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The Baroque in England

Drama and emotion - a most 'unEnglish' style!


The baroque style is often identified with absolutism; it was the style of princes and the Catholic Church, the style of monarchs who asserted their divine right to rule.

Unsurprisingly, this didn't go down well in seventeenth century England, where Puritanism and Republicanism had made great inroads in taste.

In the late 1620s, the Flemish artists Rubens and Van Dyck had been invited to England, and their work became intimately associated with the court style. So once Charles I has lost his head, the baroque style was not only the style of a loser – it was a style seen as sinfully luxurious. Though the Commonwealth saw fine verse and music being written, and even a severe architectural classicism following Inigo Jones's precedent (Timothy Mowl's 'Architecture without Kings' offers a fascinating account of a little known period of architecture) it seems to have fallen behind in painting and sculpture – and the full blown baroque fell by the wayside.

With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the scene was set for a massive revival of the arts. The Puritans had not been opposed to art in the abstract – Cromwell appreciated fine music, and his cousin Anne left us a collection of keyboard music – but they believed it had no place in worship, which should be plain and simple; they had also prohibited theatrical performances, seen as occasions for sin. Charles promptly put the theatres and the cathedral choirs back into commission, reestablished the Chapel Royal, and started commissioning music from composers such as Matthew Locke and Pelham Humfrey.

Blenheim Palace

Charles had spent much of his life in exile abroad, and his court was a cosmpolitan one. He modelled the music of the Chapel Royal on Louis XIV's 'vingt-quatre violons du roi', which he'd heard while in exile, creating the verse anthem form. Northern baroque painters were popular – Peter Lely had already served Cromwell, while Godfrey Kneller (Gottfried Kniller by birth) arrived in 1674 and soon achieved success as a portrait painter, succeeding Lely as Principal Painter to the Court.

Yet in architecture, England remained at one remove from Continental trends. Out of all the architects of the period, only Thomas Archer actually visited Italy, the home of the baroque. Wren never went further than France, though he did have an introduction to Bernini, who was then working in Paris; Vanbrugh had also visited France, which received many royalist emigres, but Hawksmoor had never travelled outside the country – his knowledge of architecture abroad came entirely from books.

Castle Howard

Yet between them, a handful of English architects created a school of eclectic, baroque architecture, from the Restoration up to the 1720s. Wren is more refined, intellectual and classical in his effects; the later Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, who often worked together, more flamboyant and extreme. Vanbrugh was a gentleman amateur, Hawksmoor a practical architect; they seem to have worked well together, and it certainly wasn't a master/servant relationship as it might have been a century earlier.

William Talman, like Hawksmoor one of Wren's pupils, and Thomas Archer are less well known, but equally interesting Baroque architects. Talman was responsible for what was probably the first Baroque country house in England, Chatsworth in Derbyshire; his precedent may well have stimulated Vanbrugh's response in Castle Howard – a contract Vanbrugh gained against competition from the more prickly, less socially adept Talman.

Perhaps, in Wren's work, we see another reason that the baroque is a minority style in England; a certain distrust of emotional effects and theatricality. While Wren uses typical baroque effects such as the giant order, and illusion, he avoids dramatic effects, instead achieving an almost French restraint and coolness. Look at the western towers of St Paul's though, and you can see that he has definitely picked up a trick that Borromini used extensively, creating an interplay of concave and convex forms.

St Pauls warrant design by Christopher Wren

Wren's architecture now may look quintessentially English – but it was revolutionary in its time. Indeed, he faced major opposition to his plans for St Paul's from the more conservatively minded authorities, who wanted a traditional Gothic style cathedral with a spire and twin-towered west facade, and insisted that his original centralised Greek cross plan be replaced by a church designed on a longitudinal axis.

One of the great delights of Wren's work, at St Paul's and the city churches, and at Hampton Court, is the fine decorative art of the period. Most famous of all the craftsmen working with Wren was Grinling Gibbons, a Dutch woodcarver who had moved to England shortly after the Restoration. His swags of flowers, leaves and fruit are intensely realistic, and his carvings are highly undercut, displaying incredible mastery of technique. While often only decorative, his carvings also include narrative panels such as 'Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones' (at Deptford). Wrought ironwork is another crafts that flourished at the time; witness the fine gates to the choir in St Paul's by French (Huguenot) immigrant ironworker Jean Tijou. (His work can also be found at Chatsworth.)

Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh have a rich vein of fantasy that is not so much found in Wren. Hawksmoor, for instance, was involved in Gothic pastiche at All Soul's, Oxford and at Westminster Abbey – he seems to have enjoyed taking on board a different style. Vanbrugh, too, enjoyed putting on fancy dress, building his own 'castle' in Greenwich. But Hawksmoor's own style is characterised by the use of bold plain surfaces, and striking geometry – the octagonal lanterns of St George in the East, the huge restraining arch that creates a dark vertical slit to offset the white tower and spire of Christ Church Spitalfields. They create skylines that are reminiscent of the medieval city, with pinnacles, turrets and statues. At Blenheim, they aim to create awe with magnificence and massive scale – a truly baroque aim.

Blenheim Palace

What's truly amazing about the English baroque is that in just fifty years, these architects created buildings rich in imagination, subversion, and drama – very un-English virtues. Look at what stands on each side of their moment of glory, and you see what they were reacting against. Before them is the Palladian, rational work of Inigo Jones; his Banqueting House in Whitehall, London, is really a Renaissance work, based on numerical harmonies of proportion. And by 1715, Colen Campbell's Palladian manifesto, the Vitruvius Britannicus, set out the rules for an architecture that prioritised rationality and ease over Hawksmoor's drama and excess.

Where to see the English baroque

In London:

Easton Neston by Hawksmoor

In the provinces:

Chatsworth south front