Stuarts: Architecture

While the Elizabethans built great country houses, some courtiers of the Jacobean period (the reign of James I) raised even bigger ones, with yet more elaborate ornament. Later in the century, Sir Christopher Wren’s new churches rose from the ashes of the Great Fire of London.

The magnificent Jacobean west front of Audley End, Essex

The magnificent Jacobean west front of Audley End, Essex

JACOBEAN EXTRAVAGANCE

When it was rebuilt in 1603–14, the ‘Palace of Audley End’ in Essex was the largest private house in England, exceeding in size and grandeur most royal residences. A visiting James I quipped that it was ‘too big for a king’.

Such vast mansions could ruin their builders. The Devon squire Edward Seymour spent £20,000 on Berry Pomeroy Castle, before abruptly running out of cash and leaving his aggrandising extensions unfinished.

Just as elaborate, the battlemented and pinnacled ‘Little Castle’ at Bolsover in Derbyshire (1620s), with its exquisitely decorated interiors, was an exercise in pure fantasy.

Jacobean extravagance also appeared in more modest dwellings. At Great Yarmouth Row Houses in Norfolk and Bessie Surtees House, Newcastle, merchants’ town houses were embellished with elaborate plaster ceilings. Much of this decoration was influenced by European pattern books or, like the alterations to Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire, in 1638–40, nodded to the Classical style of Greece and Rome.

Kirby Hall

This doorway in the inner courtyard at Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire, is decorated with a bust of Apollo and Classical pilasters. The design of the pilasters was taken from the cover of John Shute’s ‘The First and Chief Grounds of Architecture’ (1563), a typical architectural pattern book.

INIGO JONES

Inigo Jones (1573–1652) was the first English architect who fully embraced Classicism.

His few but immensely influential buildings were based closely on ancient Roman or Italian Renaissance models. Best-known is the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London (1619–22), from whose window Charles I walked onto his execution scaffold in 1649.

Inigo Jones

This portrait of Inigo Jones from about 1644 is on display at Chiswick House, London. Possibly the most influential architect of the 17th century, Jones introduced Classical architecture to England, with buildings such as the Queen’s House, Greenwich, and the Banqueting House in Whitehall.

SLIGHTING

By the end of the Civil Wars in 1651, countless buildings throughout England had suffered either in sieges or from ‘slighting’ – damage ordered by Parliament to render them indefensible. Locals enthusiastically joined in, gaining free building materials in the process.

Other people, such as the formidable Lady Anne Clifford, were keen to rebuild. Her post-war restorations in the north-west included Brough Castle and her favourite, Brougham Castle.

Plasterwork ceiling at Great Yarmouth

The richly decorated plasterwork ceilings in the Old Merchant’s House at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, are a remarkable survival from the early 17th century. The centrepiece of the hall ceiling is this royal coat of arms, suggesting that the owner of the house held public office.

COMMONWEALTH STYLE

People continued to build new country and town houses throughout and beyond the Interregnum (1649–60).

Their so-called Artisan Mannerist design was often an eclectic but charming blend of Jacobean, ‘Classical’ and Dutch/Flemish styles. Its characteristics were tall hipped roofs with gabled dormers, like those that adorn the Riding School range at Bolsover Castle; symmetrically arranged cross-mullioned windows; and decorative (and often huge) ‘pilaster columns’, as at Abingdon County Hall, Oxfordshire. 

CHURCHES

Few new churches were built during the early Stuart period, though existing ones were internally adapted for Protestant worship. Langley Chapel, Shropshire, with its full set of Jacobean furnishings, is a fine example.

The Great Fire of London, which in 1666 destroyed 87 of the city’s 108 churches, gave Sir Christopher Wren the opportunity to start again from scratch. His 50 or so replacement churches represent a series of experiments in purpose-built Anglican church design, rejecting the old models. They are adorned with an astonishing variety of pinnacles, columns, rotundas and obelisks – and in the case of Wren’s masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral, an extraordinary dome.

PAVILIONS AND PALACES

Wren’s architectural sources included the European Baroque, whose more flamboyant excesses never really caught on in England. But Thomas Archer’s magnificent 1711 pavilion at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire is strongly influenced by the style; less so is plainer Appuldurcombe House on the Isle of Wight, begun in 1702.

The last years of Stuart architecture are dominated by the ‘amateur’ soldier-playwright-architect Sir John Vanbrugh and his professional partner, Wren-trained Nicholas Hawksmoor, designers of Castle Howard, Yorkshire (1699–1726), and the Duke of Marlborough’s stupendous Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (1705–16). Their influence continued into the Georgian period.

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