Crotchet Castles

Peter Campbell

  • William Kent by Michael Wilson
    Routledge, 276 pp, £30.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 7100 9983 5
  • James Gibbs by Terry Friedman
    Yale, 362 pp, £40.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 300 03172 6
  • Sir John Soane, Architect by Dorothy Stroud
    Faber, 300 pp, £32.00, May 1984, ISBN 0 571 13050 X
  • The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable by Graham Reynolds
    Yale, 880 pp, £140.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 300 03151 3

The almost universal extra-professional unpopularity of architects (what other Royal Institution could the Prince of Wales put the boot into with such sure expectation of applause?) is no new phenomenon. Distrust of the man who knows what you want better than you know it yourself goes back at least as far as the 17th century. Roger North, an amateur architect whose only substantial extant work is the gateway to the Middle Temple, wrote a treatise on building in the mid-169Os. It trenchantly affirms amateur virtues: ‘where a man builds for his owne use, none can contrive well but himself. I exclude not councell ... but the owner must pronounce.’ He complains of the inability of ‘surveyors’ to keep control over work in progress and observes that they will ‘practice their owne whims, at your cost. They having viewed many fabricks, in life, and in draught, with the ornaments of the antique and moderne invention, have a world of crotchetts of their owne ... all which they have an itch to put in execution, and it is miraculous if they doe it not the first opportunity of building they are employed in. And lett a man arme himself what he can, they will argue and perswade him beyond his intentions.’ North conceded that great undertakings were not to be left to amateurs, but his belief that a gentleman with a little enthusiasm and education could build as well as a professional makes architecture seem complicated, but not mysterious.

When the profession became better established the need to be original, to advance the art of building by exercising imagination, became important to the architect’s self-esteem and reputation. Those who followed Roger North’s over-eager proto-professionals began to assume that their genius should mark the smallest details of the work they undertook and the erosion of the independence of the worker in stone, plaster, brick or wood accelerated. The drawing-men took over from the making-men. Conception and execution became separate provinces. Thinking, not building, became the architect’s highest achievement. Finally, some time around the third quarter of the 18th century, architecture became a proper profession. The self-taught amateurs and self-improved craftsmen who had filled posts of responsibility in the office of works, or (very frequently through that connection) been responsible for major buildings, were succeeded by a generation who had been pupils and assistants in the offices of their seniors, had attended lectures at the Royal Academy, and belonged to professional bodies. Their offices became more substantial and their relations with their clients more formal. William Kent, Lord Burlington’s house-guest for most of his life, stands on the pre-professional side of the divide: Sir John Soane, architect of the Bank of England, professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, on the post-professional side. The careers Dorothy Stroud and Michael Wilson describe in their new biographies of Soane and Kent illustrate the division.

James Gibbs had a more complete architectural education – in Rome – than any of his British contemporaries. He was a Catholic, and his career suffered because of it, but through his buildings at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and the churches of St Martin-in-the-Fields and St Mary-le-Strand, he has probably had as great an effect on popular ideas of what a Classical building should look like as any of his contemporaries. This influence was compounded by his Book of Architecture, which was so widely used as a source by country and colonial builders that Terry Friedman’s monograph concludes with a chapter on Gibbs-inspired designs. His account shows Gibbs as an altogether more thorough steward of his clients’ interests than Kent, a careful supervisor of workmen, business-like in his scale of fees (5 per cent on major works, five to ten guineas for small sets of drawings), and as a skilled professional – competent, for example, to adjudicate in architectural disputes. But in his catalogue Friedman regularly lists the craftsmen who worked on Gibbs’s buildings, showing that while he was composer and leader of the band he was working with soloists who might invent their own cadenzas. Soane was a conductor who expected his players to keep to the notes as written.

Kent was sent to Rome in 1709 by a group of gentlemen to purchase and copy pictures. In 1714 he made the acquaintance of Lord Burlington and for the next three decades gave life and variety to Burlington’s campaign to reform English architecture along Palladian lines – to jump back one hundred years and join hands with Inigo Jones’s first Palladian revival. English Palladianism is book architecture. Kent gave a swagger to interiors, staircases, furniture – to those parts not prescribed in the canonical texts and upon which a more intellectual designer might have imposed greater consistency. When he came to design gardens such contrasts were the essence of his work. Perhaps it was Pope who set garden paths winding, who broke the symmetry of avenue and parterre but Kent was the master orchestrator and conductor of the first generation of English landscape gardens. His drawings are as evocative and suggestive as Lutyens’s worm’s-eye views. It is easy to understand how he enthused unenthusiastic Whig potentates, and proved that fine Augustan sentiments about nature and naturalness were practical recipes for park management.

Epigrammatic judgments (Lord Hervey’s comment that Chiswick Villa was too small to live in but too big to hang on your watch chain, or Horace Walpole’s on clumps of trees stuck here and there on a lawn till it ‘looks like the ten of spades’), satires, and anonymous rhymes were the proper critical instruments to use on the well-fleshed and privileged body of English Palladianism. It has too much of conspicuous consumption about it, too much of borrowed style and sentiment, to win the respect offered even to wrong-headed originality. But Kent, because he had a talent for invention, and a talent to please, turned some at least of that conspicuous consumption into rooms and landscapes which still lift the spirit.

He was an irregular supervisor: ‘If Kent can be persuaded to come I will take it very kindly,’ wrote General Dormer, when work on Rousham was advancing. Cares of estate were too much for the General, who died as the garden work neared completion. ‘Knock me on the head sooner than give me that,’ Kent wrote when he saw how anxieties of inheritance had undone his patron. What did Kent actually do? He certainly did not criss-cross the country, checking on progress here and supplying amended drawings there. He was not, as Soane and Gibbs were, overseeing, supervising, taking responsibility. To compare his rather scratchy and ill-articulated drawing for the Newton monument with what Rysbrack made of it in stone is to realise how great the contribution of the interpreter can be.

Kent’s first professional preferment was as a painter, and it is generally agreed that he was a very bad one. If the bad painter had not been nurtured the great decorator and garden designer might have been lost, but it is no wonder Hogarth found the business rancid. There was personal animosity (Thornhill, Hogarth’s father-in-law, was passed over in favour of Kent), but the effortless rise from one official post to the next necessarily rankled when public and private patronage went through such narrow channels. Kent’s good nature and cheerfulness, the talent for pleasing – in conversation as much as on paper or canvas – were great professional assets.

English architecture, as these books show, has been well served by scholarship. It is possible to find the accounts, plans, dates and elevations of almost any English building of distinction set out in the context of an informed discussion of the architect’s work. But the catholic taste which this scholarly omnivorousness reflects makes the aesthetic distinctions which so inflamed architectural controversy hard to appreciate. We can give Gibbs more or fewer points than Vanbrugh on an absolute scale, but to take Batty Langley’s superior line on the advance and retreat of the entablature of St Mary-le-Strand (‘it may please the ignorant: but a judge would have been glad to see the entablature entire’), or to share his scorn for the pediment in the interior of that building (‘nothing can be so absurd’ as the ‘placing of an entire Pediment within-side a Building where no Rain can fall’), requires an instinct for proprieties. The shock which a dropped keystone, a truncated entablature or an uncanonical order delivers has a voltage proportional to the viewer’s understanding of the convention which it breaks. The current interest in Classical and Neoclassical building – a reaction against ‘abstract’ forms which do not, for example, make it clear where the main entrance is – has, because of our ignorance, produced buildings which use Classical form and detailing more as applied decoration than as elements in a complex language. To make the rules of the Latin of architecture well understood again is no impossible task (the Gothic Revival began in a decorative mode), and for anyone interested in this kind of self-improvement following the detailed accounts of the evolution of Gibbs’s designs in Friedman’s book is good exercise. The marrying of a steeple (‘steeples are of a Gothick Extraction,’ Gibbs wrote) to a Classical temple in the design of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and the alternative plans suggested for that church, involved problem-solving abilities of a high order. Gibbs was at ease with the rhythms of the Italian Baroque, as only Archer was among his contemporaries, but he could build plain Palladian, too, when it was called for. Friedman has done a complete job on this complete architect.

Soane, too, went to Italy, and made useful acquaintances there, but whereas Kent (like Wren and Vanbrugh) came to architecture comparatively late, Soane was among the first group of Englishmen to receive an education in architecture which was more than an apprenticeship. The Royal Academy was founded in 1768: in 1771 Soane was attending lectures there. When the first associations of architects were formed he was a leading member of them. He was born in 1753, when the Burlington Palladian revival was a thriving concern and pedimented and columniated frontispieces were still being piled onto rusticated basements. By the end of his career Neoclassical ideals and the beginnings of a Gothic revival dominated the stylistic scene, and the basis of patronage and the nature of architectural practice had changed.

Lack of ornament and idiosyncratic proportion made much of Soane’s work difficult and unpopular in a way which has now become commonplace. By no means all of it fell into this category (and public incomprehension was no more a hindrance to professional preferment then than now), but it makes him seem – in his isolation as well as his achievement – modern. One sees in Soane an early example of the phenomenon of the architect as a person with a specialised – some would say awkward, introspective and over-refined – sensibility. The rooms in the Soane Museum, for example, are both delightful and disturbing. A cupboard is brought up hard against the edge of a door, light is introduced from a tiny glazed lantern, and hidden windows set round a shallowly domed ceiling make it seem to float above you. Strips of mirror glass render supports transparent. Narrow corridors press in on you and rooms open ingeniously or mysteriously into one another. Soane called it the ‘poetry of architecture’; the hollowed-out spaces of his interiors have been compared to the paintings of his friend Turner: they ask to be seen as built landscapes rather than rooms.

The originality of Soane’s work is not made less mysterious by knowledge of his sources and personality. Dorothy Stroud’s biography, which makes up the first third of her book (the remainder is a revised version of her catalogue of his architectural works), describes a difficult, compulsively hard-working, irritable, conscientious and often generous man. Although, to quote John Summerson, he seems ‘in his vulnerable singularity actually to have desired to offer to the world something which the world would take amiss’, it is hard to make any positive connection between his personality and his very particular talents.

In Italy Soane drew, measured and made designs. His early predilection for mausoleums was to be sustained; his design for a Classical dog-house, made for the Bishop of Derry, was the beginning of a connection which promised much and in the end produced little. Others he made in Rome were the basis of official appointments – above all, that to the surveyorship of the Bank of England – and of private commissions. His travels took him south, and a taste for an unornamented primitive Classicism was born out of his experience (as he put it many years later) of the ‘awful grandeur’ of the temples at Segesta, Selinunte and Agrigento. After his return to England energy and application, along with the help of friends, put him in the way of work. He married. He became prosperous, and the fortune he made by his own exertions was supplemented by his wife’s inheritance. He built for himself – and for his sons. But they had none of his talent and even less of his application. When he discovered they were not the stuff of which an architectural dynasty might be made, he took the collection of models and drawings, paintings and sculpture, books and architectural and archaeological relics, which were to have been their inheritance, and made a museum of them.

His imagination seems to have been particularly concentrated by the difficulties of fitting a new room into an existing structure. The Bank of England, a field of walled courtyards, presented a whole series of problems of this sort. (Wren was similarly challenged by the constricted sites of some of the City churches.) Without such a stimulus Soane might have failed to arrive at his particular variation on Dance’s dome design. The most striking image of his practical ingenuity at the Bank is provided, not by the photographs taken before the building was destroyed in the Thirties, but by Gandy’s drawing which shows the building in ruins, each of the offices outlined by the stumps of fallen walls. You learned from archaeology, and then speculated as to what your own work would look like when it, too, became ripe for careful measurement and learned speculation. When we look at the list of Soane’s buildings in Dorothy Stroud’s book, and the list of drawings exhibited at the Academy which is printed after it, the architect as professional supervisor of building work and the architect as artist become distinct beings: the long list of minor work, refurbishments, alterations overseen, small houses or cottages built, on the one hand, and schemes for ‘A National Entrance to the Metropolis’ or a ‘Monopteral temple to enshrine a colossal statue of the late RH the Duke of York’, on the other. The first impression is that the Soanian imagination was allowed freest reign on paper. Yet his best thinking was occasioned by the need to solve difficult practical problems: the grandiose schemes, like the one for a triumphal bridge which he returned to again and again throughout his life, are not the great work he would have done if the funds and will had been there, but a reversion to the irresponsible freedoms of studenthood.

The professionalisation of architecture made the design of colossal structures the work of the young: the realities of building came later. You won your medals, as Soane did, with highly-finished drawings. When you were established as an architect you were still preparing (or having prepared – the best drawings of Soane’s buildings are by Gandy) perspectives to show clients what you were proposing to build. You consolidated your professional reputation as a designer when drawings like these were shown in the Academy. Standing in the Soane Museum, with the three-dimensional building enclosing you and the two-dimensional versions of much of his work around you, the distinction between made and imagined seems very unimportant. If I had to save building or drawings, it would be the drawings every time. And if, to return to Prince Charles’s animadversions, we dislike new architecture, find it unsuitable to our condition, we must look a long way back – as far as Roger North’s intrusive surveyors – if we want to know when control slipped out of the hands of the users of buildings.

Graham Reynolds’s The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable has been awarded the Mitchell Prize for the History of Art. It is indeed an exhilarating book, in which it is possible to follow the general development of Constable’s work together with that of individual paintings. The pencil sketches, oil and watercolour studies from nature, full-scale compositional sketches and finished Academy paintings are catalogued (and in nearly all cases reproduced) in a way which makes the achievement of Constable’s later years clearer than ever before.