English Baroque Architecture

17 Jun
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Saint Paul’s Cathedral St. John’s, Smith Square Chatsworth
   
Castle Howard (1699) Blenheim Palace (1705) Seaton Delaval Hall
     
English Baroque is a casual term sometimes used to refer to the developments in English architecture that were parallel to the evolution of Baroque architecture in continental Europe between the Great Fire of London (1666) and the Treaty of Utrecht (1713).

Baroque aesthetics, whose influence was so potent in mid-17th century France, made little impact in England during the Protectorate and the first Restoration years. For a decade between the death of Inigo Jones  in 1652 and Sir Christopher Wren‘s visit to Paris in 1665 there was no English architect of the accepted premier class. Unsurprisingly, general interest in European architectural developments was slight.

It was Wren who presided over the genesis of the English Baroque manner, which differed from the continental models by clarity of design and subtle taste for classicism. Following the Great Fire of London, Wren rebuilt fifty three churches, where Baroque aesthetics are apparent primarily in dynamic structure and multiple changing views. His most ambitious work was St Paul’s Cathedral (1675-1711), which bears comparison with the most effulgent domed churches of Italy and France. In this majestically proportioned edifice, the Palladian tradition of Inigo Jones is fused with contemporary continental sensibilities in masterly equilibrium. Less influential were straightforward attempts to engraft the Berniniesque vision onto British church architecture (e.g., by Thomas Archer in St. John’s, Smith Square, 1728).

Although Wren was also active in secular architecture, the first truly baroque country house in England was built to a design by William Talman at Chatsworth, starting in 1687. The culmination of Baroque architectural forms comes with Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Each was capable of a fully developed architectural statement, yet they preferred to work in tandem, most notably at Castle Howard (1699) and Blenheim Palace (1705).

Although these two palaces may appear somewhat ponderous or turgid to Italian eyes, their heavy embellishment and overpowering mass captivated the British public, albeit for a short while. Castle Howard is a flamboyant assembly of restless masses dominated by a cylindrical domed tower which would not be out of place in Dresden or Munich. Blenheim is a more solid construction, where the massed stone of the arched gates and the huge solid portico becomes the main ornament. Vanbrugh’s final work was Seaton Delaval Hall (1718), a comparatively modest mansion yet unique in the structural audacity of its style. It was at Seaton Delaval that Vanbrugh, a skillful playwright, achieved the peak of Restoration drama, once again highlighting a parallel between Baroque architecture and contemporary theatre. Despite his efforts, Baroque was never truly to the English taste and well before his death in 1724 the style had lost currency in Britain.

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