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Tag: Inigo Jones

The People’s Piazza: A History of Covent Garden (BBC)

I finally got round to watching The People’s Piazza: A History of Covent Garden on iPlayer. As with many of the best documentaries, the researchers had done a great job of finding people who had direct involvement with the subject at hand, including men and women who had worked in the market in the pre- and post-war periods. There was some great archive footage, and the framing of developments around historical figures worked well.

Inigo Jones’ St Paul’s church loomed large, though its architectural history wasn’t explored. It’s still surprising how Jones integrated the most ‘primitive’ Tuscan order with elegant surrounding townhouses, and in doing so delivering London’s first formal open space. Jones had seen the opportunity to employ the Tuscan’s earthy and robust dimensions in an ecclesiastical building after agreeing with the Earl of Bedford to deliver the ‘handsomest barn in England’. The huge east front pedimented portico of St Paul’s (sixty feet across), with its widely-spaced pair of large columns flanked by square pilasters, had no precedent in England, and the sight of a quasi-Tuscan temple would have been all the more dramatic for its urban setting. The church’s double-square interior displayed Jones’ preference for harmonic ratios, with symmetrical, tall, rounded-headed pairs of windows on the east and west facades complementing circular windows above the church’s ‘entrances’ (the east one is fake).

Flanking St Paul’s were a pair of arches, also Tuscan, with rusticated pilasters. These were positioned away from the church and joined by a wide, low wall, at a distance proportionate to the columnation of the church’s portico. The cumulative effect of their inclusion, visible in later etchings and paintings, again demonstrated Jones’ inclination for horizontality, but at Covent Garden going a step further to confidently bestow a residential skyline with the gravity of the Tuscan order.

No drawings in Jones’ hand survive for the the tall, narrow houses he designed for the north and east sides of Covent Garden, but later pictorial evidence shows that they were narrow, classical structures, with vaulted, rusticated, arcade walkways (‘piazzas’) spanning the terraces, with steep roofs and dormer windows. Summerson argued that the whole of Covent Garden was a ‘comprehensive essay in the Tuscan mood’, with Jones adapting a Serlio  design for his Covent Garden houses to deliver elegant continuity around three sides of the square. The effect is seen in later paintings: a band of red, upper-story brickwork runs around the square – smart, but subordinate to the bright, rusticated ashlar line leading the eye to its termination at the new, understated, Protestant, place of worship.

The point here isn’t to establish whether Jones’ unified application of the Tuscan order was faithful to antiquity, but more to recognise that what Jones had created was the first classical city square in England. Its influence was soon felt in surrounding streets, with Jones directing similar classical projects in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Great Queen Street. Jones had arrived at his own urban vernacular, the forerunner of London street architecture. Crucially, these buildings and spaces would be experienced by the public, not just kings and courtiers.

At this point Jones still had what might have been the crowning glories of his Westminster Palace and St Paul’s cathedral developments on the horizon, though the former didn’t come to fruition and the latter was demolished. Whatever the aesthetic merit of Jones’ work on the west front of the cathedral, it’s Jones’ influence on secular architecture that was revolutionary, though his buildings alone may not have been enough to secure that legacy.

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The York House Water Gate (1626) Part One: History

Re-post of an article on the York House Water Gate I originally wrote for

The York House Water Gate, Embankment Gardens, London. Image: Struan Bates.

A 17th century Italianate arch lies 150 yards from the Thames, weather-worn and hidden between the office blocks. In its pomp a gateway for kings and courtiers, it marked the riverside entrance to one of Europe’s most sumptuous houses.

So how has it come to stand marooned in a park? And how did it survive the centuries?

York House was one of the great riverside mansions on the south side of the Strand, home to a succession of Keepers of the Great Seal, most famously Francis Bacon, who was born here in 1561. Bacon briefly returned to the property in adult life prior to his fall from grace, however George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham, had long coveted the mansion and was instrumental in prising it from Bacon’s grasp. So strong was his attachment, however, that he would not give it up without a fight:

“York House is the house where my father died, and where I drew my first breath; and there I will yield my last breath, if it so please God and the King … At least no money, no value, shall make me part with it.”

Letter to the Duke of Lennox
John Norden’s 1593 map of Westminster. The pre-Watergate jetty at York House can be made out in the centre. The first section of the rambling Whitehall Palace to the left. The Strand is to the right.

York House finally passed into Buckingham’s possession in March 1622 as a condition of Bacon’s pardon. Each of the neighbouring Strand palaces (such as Somerset House and Durham House) had river entrances to facilitate easy passage between Whitehall, Greenwich and other properties along the Thames. His aesthetic vision for the property demanded a river entrance of equal majesty, and it was he who ordered the construction of York House’s last remnant visible today: the Watergate.

Buckingham, art and the Stuart court

At the time he took ownership Buckingham was the highest-ranking non-Royal in the country. The intimacy of his relationship with the king (James I) led to the 20 year-old being trusted as confident and advisor to James’ son and reluctant monarch-in-waiting, the 22 year-old Prince Charles.

Later in the year the two would travel incognito to Spain to conduct secret marriage negotiations for the hand of the Infanta Maria. This ill-fated trip may have been a political disaster, though Charles didn’t come away entirely empty-handed. Amongst the gifts presented by the Spanish was the monumental sculpture Samson Slaying a Philistine (1560-2), by Giambologna. The closeness of Charles’ friendship with Buckingham was reflected in his subsequent gesture: he gave the Giambologna to Buckingham as a gift, and it remained as a showpiece of his collection in the York House garden, reputedly the only piece on display not plucked from antiquity (a 1635 inventory revealed no fewer than 59 pieces of Roman sculpture there). The statue complemented the already formidable collection of paintings inside the house, including a large body of work by Rubens.

The south-facing pediment. The escallops (shell) motifs are taken from the Villiers coat-of-arms. Image: Struan Bates.

Buckingham’s military and political record might be strewn with failures, though his influence in kindling Charles’ ambition to become a leading patron and collector in his own right was far more successful. A few years later Rubens himself would deem Charles “the best amateur of painting of all the princes in the world” – an apprenticeship part-served in the corridors and river gardens of York House.

The Giambologna statue also survives. It’s now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the story of its sequence of owners – both before and after it was at York House – is a worthy diversion in itself. You can read more about it here.

The work of many hands?

In 1623 Buckingham set about commissioning a dramatic river-front entrance to his grounds. A striking Portland stone Water Gate in the style of Sebastian Serlio was ordered. Serlio’s volumes conveying his Italian Renaissance style were already in circulation in Italian, and had been studied by architects and designs such as Inigo Jones.

As Surveyor-General of the King’s Works Jones is often credited with being the first to bring the Italianate style to England. By the time the Water Gate was commissioned he had finished his work on the Banqueting House, and his hand was assumed in the design and construction of the Water Gate. He is, however, not the only only candidate.

The Danby Gateway at Oxford, built by Nicholas Stone 1632/33. Photo: Steve Cadman (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Since arriving in London in 1616 the designer and diplomat Sir Balthazar Gerbier had been acting as Buckingham’s art buyer and collection manager. He had also accompanied Buckingham and the king on the ill-fated trip to Spain. Gerbier’s letters to his patron in the Bodleian library document some of his involvement in the remodelling work of York House in the 1620s, and as such suggest that he may have been chosen for the commission.

The final name in the frame is Nicholas Stone. It was thought that the sculptor and architect was involved in the Water Gate’s construction using plans drawn up by either Jones or Gerbier, however comparisons of stylistic elements of other examples of Stone’s work (such as the Doric banded columns) have given greater weight to his claim as designer and builder. Stone had also studied Serlio and his rusticated style can be seen in the strikingly similar – though larger – Danby Gateway (above), one of the three entrances to the University of Oxford Botanic Gardens.

Until more conclusive evidence comes to light it appears that Stone has the best claim to the Water Gate’s initial design and construction, though either of the others – more probably Jones – had a hand in its refinement.

A more detailed examination of the Water Gate’s design – including a preparatory drawing attributed to Stone – can be read at the Sir John Soane Museum website, here.

The rear frieze features the Villier’s family motto FIDEI COTICULA CRUX (‘The Cross is the Test of Faith’). The anchor on the cartouche – and the lions on top – represent Buckingham’s admiralship. Image: Struan Bates.

Completion, the English Civil War and its aftermath

The Gate was completed in 1626, though Buckingham would enjoy it for only two years. In 1628 he was murdered in Portsmouth by a veteran of one of his disastrous naval escapades, angry at being passed over for promotion.

The house was passed between family members and tenants until after the Civil War. In 1644 parliament ordered the seizure of the property and its possessions. The “superstitious” art collection was to be taken and burned but was saved by the Earl of Northumberland – the tenant at the time – who stepped in and saved the majority of the work, claiming it would affect the future value of the property (though more likely was interested in securing the pick of Buckingham’s collection for himself).

In 1649 Cromwell conferred York House on Thomas Fairfax as recognition for his services during the Civil War. Buckingham’s heir, George, the second Duke, had been living in exile with Charles II but returned in 1657. He married Fairfax’s daughter, Mary, and was granted permission to live with her, thus returning York House to Villiers ownership.

The Restoration would not, however, bring back the property’s glory days. Buckingham’s debts were growing unmanageable and in 1672 he sold the estate to developers for £30,000.

His one condition was that the streets surrounding the land would be named in his honour.

Looking through the balustrades across Embankment Gardens towards the Thames. Image: Struan Bates.

Development and land reclamation
By 1674 the estate was already being carved up by developers, with York House demolished in 1675. The work of generations of Lord Keepers and the First Duke of Buckingham was undone in a little over a year.

At the same time the streets to the rear of the Water Gate (which exist to this day) were laid out, with the first of the new buildings following soon after. Seeing an obvious commercial opportunity for supplying water to the properties a group of investors established the York Buildings Waterworks Company. An obelisk-shaped water tower was built adjacent to the Water Gate – a landmark conspicuous in many 18th and early-19th century paintings of the north bank. The late-17th century land agreements also stated that a terrace walk be laid behind the new buildings to allow access to the Water Gate for those wishing to walk by the Thames.

The floor stone commemorating the 1898 and 1962 repairs by London Country Council. Image: Struan Bates.

The river would lap at the steps of the Water Gate until 1862. In that year the engineer Joseph Bazalgette was commissioned to construct the Thames Embankment. The reclamation of 22 acres of marshy land for real estate would leave the Water Gate where it is today: marooned 150 yards from the water’s edge.

In 1874 the Embankment Gardens were created as a public space, though responsibility for maintaining the Water Gate was unclear, and by 1880 it had fallen into a sorry state. London County Council stepped in in 1893 to protect the Gate, carrying out general repair work and re-roofing in 1898.
The roof was again replaced in 1962, with some masonry restored. The Gardens – with its Water Gate and other pieces of public art – are now looked after by the City of Westminster.

The plaque on a bank to the left of the arch attributes the Water Gate’s
building to Nicholas Stone alone. Image: Struan Bates.

The Water Gate today

The Gate is locked and protected by a low fence, but the area around it is surprisingly accessible. Watergate Walk (separating the Gate from the steps to Buckingham Street) runs directly behind and allows close-up viewing of the Gate’s interior. Tables and chairs from Gordon’s Wine Bar, a popular venue for post-work drink, sit in its shadow.

Though weathered, the Water Gate seems in a fair state of repair given its age. The main visitors to the gardens on weekdays are office workers eating their sandwiches. I doubt the Water Gate features on too many tourist trails given the detour required from more popular attractions like Trafalgar Square through the busy area behind Charing Cross station. Coaches drop off on the Embankment itself, and some groups may use the pathway through the gardens as a cut-through to the Strand and Covent Garden. As the Water Gate is set back beneath the trees it’s also not immediately visible from the Embankment, and as such is pretty much hidden from passers-by.

A shame, as with the Banqueting House a short walk away it’s one of the few surviving reminders of London’s 17th century Italianate court architecture.

The position of the Water Gate on the Embankment. The steps lead up to the arch, obscured by trees. Note the names of the surrounding streets. View larger map

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Inigo Jones and Palladio: Queen’s House, Greenwich

In Week 3 we turned to the Renaissance, Mannerism and the Baroque. We looked at the Queen’s House in Greenwich, designed in 1618 by Inigo Jones but not completed until 1635. After looking at how Jones took inspiration from visits to Renaissance Italy, and particularly the work of Andrea Palladio, we were asked to look at the architectural features of Queen’s House and comment on elements Jones had clearly taken from Palladio’s work, and how he might be said to have deviated from it.

The south front of the Queen’s House, Greenwich

What struck me when looking at the Queen’s House was that, at first glance, how less three-dimensional it appears than many of Palladio’s porticoed villas on the Veneto. However, looking more closely at features of the south front of the Queen’s House (above), Palladio’s influence becomes clearer, with the inclusion of a six-columned loggia and lower storey rustication.

The north facade’s (above) central bay is projected, even if only slightly, and has a semi-circular windowhead flanked by rectangular windows (though Palladio seemed to prefer a trio of semi-circular windowheads at the centre of his buildings, often with fewer rectangular windows either side).

Browsing photos of Palladio’s villas, the building I thought Queen’s House (or at least the south front) most resembles is the Villa Pisani in Montagnana:

Villa Pisani in Montagnana, south front. Image: Hans A. Rosbach (CC BY-SA 2.5)

It seems that Jones was looking to add his own refinements to his learnings from Palladio, and I think this is perhaps most evident at Queen’s House where the central string course, projecting cornice and balustraded parapet work together to give an overall effect of sharpness and under-stated sophistication (I can’t find an example of Palladio using a balustraded parapet at roof level on a country villa, though might be wrong!)

Villa Pisani in Montagnana, north front. Image: Hans A. Rosbach (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Interior of the Banqueting House, Whitehall (360 view)

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