Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor, Sir John Vanbrugh: the founding fathers of English classical architecture. Jones brought the classical style to England under the first Stuart kings. Wren, the mathematician, astronomer, and anatomist, turned himself into an architect after the Restoration, and rebuilt London after the Great Fire of 1666. Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh share credit for the English Baroque. Much has been written in celebration of their achievement, and yet much, it seems, remains to be discovered.
Last year, for instance, a gap was filled in the biography of Vanbrugh (1664-1726), the most colorful of these figures: a soldier and a playhouse manager, the author of two comedies which can still be played with success (The Relapse and The Provok’d Wife), he suddenly—and without any apparent training—turned to architecture, and built both Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace.
Nobody had known what he had been up to between 1683, when the wine business for which he worked went bankrupt, and the end of 1685, when, aged twenty-one, he applied to become a soldier. Legend had it that Vanbrugh had been in France, perhaps studying architecture there. An article by Robert Williams disproved this, and provided the surprising answer to the mystery: Vanbrugh had been in India, working for the East India Company at their factory (trading post) in Surat, in Gujarat.
That a man who wrote and did so much should have left no evidence of his knowledge of India seems extraordinary. But it turns out that Vanbrugh did indeed leave such a clue. Twenty-five years after leaving Surat he addressed himself, as the aged Wren also did, to the question of building fifty new churches in London. This phase of church-building succeeded Wren’s reconstruction of the churches destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. The government plan in 1711 was to provide places of worship for the newer districts of the expanding city, using taxes on coal. Whereas the churches Wren rebuilt were of necessity constructed on their old, often irregular, cramped medieval sites, the new churches were to belong to a new era of city planning.
Wren thought that no expense should be spared in the purchase of ground in well-populated areas, since the “better inhabitants” would contribute to the upkeep of the parish. He thought that the churches should not be too large—a capacity of two thousand would be the maximum. There were theological reasons for this. Whereas “Romanists” might be content simply to hear the murmur of the mass, and see the elevation of the Host, a Protestant church should be fitted as an “auditory”: one should be able to hear the sermon. Wren and his colleague Robert Hooke had studied acoustics, and Wren had found that “a moderate voice may be heard 50 feet distant before the preacher, 30 feet on each side, and 20 behind the pulpit.” Wren had also found from experience in France that:
A French Man is heard further than an English preacher, because …
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