Architecture in Britain and Ireland: 1530-1830 
by Steven Brindle.
Paul Mellon, 582 pp., £60, November 2023, 978 1 913107 40 6
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The England​ of 1530 lives deep in the national imagination. It was a landscape of timber-framed manor houses, castles, small towns and villages, spires and towers. At about 2.6 million the population was still in recovery from the Black Death and half what it had been in 1300, but there was a general air of prosperity. London, always an exception, was densely packed with houses whose jutting upper stories made the most of tight plots at ground level; the streets were labyrinthine and public space was at a premium. Elsewhere, medieval street plans still obtained. Some were grids and most towns were at heart a triangle of marketplace with market house, cross and pillory, the parish church nearby. Since the 14th century, the process historians call the Great Rebuilding had been transforming domestic life by improving the housing stock. The increased use of brick and tile alongside timber framing made for warmer, drier homes. In church towers and at Oxford and Cambridge colleges the latest architectural ideas were emerging as English Perpendicular, the fine-boned local expression of Gothic. Henry VII’s long-lost palaces stood at Richmond and Greenwich, and at Burbage in Wiltshire, John Seymour was starting work on his expensive new house, Wolfhall. Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, like the musical Six and innumerable historical novels and films before and since, owes its popularity to the fact that ‘Tudors and Stuarts’ is still for many people the essence of British history, the best loved – if patchily known – period that gives to the England of 1530 a prelapsarian quality. Soon the Reformation, and later the Civil Wars, will break over it with all the lurid drama of battles, beheadings and wronged, romantic queens.

For architecture, however, Henry VIII’s break with Rome was an unmitigated disaster. The dissolution of the religious houses, Steven Brindle writes, ‘tore the heart out of the patronage of … the arts’ as it had existed for nine centuries and brought about ‘the largest redistribution of land since the Norman Conquest’. It would take three generations to begin to recover from this ‘colossal self-inflicted cultural catastrophe’. What English architecture might have been without the Reformation is unknowable, but Brindle offers a counterfactual hint in his account of the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. The Perpendicular fan vaulting of the master mason John Wastell sits in harmony with later Flemish stained glass and French wood carving, embellished with classical motifs. It is Gothic going on Renaissance. Instead, cut off from Continental influence, after the initial hiatus, the story of architecture in Britain and Ireland over the next three centuries took a different direction and has conventionally been told in terms of rise and fall: the late coming of the Renaissance followed by the dawn of Classicism, the emergence of the architect as a distinct professional practitioner, the triumph of taste in the Georgian period, and then the breakdown of consensus into stylistic confusion, a last gasp of flair in the Regency, after which came what the architectural historian Christopher Hussey described as ‘the great debacle of Victorianism’.

That this view and these three centuries have come to stand for the essence of British architectural history is largely owed to one book, John Summerson’s Architecture in Britain 1530-1830. It first appeared in 1953 and was reprinted for the rest of the century. Scholarly, but written with the urbanity and flair that characterised all Summerson’s work, it was the most influential volume in the Pelican History of Art, a series established by Nikolaus Pevsner in 1945. Along with Pevsner’s own Buildings of England, launched the same year, and Howard Colvin’s Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, first published in 1954, it laid the foundations and established the boundaries of academic architectural history for the postwar period. Pevsner, Summerson and Colvin have cast long shadows. The first two were tendentious in their accounts. Pevsner, especially in his earlier work, was an apologist for the International Modern style, which he saw as the ‘ocean’ into which all streams of architectural thought must eventually flow. Summerson’s patrician view of the evolution of styles assumed the superiority of Classicism as the norm from which vernacular architecture and the Gothic were deviations, inferior and secondary. What all three shared was the assumption that the history of architecture was the history of architects and aesthetics. The depth of their scholarship was accompanied by a narrowness, a general disregard for politics, economics, the influence of patrons or indeed people in general. The events of the most turbulent periods in British history were seen only in the background while the foreground presented a neutron bomb view of the past where only the buildings were left standing, having apparently manifested spontaneously from the minds of their architects and the writings of Vitruvius and Palladio.

There have been reactions and critiques of this view in general, and of Summerson in particular, over the years but, as Brindle points out, these have also served to reinforce the centrality of his account. The only way to broaden the Summerson narrative was to take his book and rewrite it. This is what, with commendable courage and considerable brio, Brindle has done. The inevitable drawback is that his version is much bulkier than its predecessor, and difficult to read without a book stand, but it is worth the effort because it opens up huge and important vistas of social and economic history embodied in a built environment, now fully peopled with patrons, craftsmen, builders and the bulk of the ordinary population. This is essential because, unlike literature or painting, architecture is by necessity collaborative. It impinges on everyone, whether they are interested in it or not. Considerable social and financial momentum is needed to put up even a modest building, and so many trades and skills are required that Brindle begins by questioning the fundamental assumption of Summerson’s thesis, asking whether architecture is truly an art. Certainly, he concludes, it is misleading to discuss buildings, even the works of ‘the greats’, Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh, as though they were discrete works of art when they are the consequence of much more than the architect’s intentions. It would be wrong, he argues, to apply the same concept of ‘authorship’ to architecture as to painting. Furthermore, he suggests, with a sideways glance at Pevsner and the adherents of teleological theories of Modernism, the most important question to ask about a building is not how ‘advanced’ it is for its time or whether it can be attached to a famous name. His concern is with historic buildings as ‘collective possessions’, repositories of cultural memory and local and national identity. Having knocked over most of the conventions that fenced in architectural history in his preface, Brindle proceeds to look about him over a much expanded field.

The questions of ‘art’ and authorship barely apply for the first decades of his survey. The figure of the architect had yet to emerge from the ranks of surveyors, master masons and carpenters. In 1530 there hadn’t been a single book on architecture published in England and there was as yet little sense of the concept of ‘style’. Buildings grew by accretion, information was conveyed in drawings and by oral tradition in the form of the well-guarded ‘mysteries’ of individual crafts, for which writing was unnecessary. The methods of the medieval masons were complicated and ‘would have been difficult to explain to lay people, even supposing that the masons had wanted to – which they didn’t’. New features could be introduced without any sense of anachronism, rather as a new picture may be hung in an old house. ‘Britain’ itself was still a semi-mythic construct, supposedly the creation of the Trojan ‘Brut’, descendant of Aeneas, and Brindle keeps the particularities of Scotland and Ireland in view. Scotland, though it would have its own later Reformation, was more cosmopolitan than England in 1530. It looked to France and the Baltic, while Ireland was still ‘a world in itself, with its own architectural traditions’. Brindle writes evocatively about this green landscape studded with tower houses, built to be defensive but elegant, their limewashed tapering outlines quite unlike the forbidding grey ruins that most have become. How comfortable and welcoming they were is apparent in the account of a 17th-century English traveller, Luke Gernon, who explained that on a typical visit ‘the lady of the house meets you with her tray … salutations past, you shall be presented with all the drinkes in the house,’ and having ascended to the main chamber, which was located on the top floor where the walls were thinnest to allow maximum space, ‘you shall not come downe agayne till tomorrow.’

Patterns of life dictate ground plans at least as much as aesthetics. The communal living of the Middle Ages, idealised by the Victorians in scenes of ‘Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall’, was in reality abandoned as soon as it was possible to heat and light more rooms. At every level of society it seems there was a desire for increased privacy and households divided, with family, servants, guests of varying degrees of importance, increasingly eating and sleeping apart. Rooms began to be designated with specific functions. As most building was still timber framed it could be prefabricated, the components cut and shaped and joints made in advance, so that a building could go up in a couple of days. Prefabrication, a technique that has been forgotten and revived several times, is another point for Brindle’s argument against telling the history of architecture in terms of advance and retrograde. Timber framing was pragmatic and flexible, and once it became possible to build a full timber frame that would work above a single storey, houses began to acquire more rooms. Coal killed off the last of the central hearths which, once replaced by fireplaces and chimneys, offered scope for internal privacy and external display. The fanciest chimneys, like those at Hampton Court, were patterned with moulded brick like candy canes, but even the simplest were ‘an obvious sign of success and status’, soon to be joined by the Long Gallery, an indoor walk requiring a lot of expensive glass to catch the daylight.

Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire

Brindle takes Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire as a case study. It was built in the mid-16th century, as the ne plus ultra of aspirational timber framing. The carpenter, Richard Dale, whose name appears with that of the owner, William Moreton, on one of the windows, gave the framing a raking design which creates on the exterior an elaborate dazzle effect. Starting out with an H-plan house, Dale and Moreton added every latest feature, beginning with a fireplace and moving on to bay windows and an extra wing to create a courtyard. It was Moreton’s son who added the long gallery, which had to be squeezed in, perched on top of the south wing where, over time, its weight has caused the frame below to buckle, which Brindle feels adds to its ‘enchantment’ and certainly enforces the impression of a building that never stood still.

The great post-Reformation land distribution was a route to social advancement that had to be trodden with care. Land ownership brought political influence but too much architectural ambition ‘did not go unnoticed’ by Henry VIII. The great houses built by various bishops along the Strand were all seized by the king. It was the more discreetly upwardly mobile – the lawyers, merchants and minor gentry – who did well out of the dissolution and built the substantial new homes characterised by Brindle as ‘reasonable, practical houses for sensible frugal people’. They were brick, often built on a U or E-shaped plan, gabled and turreted, sometimes with stone dressings, and centred on a great hall whose function was now largely ceremonial, with wings for kitchens and services on one side and family apartments on the other.

The Renaissance finally arrived during Elizabeth’s reign. She was less greedy for buildings than her father and was a patron by proxy, shrewdly encouraging ambitious courtiers to build glamorous houses for her entertainment, rather than paying for them herself. When she gave Kenilworth Castle to her favourite, Robert Dudley, it was both a magnificent gift and a considerable restoration project. He turned it into a palace, and built a new wing in anticipation of the queen’s visit. Her 19-day stay in 1575 became part of the myth of Gloriana, ensuring that as many people as possible saw or heard about the latest architectural thinking.

The earl of Ormonde had less luck. Having known Elizabeth since they were children, he refurbished his castle in County Tipperary in hopes of a visit, adding a long gallery that was a shrine to the queen. She never came but the gallery remains ‘one of the most beautiful rooms in Ireland’. The image of Elizabeth sat well with the great prodigy houses of the late reign, which Brindle calls ‘fantastical’. Unlike the sensible gentry houses, they were neither reasonable nor practical, but wonderful. Hardwick Hall, built for Elizabeth, countess of Shrewsbury, known to history as Bess, has the largest long gallery to survive and above it a low-pitched roof on which the countess and her guests could promenade in fine weather to observe the views. The rippling façades arranged between six towers and the complex oblong plan reveal the mason, Robert Smythson, as a designer of considerable sophistication. He left his family a large number of drawings and so is better documented than any other mason of that time. He also stands at a historical crossroads. Behind him are the masons of the Middle Ages who with their teams of craftsmen built the Gothic cathedrals and worked like Smythson from drawn plans, although they probably did not, Brindle suggests, know how to make perspectives. Ahead of Smythson lies the full-blown Renaissance, already visible in details of his work, and in a more general and growing preference for symmetry in design, but not yet underpinned by theory.

Chiswick House, London

The Italian concept of architecture as an art, a Neoplatonic manifestation of ideal form in the visible world, wasn’t much thought about in England, except by the mathematician, astronomer and magus John Dee. Dee argued that it should be reckoned alongside the ‘Artes Mathematicall’ because the architect conceived the design in the abstract, unlike the carpenter or mason who remained a rude mechanical, the instrument of the man who ‘both in Minde and Imagination’ conceived the design and ‘the whole Feate of Architecture’. Dee was in this as elsewhere an outlier, but the idea was planted at the highest social and intellectual level so that when, a generation later, Inigo Jones, the son of a cloth worker, went to Italy a craftsman and came back an architect, armed with the works of Vitruvius and Palladio and determined to launch this new, higher conception of the role of the designer, he was able to carry royal opinion with him. If, as Brindle suggests, the often heard view that Jones thereafter determined the course of British architecture for nearly three centuries is overstated, his appointment in 1615 as surveyor of the king’s works was a decisive moment. The shift was as much social as intellectual, for a mason and master-carpenter, however skilled, had a status roughly on a par with a farmer. They did not expect to cut a figure at court. Jones was the first professional architect, and the architect, as he explained, was a scholar and a gentleman, ‘well experienced’ not only in geometry and mathematics, but as Dee had argued, knowledgeable also about ‘Musick, Law and Astrology’. Jones is best remembered now for the Banqueting House in Whitehall for James VI and I, but more consequential in many ways was the layout of Covent Garden, the first square or ‘piazza’ to break with the higgledy-piggledy of medieval London and surrounded by the first terraced houses. On one side of it he built the church of St Paul. It was built, Jones explained, in the Tuscan style, a plain and massive ur-style with overhanging eaves. It was a kind of manifesto, a demonstration of Jones’s need to give architecture a foundation myth and bolster its intellectual and social respectability. The stark simplicity also suited his patron, the earl of Bedford, who wanted the church to be as cheap as possible, having only agreed to build one as a form of planning gain.

The Civil Wars caused less of an architectural hiatus than might be expected, indeed Jones was still working on plans for Whitehall while Charles I was in prison. The Restoration provided a benign climate for the arts and from now on, with the architect established among the higher ranks of society, there came a consequent demotion in the role of the client. The struggle for mastery between architect and patron was played out notoriously at Blenheim Palace where Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, and her architect, John Vanbrugh, fought all the way to the House of Lords and on to Chancery. Their relations ended in an undignified exchange of personal insults after which the duchess barred Vanbrugh from the house, obliging him to peer at his masterpiece over the wall of the adjacent rectory garden. That particular clash of wills was the consequence of complicated political and social circumstances, but it was also expressive of the tension that would persist, through modernism and down to the present. The argument that ‘authorship’ in architecture is not comparable to authorship in painting or literature is not acceptable to an architect in the Vitruvian mould whose designs are conceived ‘in ideal terms as perfectly proportioned compositions’. The practical consequences for people who have to use a building or for the immediate environment do not enter into the case.

By the 1720s the Vitruvian ideal was established at the cutting edge of design and for the next two decades Richard, 3rd earl of Burlington, whose Chiswick House in Hounslow was the exemplar of neoclassical proportion as extrapolated from the works of Palladio and Scamozzi, was the absolute dictator of architectural taste in Britain. The earl had large estates in Yorkshire and was invited by the awestruck gentry and citizens of York to design their new assembly rooms. They were, they explained, happy to ‘leave to your Lordship’ the plan and to arrange it ‘in what manner you shall think proper’, though they did mention their basic requirements, which included a dancing room, card room, refreshment room and kitchen. Burlington naturally ignored all this and built an Egyptian hall on Vitruvian principles. It was seen by later historians as ‘the most severely classical building of its time anywhere in Europe’ and by the duchess of Marlborough as exceeding ‘all the nonsense … that I ever saw of that kind, and that is saying a great deal’. The columns were so close together, like ‘ninepins’, that no woman wearing the hooped petticoat which was part of polite dress could get between them, and at three feet wide the side aisles were too narrow for people to pass. Like the works of many later starchitects, the Assembly Rooms ‘had to be considerably altered’ before they were usable.

The other fundamental change that came over architecture, and which forms a central theme in the book, was a corollary of the architect working by rules and ‘correct’ principles. This was the shift to a written culture of paper. The essentially oral tradition passed down since Norman times between the initiates of craft guilds and the workmen, whose ‘mysteries’ might be expressed in drawings but nowhere codified in writing, was vanishing by 1660. By Burlington’s time it was all but over. Court culture too was dwindling in influence and cutting-edge taste was no longer so centralised. The country house was to be the great Georgian building type and it was what most distinguished Britain architecturally from the Continent. These grandly elegant new houses were another stage in the long quest for privacy. Where the big house in any neighbourhood would once have stood, for convenience, on the main road, it now withdrew, as infrastructure improved and smoother connections demanded clearer distinctions. Park walls and gate lodges emerged as new building types. When the architect William Kent returned from an Italian tour as significant as Jones’s, he brought with him the landscape garden, and so the ornamental cottage, hermitage and picturesque estate village joined the architectural repertoire. Brindle’s panoramic view gives full credit to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, too often shunted into a siding marked ‘garden history’, as ‘a phenomenon’ and ‘one of the defining figures of Georgian England’, whose effect on landed estates was to make them more practical and economical, as well as more attractive.

The British aristocracy and landed gentry’s preference for country life meant they concentrated their financial efforts on their estates. In town for the season, they were often content with a rented house in one of the terraces that lined the expanding streets and squares in strict classical rectilinearity, the housefronts made even flatter by the introduction of sash windows. The smart parts of Dublin, London and the New Town of Edinburgh were now at some points interspersed with crescents and circuses, modelled from the designs of John Wood and his son at Bath. Overall, however, the effect was uniform to the point of monotony. As the French émigré translator and Anglophobe Auguste Defauconpret put it in his memoir Une année à Londres (1819), ‘des briques, des briques, et toujours des briques’. There was already, however, a stirring of something else in the shape of an awakening interest in the architecture of the Middle Ages. The Gothic Revival, as it came to be called, while it does not defeat Brindle, gives him some trouble. Unlike Summerson, he does not want to play it down, dismiss it as inferior or treat it as an aberration, but it is too complicated and entangled with politics and the dawn of Romanticism to fit into his periodic chronology. If Classical architecture was developed on paper, Gothic was almost as much paper as structure. Horace Walpole used to joke that his villa at Strawberry Hill, the first important Gothic house, was a paper toy (which was literally true in so far as the ‘battlements’ were made of papier-mâché), but more importantly it was the stuff of literature, the setting for Walpole’s Otranto, the first Gothic novel. From its beginnings in the 1750s, the Gothic Revival had literary and social implications on a scale that vastly outweighed its architectural expression. Its contrarian basis of protest and cultural critique appeared in many forms, from the Whig factionalist Lord Cobham’s Temple of Liberty at Stowe to the High Tory Roger Newdigate’s alterations to Arbury, and persisted through Walpole and William Beckford, transgressing the demarcation lines of Brindle’s chapters. He is obliged to cut it off in the 1760s only to admit later on, with a note of resignation, that ‘the Gothic theme had never gone away.’ By the turn of the 19th century it had become a significant element in a period of cultural complexity.

Strawberry Hill, Twickenham

Summerson ended his history in 1830 in a spirit of mingled disappointment and relief, lamenting that while ‘the story of English architecture comes, in 1830, to a natural halting-place’ with the death of George IV, it was ‘scarcely … a place where one would wish to halt for long’. At no other point, he wrote, had architecture been ‘so feeble, so deficient in genius, so poor in promise’. The problem was that patronage had got into the wrong hands. He blamed the ‘rapid expansion of the class to which, rather than to the state or to the elder aristocracy, architecture had come to look for patronage’. Sounding much like Pugin a century earlier, Summerson laid about him on all fronts, bemoaning the rising tide of ‘whimsical novelty’ and ‘bourgeois sentimentality’, the ‘literary antiquarianism’ that had encouraged nostalgia for the Middle Ages, and the ‘failure’ of George IV to know better. This had led to the terrible mess of novelty tea houses, asymmetric villas, Egyptian cemeteries and Swiss cottages ornés which must wait for better times as manifested in the shape of Ruskin, George Gilbert Scott and the other great Victorians. Brindle does not agree. As his book reaches its conclusion there is an unmistakeable sense of a subject expanding as fast as the cities, industries and infrastructure that he is describing, but he never loses his way. In the literary antiquarianism that so dismayed Summerson he sees an essential shift in historic sensibility, as profound in its way as the Renaissance, the point at which the reassessment of the Middle Ages merged with a new understanding of the relationship of past to present.

While the theoretical premise of Classical architecture appealed to archetypes outside time, leading an Enlightenment theory of progress to disregard the buildings of the Middle Ages, all crooked timber and clunky castellations, Romanticism and the Gothic Revival saw the past differently. The Gothic went from niche taste to national style with remarkable speed. As a bewildered John Soane complained, ‘the Gothic mania like the French Revolution carries all before it.’ There was something in the analogy. Each marked the end of a prevailing hierarchy and a reassessment of the relationship of past and present. In 1789 Richard Gough, director of the Society of Antiquaries, published the first preservationist manifesto. It was an attack on James Wyatt, the architect in charge of ‘improving’ Salisbury Cathedral to bring it in line with modern taste by whitewashing over the medieval wall paintings, taking out the stained glass and digging up St Osmund, founder of the cathedral, whose tomb was in the way of his desired sightlines. Wyatt had the support of George III and the Bishop of Salisbury, and he was as much astonished as furious to be challenged. This was ‘something that no British architect had had to contend with before: an organised lobby with a passionate interest in medieval buildings and vigorous arguments for their preservation’. Wyatt was later stopped, just in time, from demolishing the 12th-century Galilee Porch at Durham Cathedral, which is now a World Heritage Site. Brindle makes strenuous efforts to contextualise Wyatt’s attitude to historic fabric and doesn’t mention that he got his own back against the conservationists by pickaxing the perfectly preserved cycle of 14th-century wall paintings in the old Palace of Westminster. It remains hard to forgive the man later known to the Victorians as ‘Wyatt the Destroyer’.

Brindle’s panoramic view of 1830 sees amid Summerson’s muddle the complexities from which modern Britain emerged. Much of the infrastructure often attributed to the Victorians was already in place: canals and bridges, mills and the building types of a growing international power, barracks and dockyards. Technology was driving change. The craft builder was disappearing, the engineer emerging and the architect becoming part of an organised profession while a rapid emptying of the countryside and corresponding expansion of towns and cities meant, as in the 1530s, the upheaval of centuries-old patterns of life. Of a population of 24.1 million, some 40 per cent was now urban. People were living in proximity in unprecedented numbers. How to organise them into communities and how to live a decent, orderly life in the modern city was to be the great problem of the 19th century. How physically to construct it became a subject of public debate and the first conservation campaigns were soon followed by the first style wars. The battle between Goths and Classicists was fought out amid the debate about the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament after the fire of 1834 that destroyed the old Palace of Westminster, with both sides arguing that theirs was the ‘rational’ mode of building. Like most architectural theory this was merely post-hoc justification of stylistic preference.

Classicism with its proportional system is easier to associate with rationality, but as Brindle points out, the orders were hardly ever used structurally in northern Europe, where neither function nor climate was suitable. William Wilkins, prominent on the Classical side, was commissioned by the banker Henry Drummond to modernise The Grange, a Restoration manor house in Hampshire. Wilkins took a ‘perfectly rational, structurally honest, design’ and wrapped a Classical temple round it, blocking up the basement windows with a huge portico, which was not the entrance, at a cost of more than £30,000 to Drummond. Wilkins’s campaign to exercise his judgment on the new Palace of Westminster attracted little support. Against him, making the case for Gothic, was Pugin, whose Contrasts was the first architectural manifesto. It compared the problematic late Georgian city with that idealised landscape of pre-Reformation England. The argument that Gothic was Christian and therefore intrinsically morally superior was attractive to some readers but it was the broader argument that was radical: that architecture both expresses and shapes society and that the architect therefore has a social and moral responsibility beyond questions of taste and aesthetics. It lit a trail of inspiration up to the civic architecture of the High Victorians and gave some reassurance to a society conscious that the world was speeding up. ‘From the England of Miss Austen to the England of Railways and Free-trade,’ Froude wrote, ‘the world moves faster and faster.’ It is with the railways that Brindle ends his account. He is among the few people to understand the Schleswig-Holstein question of railway history, how Euston Station came to be so curiously bifurcated and hemmed in. Anyone tempted to dismiss such detail as mere antiquarianism should bear in mind that had it been more widely understood, the debacle of the London end of HS2 could have been mitigated.

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