INIGO JONES AND CHRISTOPHER WREN – THE TWO GREAT ENGLISH ARCHITECTSCategory: Architecture + Painting
The seventeenth century opened with a continuance of the hybrid styles of the previous periods. This style, in its most traditional manifestations labelled “King Jamie’s Gothic”, attempted — not without success — the impossible task of making the best- of both worlds. Its results may be seen mostly in large private houses.
Then an architect worthy of the name appeared in the person of Inigo Jones (1573—1652). He had visited Italy, been Surveyor to Prince Henry from 1610 to 1612, and apparently held an appoint- ment at the Danish Court. His earlier reputation was connected with the playhouse rather than with architecture, and it was he who was largely responsible for the development of the theatre into the form it preserved throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Jones’ early years are associated traditionally with a number of near-classic buildings, but there is no exact evidence of his authorship.
His first authentic building, and also his finest, was the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall intended to form part of an ambitious royal palace. This was not only the first, but one of the finest, masterpieces of the English Renaissance. It was from a window of this Banqueting Hall that Charles I stepped on to the scaffold in 1649.
The new style was an importation, Jones had become familiar with it in Italy, and it must have required considerable courage on the part of the architect to break with established tradition. A lesser man would have made concessions to popular opinion, to produce yet another hybrid, but Jones launched out boldly and produced a building masterly, refined, elegant and surprisingly free from any experimental clumsiness a scholarly interpretation of the principles of Palladio. It is small wonder that the influence of Inigo Jones was enormous despite the scarcity of his recorded works. Only one other building can be attributed to him with complete certainty, and that is the Queen’s House at Greenwich. Jones and his followers established a classical tradition which was to sweep the country.
A feature of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century houses is a grand staircase, normally of oak and heavily carved. The use of such staircases corresponds to that of the long gallery, to which it gives suitable access, in contrast to the mediaeval stair which was almost invariably of the spiral type. The great hall is gradually reduced to little more than the entrance hall. The new fashion swept away the picturesqueness of Gothic in favour of a disciplined symmetry.
It was in 1666 that Christopher Wren (1632—1723) was appointed Surveyor-General, and principal Architect for rebuilding the City of London after the Great Fire, and in 1667 he became Surveyor-General of the Royal Works at the age of thirty-five. Mr Wren had already achieved European fame as an astronomer and mathematician. For some years he had dabbled in architecture, and in 1662 had designed the Sheldonian Theatre, a building more remarkable for its constructional and acoustical properties than for its architectural attraction.
Both Evelyn and Wren had hurriedly produced plans for the rebuilding of the City after the Fire, and had presented them to the King within a few days of the calamity. Unfortunately the anxiety of private owners to retain their original sites brought these schemes to nothing and a great opportunity was lost.
For the next 38 years Wren was kept busy rebuilding the city churches, of which fifty-three are attributed to him, and with St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Even before the Fire he had prepared designs for remodelling the cathedral on the lines initiated by Jones. His first design, of which a model exists, was in the form of a Greek cross with short arms and a large domed central space. This was too advanced in plan to meet with approval, and he next prepared a more traditional scheme, largely on the lines of the existing building. This design received the royal warrant in 1675, and the last stone is believed to have been laid in 1710. Wren got over the difficulty of satisfying both interior and exterior appearances by using a double dome separated by a structural brick cone which carries the lantern. The external wall is thus high enough to dominate the building without giving too well-like an effect inside.
St. Paul exhibits a handling of mass and detail, light and shade, which puts it in the front rank of English building. It is in the grand manner, sometimes called Baroque, largely conceived yet neither overpowering in scale nor ostentatious in detail.
By contrast his city churches are often less successful, yet they show an extraordinary fertility of invention and mastery of design. The planning of these churches was no mean achievement, for quite apart from their number, the sites were often cramped and awkwardly shaped. Moreover, the solution sought had little precedent, for Wren broke away from mediaeval tradition, and always kept in mind the need to plan his space primarily as an auditorium.
Wren was fortunate in his choice of craftsmen. Grinling Gibbons, who worked on St. Paul’s, became a household name. Jean Tijou, the smith employed at St. Paul’s and Hampton Court, set a standard for English ironwrok for many years, and Wren’s masons were almost equally accomplished. Sir. James Thornhill, the painter, who worked for Wren at St. Paul’s, Greenwich and elsewhere, was outstanding as a painter, though fame often remembers him best as the father- in law of Hogarth. Nevertheless his frescoes are often of great splendour. They may be seen on the dome of St. Paul’s, at Greenwich Hospital (the famous Painted Hall) and in some country houses.
Of other buildings designed by Wren, the best known are Hampton Court Palace, Chelsea and Greenwich Hospitals, and some ranges in the Temple. The first two strongly influenced other designers, as is apparent from the style of English vernacular building throughout the eighteenth century.
At Hampton’s Court he made a clean break with the design of Wolsey’s building, and would have swept much more of it away had his plan been adopted in its entirety. The garden front is one of his most successful elevations, despite its dummy circular windows, and successfully achieves dignity while maintaining the charm of an .almost domestic scale.
During Wren’s lifetime classical design became firmly established, and was adopted almost everywhere, not only by architects but also by working masons and carpenters, whose skill became well known even on the continent.
Development was encouraged by a great expansion of the towns which took place during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Better roads, a growing merchant class, and increased security meant rapidly spreading suburbs. The old towns were being both extended and rebuilt, or at least re-faced. The capricious designs of the previous century no longer found favour, and where rebuilding proved to expensive old premises were often hidden behind a new classical facade, thus removing many of the worst vulgarities of immature Renaissance. This transformation of style was helped by a series of disastrous fires which destroyed many an old and insanitary town, and emphasized the need for less inflammable structures.
The eighteenth century saw a flowering of the arts as splendid as that of the Middle Ages, though of a very different nature. The power of the Church had been supplanted by that of the great landowner, who, however, inherited the same love of building display, with an even greater weakness for extravagance, which resulted in many, a gentleman ruining his estate and fortune by over-afnbitious schemes. We may instance Lord Stawell of Somerton, who inherited twenty-eight manors at the end of the seventeenth century, and died impoverished before he had half-completed what was to have been the finest house in the county. From the place-seeking courtiers of Charles II to the young bucks of the Regency, all considered it necessary to support their position by a fine house, preferably in the latest taste.
In contrast to the aristocracy, the condition of the poor steadily deteriorated. Between the two came a rising merchant class, but the industrial revolution made the position of the working man even harder than before.
Politically the century was marked by almost constant wars abroad, balanced by an uneasy peace at home which was broken by the Jacobite risings of the “’15’ and “45’ and the threat of Napoleonic invasion. Architecture was mainly an affair of town and country houses, with the addition of many a church, town hall, assembly room, or college. The early century was still a period of good cottage building, and by this time enclosures and hedgerows were already leading to a form of English landscape recognisably similar to that of the present day.
A good deal of Wren’s work was carried out in the early years of the 18th century. Dutch influence was marked at this period, as might be expected with a Dutchman — William II — on the throne, and it paralleled the tendencies of Wren’s more domestic manner. The result was a fine school of classical design in brickwork, which lasted throughout the century. Examples of this style at its best may be seen in Chelsea Hospital and Hampton Court Palace, while in its domestic form there are innumerable houses popularly but appai’ently erroneously connected with Wren. All these buildings have mellow brickwork, white-painted sash-windows with rabbed brick “.arches”, and classical detail. They are of a type which persisted until the Romantic Revival,, and still lend distinction to many a village or country town and to not a few cities. Apart from technical improvements in cooking and sanitation, no more “liveable” houses have ever been designed.
The style of the whole of the first quarter of the century is commonly labelled “Queen Anne”, though she reigned only from 1702 to 1714.
A great deal of building was going on at that time particularly around London.
As already mentioned, the design of smaller buildings owed much to the Wren tradition, but — by contrast — there was a growing antagonism to Sir Christopher among the more fashionable younger architects. They returned to the ideal of Inigo Jones, though they seldom equalled his genius.
(From Outline of English Architecture by A. H. Gardner)