18th C. English Architecture: Vanbrugh; Hawksmoor; Burlington; Gibbs; Chambers; Taylor.
The style introduced by Sir John Vanbrugh, who may be said to have succeeded Sir Christopher Wren in the direction of architecture in England, was distinguished by massiveness unsuited to the style in which he built, which was of course, Italian. It was, however, free from the extravagances which characterize that style generally in other countries at the same period, but was certainly more suited to the soberer character of ecclesiastical than of secular structures, whereas his principal works were noblemens mansions. Vanburghs faults were generally those of Michel Angelo; he was a painter architect, and did not understand beauty of proportion and detail so well as the pictorial arrangement of lights and shadows, -- to produce which in the Cinquencento it is most almost necessary to part with all the higher beauties of architecture.
Haweksmoor added to the style of his master that noble ornament in which Italian works are so very deficient -- a prostyle portico. His compositions are marked by severe simplicity, and only want to be absolved from a few faults and enriched with a few elegances to be among the best of modern times.
Not the least distinguished architect of the same age (the first half of the 18th century) was the earl of Burlington, who was a passionate admirer of the style of Palladio and Inigo Jones. Many of the edifices erected by Kent are asserted to be from the designs of that nobleman, who, with considerable talent, was, however, a somewhat bigoted devotee to Vitruvius and the Cinquencento generally, as well as to Palladio in particular; for he frequently used columns representing half-barked trees in conformity with the silly tales of Vitruvius, and the sillier whims of his disciples. The portal of his own house in Piccadilly, and that of the Kings Mews, were special examples of this bad taste, and of other faults of the school besides.
Lord Burlington built for himself at Chiswick a villa on the model of the Villa Capra, or Rotonda, near Vicenza -- a structure which has been called the master-piece of Palladio. In form and proportion it is certainly elegant, but its details strongly exhibit the poverty of Italian columnar architecture, when unaided by the frittering which is its bane, and almost its only element of effect.
Gibbs, a contemporary, had, like Hawksmoor, imbibed a taste for the classic prostyle portico, which he evinced in St Martins Church in London; but that he also was in the trammels of the Italian school is no less evident, in the same structure, to a considerable extent, and still more so in the church of St Mary in the Strand, which is a mediocre specimen of architecture, though a favourable one of its style.
During the following half-century (the latter half of the 18th) Sir William Chambers and Sir Robert Taylor were the most distinguished architects of this country. They were both men of genius and skill, who had availed themselves of the remains of Roman antiquity to good purpose (for as yet those of Greece were either unknown or unappreciated), and the former has left us, in the Strand front of Somerset House in London, perhaps the best specimen of its style in existence. Other parts of the same edifice, however, are far from deserving the same degree of praise; indeed, as an architectural composition, the river front is altogether inferior in merit to the other, though of much greater pretence. The inner fronts to the great quadrangle, though exhibiting good parts, are, as a whole, not above mediocrity. An air of littleness pervades them; and the general effect of the fronts themselves is made still worse by the little clock towers and cupolas by which they are surmounted; and to this may be added the infinity of ill-arranged chimneys, which impart an air of meanness and confusion that nothing can excuse.
While Sir William Chambers and a few others were applying the best qualities of Italian architecture, indeed, improving its general character, and, it may be said, making an English style of it, there were many structures raised in various parts of the country in a manner hardly superior to that of the time of James I, -- structures in which all the meanness and poverty of the Cinquecento are put forth, without any of its elegance of proportion, or that degree of effectiveness which men of talent contrived to give it. During he same period, too, the seeds of a revolution were sown, which almost succeeded in ejecting the Italian style and its derivative from this country, without perhaps having furnished a complete equivalent.
Read the rest of this article:
Architecture - Table of Contents