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The Master Builders

Inigo Jones

by John Summerson, by Sir Howard Colvin
Yale University Press, 148 pp., $13.00 (paper)


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.1

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 he raises his Voice, and not sinks his last Words: I mention this as an insufferable Fault in the Pronunciation of our otherwise excellent Preachers; which School-masters might correct in the young, as a vicious Pronunciation, and not as the Roman orators spoke: for the principal Verb is in Latin usually the last Word; and if that be lost, what becomes of the Sentence?

This plausible linguistic hypothesis (that their grammar would have forced the Roman orators not to drop their voices toward the end of the sentence), linked to observation in France (the one foreign country Wren is known to have visited), to measurements made by Wren himself, to sociological considerations (one needs rich parishioners to support a new church), and to vital theological issues (the Protestant congregation must be able to hear the sermon)—this “joined-up thinking” is typical of the polymathic Wren, the experimental scientist and leading figure in the newly founded Royal Society. In considering the proposed new churches, Wren took everything into account, from the quality of the brick or durability of the stone, to the practicalities of buying out lease-held land, to the essential purpose of the church itself.

Vanbrugh too, in his proposals for building the fifty new churches, establishes principles that are both practical and innovative. Like Wren, and like John Evelyn, he deplores the practice of burying the dead in or near the city church, but he wonders, as Wren also wondered, whether the rich could be persuaded to give up their prestigious church monuments. Here is the eighth of his proposals in full:

8ly. That they may be free’d from that Inhumane custome of being made Burial Places for the Dead. a Custome in which there is something so very barbarous in itself besides the many ill consequences that attend it; that one cannot enough wonder how it ever has prevail’d amongst the civiliz’d part of mankind. But there is now a sort of happy necessity on this Occasion of breaking through it: Since there can be no thought of purchasing ground for Church Yards, where the Churches will probably be plac’d. And since there must therefore be Caemitarys provided in the Skirts of the Towne, if they are ordered with decency they ought to be, there can be no doubt but the Rich as well as the Poor, will be content to ly there.

If these Caemitarys be consecrated, Handsomely and regularly wall’d in, and planted with Trees in such form as to make a Solemn Distinction between one Part and another; there is no doubt, but the Richer sort of People, will think their Friends and Relatives more decently inter’d in those distinguish’d Places, than they commonly are under the Ailes and under Pews in Churches; and will think them more honourably remember’d by Lofty and Noble Mausoleums, erected over them in Freestone (which will no doubt soon come into practice,) than by little Tawdry monuments of Marble, stuck up against Walls and Pillars.

And in the margin Vanbrugh made a note, to which he appended a little sketch. “This manner of Interment,” he wrote, “has been practic’d by the English at Suratt and is come at last to have this kind of effect.” The sketch shows a cemetery enclosed with railings, with a pedimented stone gate and pyramids at the corners. There are towers, domed mausoleums, obelisks, and columns among trees and shrubs. It is a sketch from memory after a quarter of a century, and it is also a classicized version of what he had actually seen in India: it is halfway between a sketch of Surat and a plan for something entirely new in England. The first English garden cemetery was established in Norwich in 1819. Vanbrugh’s sketch and accompanying ground plan date from 1711.

In that ground plan, labeled “Manner of planting the Caemitary,” we see how a six-acre plot may be subdivided by alleyways of trees, illustrating the point that the text insists on: rich and poor must have their own separate areas in the cemetery. Behind all this, no doubt, is a careful calculation. The rich will never give up their highly visible signs of privilege (the conspicuous family tombs in church) in exchange for something that could be remotely mistaken for a pauper’s grave. But the cemeteries Vanbrugh would have seen in Surat arose out of a competition between the English, Dutch, French, and Armenian traders for a display of wealth, and were notable for their use of Mughal forms and details. Robert Williams, in an essay in the admirable volume that he has co-edited with Christopher Ridgway, suggests that while he forbore to emulate the vocabulary and details of Mughal architecture, Vanbrugh, at Blenheim and Castle Howard, remained affected by Mughal concepts of magnificence. Many sketches of what has been taken for garden buildings may in fact have been intended as mausoleums (themselves a new idea in England) on Mughal lines. Williams believes that the Surat cemetery would have had a special emotional significance for Vanbrugh: it seems that relatives of his were buried there.

One might conjecture another sort of significance. Vanbrugh, born in London to a rich sugar trader of Flemish descent, went out to India with a friend in search of a fortune, and a fortune was theirs for the asking if they were prepared to put up with the life of a factory manager (Williams reminds us that Elihu Yale made enough money in Madras to found Yale University with a huge donation in 1718). The question was: Would one survive long enough? Vanbrugh and his friend were valued recruits to the East India Company, but could not be persuaded to stay. No doubt they looked on the English cemetery with a particular personal horror: that was where they would end up, if another epidemic struck. How ignominious such a death would have seemed to the young men—to sacrifice life and youth for the cloth trade. Vanbrugh went home, and joined the army almost at once. It was a better life, and the death it offered might well be tinged with glory.


How fine it would be if someone could do for Inigo Jones what Robert Williams did for Vanbrugh, for it is in Jones’s lost years that the foundation was laid for the education of England’s first architect. Jones was baptized in London in 1573, son of a clothworker also called Inigo—according to Sir John Summerson “an otherwise unheard-of name which the son sometimes latinized as Ignatius but which is almost certainly Welsh.” Contrast this with the opening of Edward Chaney’s essay “Inigo Jones in Naples”:

Given his reputation (as early as 1605) as ‘a great traveller,’ the Spanish-named Yñigo Jones may have visited Spain as well as Southern Italy around the turn of the century.2

This is provocative, not least because Professor Chaney offers no elaboration of his theory that Jones knew Spain, but he may well (most probably does) have something up his sleeve. About the Spanishness of Jones’s name he is surely correct.

Jones is often popularly taken for a Welshman. I lived for a while near the Denbighshire town of Llanrwst, from which his family was supposed to derive, and where he was locally credited (on, it turns out, no evidence at all) with the design of a bridge and a chapel. Wren is supposed to have said that Jones served an apprenticeship to a joiner in St. Paul’s churchyard, in London. Summerson calculates that if this was so he would have finished his apprenticeship in 1594-1595. The missing years, on this calculation, would be 1595-1603, when we find him described as a “picture-maker,” that is, a painter. We know that Jones was in Venice in 1601, when he bought his copy of Palladio’s treatise on architecture (he paid two ducats for it). But how did a London Welshman of modest background acquire the means to travel perhaps for years on end, along with his Italian education in the visual arts and courtly entertainment?

  1. 1

    See “Vanbrugh’s Lost Years,” in The Times Literary Supplement, September 3, 1999.

  2. 2

    See Edward Chaney, The Evolution of the Grand Tour (Frank Cass, 1998).

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