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English Renaissance - Architectural Character

( Originally Published 1921 )

We have already studied the general architectural character of Renaissance in Europe (p. 542), and traced its gradual adoption in different countries to suit different nationalities. From Italy, where it had its origin about A.D. 1400, the Renaissance movement travelled to the sister Latin country of France ; to Germany, which, through the universities, welcomed the new movement ; to the Netherlands, and to Spain. Not until a century after its birth in Florence did it make its first appearance in England in the famous Tomb of Henry VII (A.D. 1512–18), and that was only a tentative display of a style which afterwards secured a firm footing, as suitable for the magnificent country mansions and stately town houses of the substantial professional and trading families which were rapidly forming England's new nobility.

The architectural character of Early and Late Renaissance will now be traced through successive periods, displaying a more or less persistent continuity of style with variety in detail, and the reader is referred to the Comparative Analysis (p. 749) for the characteristic features in each period.


Elizabethan Architecture. — The reign of Elizabeth (A.D. 1558–1609) witnessed the establishment of the Renaissance style in England. Elizabethan architecture, which followed the Tudor, was a transition style with Gothic features and Renaissance detail, and in this respect it bears the same relation to fully developed English Renaissance as the style of Francis I does to fully developed French Renaissance. The zeal for church building in the Middle Ages in England had provided churches which remained sufficient for popular needs, and thus Elizabethan architecture was secular rather than ecclesiastical in its nature, and was the outcome of the needs of a time when powerful statesmen, successful merchants, and the enriched gentry required mansions suitable to their new position, and they were built in England, as in France, mainly in the country, in contrast to the churches and palaces of the cities in Italy. These great houses throughout the English country-side displayed many new combinations of features. Externally towers, gables, parapets, balustrades, and chimney-stacks produced an effective skyline, and walls were enlivened by oriel and bay-windows with mullions and transoms (p. 700), while internally the same style, applied to fittings, furniture, and decoration, made for repose, dignity, and uniformity (p. 761). Elizabethan mansions were set in a framework of formal gardens in which forecourts, terraces, lakes, fountains, and yew hedges of topiary work all combined to make of the house and its surroundings one complete and harmonious scheme (P. 695).

Jacobean Architecture.—The architecture of the reign of James I (A.D. 1603–25) inherited Elizabethan traditions ; but as Roman literature and models became better known, a subtle change crept in, and the sober regularity of Classic columns and entablatures gradually supplanted the quaint irregularity of Elizabethan architecture, although the main lines of the design were much the same in both periods (p. 705). Buildings still continued to be for domestic rather than for religious use, and thus the style developed along lines suited to popular needs, with considerable latitude in detail and ornament, not only for buildings, but also for fittings and furniture, which now became more abundant in quantity and more decorative in quality, and was supplied both for mansions and churches (p. 761). As in the Elizabethan period, it is in the screens, pulpits, and monuments, which were freely added to Mediaeval churches, that Jacobean art found its outlet in ecclesiastical architecture, and much of the human interest of English Gothic churches is due to the historical continuity supplied by these Jacobean monuments (p. 758).


Anglo-Classic Architecture.—The term " Anglo-Classic " is used for the architecture of Charles I (A.D. 1625–49), the Commonwealth (A.D. 1649–60), Charles II (A.D. 1660–85), James II (A.D. 1685–89), and William and Mary (A.D. 1689-1702).

In England, as in other countries, and more especially in Italy, its parent country, the character of Renaissance architecture was chiefly determined, not by national traditions and developments, but by the personality and training of individual architects, and naturally the greater their genius, the greater was their influence, not on architecture alone, but on the men who surrounded them, and even on those who came after them. As in Italy, Michelangelo and Palladio dominated the host of artists, so it was in England with Inigo Jones and Wren. For this reason it is necessary to conceive all these men, not as architects merely who carried out schemes to meet the needs of others, but as men of genius bent on carrying out their own ideas in design.

Inigo Jones (A.D. 1573–1652), by his dominating personality and genius, was responsible for the remarkable change which now took place, and which amounted almost to an architectural revolution. His prolonged studies in Italy, more especially of the works of Palladio, caused him to shake himself free from the transition style of the preceding period. Thus it came about that the character of the Late Renaissance in England was largely moulded by the dogmatic restrictions imposed by the precepts of Palladio, which were adopted and practised by his English disciple ; but as the Commonwealth proved to be an interregnum in architecture as in government, some of the cherished designs of Inigo Jones were never carried to completion. His principal buildings are mentioned on p. 715.

Sir Christopher Wren (A.D. 1632-1723) was the second great architectural personality of this period. Scholar, mathematician, and astronomer, his early scientific training developed his constructive power, and largely counterbalanced his lack of early architectural training ; for he did not - start the study and practice of architecture until somewhat late in life, when in A.D. 1662 he became assistant in His Majesty's Office of Works. As Inigo Jones had come under Italian, so Sir Christopher Wren came under French influence. He was in Paris in A.D. 1665, when the Palais du Louvre was in course of extension, and he then became associated with the group of architects and artists, such as Bernini, Mansard, and others, attached to the court of Louis XIV, and he studied Renaissance buildings not only in Paris, but also in the surrounding country. As he never visited Italy, the force of this French influence was further accentuated, and, moreover, his royal patron, Charles II, had been an exile at the French court, and had there imbibed similar ideas. The destructive ravages of the Great Fire of London (A.D. 1666) offered Wren an immediate opportunity for practising his art on a grand scale in the rebuilding of S. Paul's and the city churches, although he was not allowed to exercise his genius by executing his plan for the rebuilding of the City of London. Wren, apart from the palaces at Hampton Court (p. 726) and Greenwich (p. 726), was called upon for the most part to design the smaller yet commodious dwelling-houses of the middle classes, who now formed an integral part of the social life of England ; but here a new note is struck with the advent of Dutch influence under William of Orange, when brickwork gave a special character to the architecture. Wren had, in an unusual degree, the power of adapting his designs so as to secure the best results from the financial means at his disposal, and, as Opie has said, his designs are mixed with brains " ; for he produced his effects, not by expensive elaboration, but by careful proportion of the various parts, by concentration of ornament in the most telling position, or by one outstanding feature in the design. His buildings, too, owe much of their character to the use of Port-land stone, which proved to have such good weathering properties ; while in his domestic buildings, and some of his city churches, he made an effective use of brick with stone dressings, as at Hampton Court and S. Benet, Paul's Wharf, London. Whether in the graded greys of quarried stone or in the warm reds of hand-made bricks, Wren's buildings seem native to the site for which they were designed, and his influence has permeated all subsequent architecture in England. His principal buildings are referred to later (p. 719), and the illustration (pp. 727–728) gives a good idea of the types of buildings which he designed.

Georgian Architecture.—Under this title is classed the architecture of the reigns of Anne (A.D. 1702–14), George I (A.D. 1714–27), George II (A.D. 1727-60), George III (A.D. 1760–1820), George IV (A.D. 1820–30).

Many pupils and followers of Inigo Jones and Wren, some of whose chief buildings and designs we shall describe, were, like most Renaissance architects of all countries, men of general culture and many-sided in their artistic activities, and this is indicated in the short notices which follow.

Sir John Vanbrugh (A.D. 1664–1726) was a writer of dramas as well as designer of palaces, besides being a military officer, a wit, and a courtier, who became Controller of the Royal Works, and who even attempted a theatre on a monumental scale for his own plays. Nicholas Hawksmoor (A.D. 1666–1763) held government appointments, and was clerk of the works at Kensington Palace and Greenwich Hospital. James Gibbs (A.D. 1683–1754), besides enjoying a considerable practice at the Universities, published his architectural designs in book form. William Kent (A.D. 1684–1748) collaborated with his patron, the Earl of Burlington, whom he had met in Rome, and he was described by Horace Walpole as a " painter, architect, and the father of modern gardens." George Dance (A.D. 1700–68) designed many city buildings while architect to the City of London ; and his better-known son (A.D. 1741–1825), who succeeded him in that post, became a foundation member of the Royal Academy. Robert Wood, by his books on the ruins of Palmyra and Baalbek (A.D. 1753–57), created a taste for Roman grandeur. This was put into practice when John Wood (A.D. 1704–64), of Bath, with his son (A.D. 1727–82), replanned the city of Bath and laid out its noble Crescent and stately Circus. Robert Adam (A.D. 1728–92) published his work on "Diocletian's Palace at Spalatro " which had a marked influence on subsequent architecture ; while the Brothers Adam did not design on the grand scale only, but are also known throughout the world for their decorative work in chimney-pieces, ceilings, and furniture generally. Sir William Chambers (A.D. 1726–96) had the distinction of being the first Treasurer of the Royal Academy, while his " Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture " is still a guide for architects, especially as regards the proportions of the Orders (pp. 756, 757). He still adhered to the Anglo-Palladian traditions during the Greek Revival, and his work is correct and refined. The influence of his travels in the East is seen in the Chinese Pagoda, Kew, and is recorded in his book of " Designs for Chinese Buildings," and in his " Dissertation on Oriental Gardening " ; while he shares the honours with Chippendale of adapting Chinese forms to decorative furniture. Sir John Soane (A.D. 1753–1837), a pupil of the younger Dance, studied in Italy, and was a pioneer of the Classic Revival, of which the Bank of England is an outstanding example. He made the famous collection of models, casts, drawings, and fragments of ancient architecture in his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, all of which he left to the nation as a museum.

Among architects of less note are the following : William Talman (d. A.D. 1715) ; Colin Campbell (d. A.D. 1734), compiler of the " Vitruvius Britannicus," which contains the plans of many houses ; Thomas Archer (d. A.D. 1743), a pupil of Vanbrugh ; Isaac Ware (d. A.D. 1766), the author of " A Complete Body of Architecture " ; Henry Holland (A.D. 1740–1806) ; James Gandon (A.D. 1742–1823), a pupil of Sir William Chambers. James Wyatt (A.D. 1748–1813), who studied in Rome, was responsible for so much destruction of Renaissance work in cathedrals that Pugin dubbed him " the Destroyer " ; while the spurious Gothic which he inserted reflects his lack of understanding of the true principles of Gothic architecture.

The evolution of a purely English type of dwelling-house from the formal Anglo-Classic was now effected. English architecture, however, which during this period was still chiefly civic and domestic, reveals the influence of Italy, and was frequently the product of the rules and precepts of Italian architects, and the Orders were generally introduced into the design. This was fostered by the publication, early in the century, of " Ingo Jones' Designs " by Kent, and " The Architecture of Andrea Palladio," with notes of I. Jones, by Leoni in A.D. 1742, and " Antiquities of Rome," which had been first published at Venice in A.D. 1554, sarcastically referred to by Pope :

" You show us Rome was glorious, not profuse,
And pompous buildings once were things of use,
Yet shall, my Lord, your just, your noble rules,
Fill half the land with imitating fools ;
Who random drawings from your sheets shall take,
And of one beauty many blunders make ;
Load some vain church with old theatric state,
Turn arcs of triumph to a garden gate ; "

A rage for symmetry and for ornate exteriors too often dominated the design, regardless of internal comfort and convenience, especially in the larger mansions, and this phase of building design was also satirised by Pope :

"'tis very fine,
But where d'ye sleep, or where d'ye dine ?
I find by all you have been telling,
That 'tis a house, but not a dwelling."

Lord Chesterfield, too, is quoted as advising General Wade to take a lodging opposite to the Palladian mansion designed for him by Lord Burlington, seeing that he liked nothing about it but the facade. The character of these Georgian houses mainly depends upon the influence of Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren. The smaller houses of the simple block plan derived from the type seen in the Queen's House, Greenwich, and Chevening, and the larger mansions, with their pediments and porticoes and symmetrically disposed wings, were founded upon the country mansions designed by Palladio which Inigo Jones introduced into England, and thus broke away from the Mediaeval tradition in house-planning, which had hitherto continued in use. The architecture of this period also owes much of its interest to the new types of building—public, civic, commercial, and governmental—erected to satisfy the increasing needs of the community.

The Baroque style.—We cannot dismiss late Renaissance in England without a reference to the Baroque style, which had its birth in Rome (p. 545) and later appeared in England as in other countries. It is natural that in penetrating to our island shores it should have suffered a sea change, and also that, like preceding styles, it should have been modified by our sterner national characteristics. England had not been tyrannised over by Inigo Jones and his school to anything like the same extent as Italy had been by Palladio and the Schoolmen, and so there was not the same reason for revolt. Although evidences of the Baroque spirit are not wanting in the later buildings of Sir Christopher Wren, it is safe to say that English conditions were not favourable to its full development, nor did the Jesuits gain a strong footing and build many churches in the Baroque style in our Protestant country. It is, moreover, worthy of note that, when the Baroque movement would naturally have been at its highest development in England, its adoption was largely arrested by the taste of William III, who was not only a Protestant, but also a Dutchman, and we have already seen that it had not been acceptable in his native country. The Baroque tendency appeared even as early as in the porch of S. Mary, Oxford (p. 719), with its twisted columns and broken pediment, and in the York Water-Gate, London (p. 712 c), by Inigo Jones, and later in some of Sir Christopher Wren's designs, while some of his pupils and followers, Hawksmoor, Gibbs, and Vanbrugh, also favoured the new mode. The Baroque, striving after freedom in design and novelty of treatment, had, however, fuller play in small decorative features, such as altar-pieces, marble fonts, mural tablets, organ cases, and sepulchral monuments in churches throughout the country. The principal buildings of the Georgian period are mentioned on p. 733.

Modern architecture is considered later.

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