical ornamentation stuck on in the manner and style of pink and white cake decoration. Like Jones, Wren and Kent they preached the necessity of treating walls, doors chimneypieces, ceilings and even furniture decoratively in harmony with the architectural scheme of the building or room. The pity was that in attempting to adopt the classic style to the economical needs of the day, they degenerated into mechanical namby-pambyism. In their ceiling work they lightened the panels, employing Zucchi and others to adopt Grecian designs to modern conditions. The designs are simplified, or so arranged as to be easily moulded in their patent stucco, which could be prepared in the studio and placed in position to advantage. Sworn enemies to the glare of white, of the bold work of Jones and Wren, they adopted genteel tints (of the milky and chocolate cream order) and nice line and scroll work. In a few words it was all devoid of strength and sincerity.

The spirit in which decoration was approached at this period is well shown by Sir William Chambers, Surveyor General to George III., who, writing of Italian practice, really cites the work of the third or fourth stage of Renaissance decadence. He says : " The usual method is to gild all the ornaments and to leave the ground white, pearl, straw colour, light blue or any other tint proper to set off the gilding and ornaments to best advantage, but I have frequently seen that practice reversed with more success, by gilding the ground and leaving the foliage white, parti-coloured or streaked with gold." Practices these, which the warm-blooded Italians of the Cinquecento and earlier period would have regarded with disdain.

Richardson's large folio with coloured plates proves to what a deplorable artistic level, decoration had descended by the middle of the eighteenth century. Most of the plates represent ceilings designed by Richardson and executed by the plaster moulder, Rose. In the Court Room of the Drapers' Company the ceiling is in low relief plaster. There are three medallions and we have paintings representing Minerva introducing the Arts to Commerce, occupying the central panel, while figures emblematic of spinning and weaving the other two. The design and execution are poor, and the decorative filling between the panels is feeble. As the Company's armorial supporters are lions, and their crest a lamb, these beasts are introduced in smaller circles. But there is no feeling for heraldic art, and, indeed, the lion looks like an overfed sheep, while the lamb appears considerably fiercer than the King of the forest, which is the mark of heraldic painting of that date. The ceiling in the banqueting chamber though rather overloaded with detail is in better taste. In the middle, Apollo is shown seated in his chariot. Round this is a circle with figures representing the four seasons, and outside this another with twelve signs of the Zodiac. The whole of this occupies a central panel. On either side are three circles, the outer four containing figures of the four quarters of the globe, and the middle ones emblematic figures of Britannia and London. The figures are in stucco from designs by Joseph Nollekens, carried out by Rose and Collins. Another plate represents a design for an arched ceiling, which Richardson describes thus : " The eight pictures in the oblong panels are representative of the funeral games instituted by Achilles, in honour of Patrocles : the Chariot Race, the Fight of the Coestus, the Wrestling, the Foot Race, the Single Combat, the Discus, the shooting with arrows, and darting the Javelin, as described in Homer's Iliad. The three circular pictures exhibit Achilles offering a libation at the departure of Patrocles for his success and safe return from the field of battle. Thetis hearing the lamentations of her son, for the loss of Patrocles, comes with her Nymphs to comfort him, and to funeral fear. In the four smaller circles are emblematical representations of Honour, Immortality, Magnanimity, and heroic Virtue." A much better conception was the ceiling of the Grecian Hall at Kedleston, the seat of Lord Scarsdale. Richard-son says : " As there are a great many paintings in chiaroscuro from the antique and from Homer's Iliad, on the walls of the Hall, it was judged improper to introduce any historical pictures in the ceiling ; Grecian trophies of stucco are therefore adopted, as proper accompaniments to the pictures in the Hall." The stucco decorations were by Rose. In all these ceilings by Richardson the colours are poor : we have pale greenish blue borders, creams, pale mauve and pink, while the paintings are carried out in very high colours, which gives quite a " penny plain and twopence coloured " impression.

English Renaissance - Architectural Character
English Renaissance - Influences on Architecture
English Renaissance


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