Britain, Architecture in

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BRITAIN, ARCHITECTURE IN. The history of architecture in England between 1500 and 1800 can be seen as a series of stages defined by the interests of patrons and, within the forms of the buildings themselves, by the variety of responses possible to the forms of Renaissance architecture in continental Europe. In such a history, England always had problems in its cultural and political relations with other countries, Italy in particular. In addition, there was the Reformation, which, after the early 1500s, led to an immediate decline in ecclesiastical architecture. Throughout this entire period, problems of royal patronage also existed. If in France or Italy new traditions of design had been established by those in authority, in England the parlous state of the finances of the monarchy, even with two extremely active patrons, King Henry VIII and King Charles I, always severely limited what was built.

England is geographically far from Italy. Some of the early forms of Italian design were known almost immediately, but until the end of the sixteenth century most of what was built in England was still based on the local traditions of Gothic building. It was only later that there were sufficient masons and craftsmen trained in the ways of Renaissance architecture to know how to incorporate it effectively into whatever they built.

Of the architecture constructed for Henry VIII, the most important surviving example is Hampton Court, confiscated from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1529 and then extended; most notable is its Great Hall, where the structure was still essentially Gothic but much of the ornamentationthe putti, scrolls, and balusters, as well as other details elsewhere in the palacehinted at a newer style from Italy. At Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, begun in 1538, there was a clear attempt to rival Chambord, built by King Francis I a decade earlier; though the plan of two great courts there was traditional, for many of the decorative details foreign craftsmen were brought in, some of whom, like Nicholas Bellin, had worked at Fontainebleau in similar ways.

Tudor architecture was still largely Gothic. But the plans of the buildings, seen in historical context, tended now to be symmetrical; the blocks were seen as individual units, rather than being brought together under the form of linear patterning that had been so much a part of the older English style. To make the effect very different from what had been built even fifty years earlier, new forms of decoration also appeared: simple octagonal towers, polychrome brick, niches, plaques, and decorated chimneys. They may be observed at Barrington Court, Somerset (15151548), Compton Wyngates, Warwickshire (c. 1520), and Sutton Place, Surrey (15231527).

The next great period was that of Elizabethan architecture, as seen in the large manor houses and great courtly houses built from the 1560s onward, often by newly wealthy merchants or courtiers and ministers of state. Some important examples are Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire (15801588), Longleat Hall, Wiltshire (1572), Burghley House, Northamptonshire (15771585), and Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (15901597). The style and plans of these houses, in their symmetry and details, were more clearly indebted to Renaissance architecture. If the windows now often took up much of the wall, the decorations around them, taken as much from Flanders as from Italythe false niches and strap-work, the grotesques and broken columnshad a new visual power and seemed to mirror perfectly, as if in heraldry, the power and new wealth of their owners. It was also at this time that the first two English architects became known by name: Robert Smythson (15351614), the designer of Hardwick and Wollaton, and John Thorpe (15681620), many of whose drawings have survived. But still the play between native traditions of masonry building and new forms of Italian design took time to be worked out. Notable examples of this mixed style, often referred to as Artisan Mannerism, can be seen at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, begun in 1607; a collegiate building like Wadham College, Oxford, built from 16101613; and Swakeleys, Middlesex, built in 1638.

All of this was to change quickly with Inigo Jones and the patronage he received from King Charles I. Jones had been to Italy, and his books and notes show how well he learned the principles and practice of the new architecture. If in the end he was able to design only a few completed buildings, such as the Queen's House, Greenwich (16161639), and the Banqueting House, Whitehall (16161639), the simple classical style he used for them, based on the example of Andrea Palladio, was to transform completely the idea of architectural design in England. He also produced a number of designs, never built, for country houses, and these are reflected in the plain, astylar (without columns) character of buildings like Thorpe Hall, Huntingdonshire (16531656), and Lees Court, Kent (c. 1640). And in the houses designed for the duke of Bedford at Covent Garden (begun in 1631), Jones established a style of urban architecture that was to influence much of what was built in cities in England for the next two centuries.

However, it was the work of Christopher Wren and that of the next generation of architectsHugh May, Robert Hooke, and othersthat finally fully established the style of classical architecture in England. And in Wren's work, whether for colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, or at Greenwich, or again at Hampton Court, and then in numerous city churches and St. Paul's Cathedral, a version of the baroque was brought to England, rich and grand enough to be comparable to what was available in the other countries of Europe.

A battle of styles was to nevertheless continue. After Wren, there was in the work of Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrughas at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (17041725), or St. Anne's, Limehouse, London (17141724)a grand classical style, in its effect recalling something of Elizabethan architecture, but against this was now set the Palladianism advocated by Lord Burlington. It effectively brought English architecture back to the classical roots of Palladio and the designs of Jones. Burlington was himself an architect and a powerful and tireless patron of art. At Chiswick House, London (begun in 1725), Wanstead House, Essex (17131720), and Holkham Hall, Norfolk (begun in 1734), he was able with the help of Colin Campbell and William Kent to define a tradition of apparently replicable, classicizing architecture that, with new ideas about the natural landscape taken from Rome and even China, gave both architects and new patrons alike firm ideas about designing buildings and gardens that would be socially and intellectually acceptable.

However, all of this was happening at a time when familiar concepts of beauty were beginning to be questioned by philosophers like David Hume and Edmund Burke. And with the political and cultural changes taking place in Europe, classical buildings even beyond those of Italy were now accessible to anyone interested in travel and a fresh view of the history of architecture. In this regard, Greece was to become very important. Despite the fact that with figures like Sir William Chambers and Robert Adam, by the end of the eighteenth century, architects were working more professionally, with full offices and staffs, there were also many more theoretical disputes about the propriety of styles: whether the refined traditions of Italy should remain the model, or the simpler and more primitive styles of Greece were superior. The result, especially as the eighteenth century came to an end, was a mix of styles, with some architects like Chambers still working in an Italianate style, as at Somerset House, London (17761780), and others preferring a simpler Greek style, as at Dover House, London (1787), designed by Henry Holland. Other architects, such as Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill, London (1748 onward), or James Wyatt at Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (17951807), developed a new version of the native Gothic style that elicited very different responses from those engendered by the purer, more rational classicism of the new Palladianism.

There was no one way to resolve these differences, especially when other stylistic elements were soon to appear, as in the garden buildings at Kew, designed in the 1770s and 1780s, and clearly influenced by the buildings of Moorish Spain, the architecture of India and China, and the Gothic past of England. The last great classical architect in England was Sir John Soane; in buildings like the Bank of England, London (17921793), or the library in his home at 12 Lincoln Inns Fields (1792), he suggested an architecture that was at once deeply individual, yet recalled the traditions of a native yet distinctly Roman style that had been used by Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor. This was a moment of stylistic eclecticism, but it was from these possibilities that architecture could develop as it did in the next century, using new materials of glass and iron, and often for structures like bridges, railway stations, and factories, in a classical style, one completely different from what had developed when Renaissance architecture was first brought to England.

See also Estates and Country Houses ; Gardens and Parks ; Jones, Inigo ; London ; Palladio, Andrea, and Palladianism ; Wren, Christopher.


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Summerson, John. Architecture in Britain: 15301830. 9th ed., rev. New Haven, 1993 Originally published in 1953.

Worsley, Giles. Classical Architecture in Britain: The Heroic Age. New Haven, 1995.

David Cast

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