The south front of John Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval. Picture Credit: Matthew Lloyd Roberts

Studio: The English Baroque

Great architecture emerges as much from tension as coherence

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Architecture, more than any other art, is iterative and referential: more often than not, buildings look like other buildings. This fact underpins much of the anxiety that exists in architecture about individual genius, originality, pastiche and copyism. In Britain we are often self-conscious about our buildings, we have a vestigial memory of the days when we were a cultural backwater off the coast of Europe, the engine-room of the medieval gothic and renaissance classicism.

This flexible, creative relationship to precedent is what makes for great architecture

One moment that encapsulates something about the deeper principles of good architectural design that can thrive in these islands, is the so-called “English Baroque”. A style defined in the popular imagination by the heroic efforts of some of the first British people to define themselves as “architects”: Christopher Wren, John Webb, Nicholas Hawksmoor, John Vanbrugh, Thomas Archer — the list goes on. These architects produced a scatter-shot pattern of churches and country houses distributed across the urban and rural, metropolitan and provincial fabric of Britain, forever changing what architecture in this country meant.

The flattening effects of passing centuries can dislocate us from just how radical these buildings were in their original context. But the experience of visiting them, walking around their complexly composited forms, perhaps discreetly running fingers over the exquisite stonework, is an inescapable reminder that these designers and masons created something unique.

Composite capitals and classical detailing in Castle Howard’s Great Hall. Picture Credit: Matthew Lloyd Roberts

So what is it that makes these buildings so good? Architecture relies on a collaborative process. Buildings require complex and extensive webs of creative and economic relations, from the procurement of materials at scale, to the logistics of transportation, to the difficulties of construction in changeable weather.

These architects were uniquely talented at combining their inventive designs that play with architectural form and precedent and subvert our expectations. They actually got the blasted things built through careful cultivation of relationships with both craftspeople and clients.

A perfect education in what makes buildings great

Their letters are a testament to this process, and well worth reading. My favourites will always be Nicholas Hawksmoor writing to Henry Joynes, the clerk of works at Blenheim, with paternal tenderness and firmness, teaching him how to keep the accounts in order, and to manage the huge team of skilled and unskilled labourers working on the site.

In one of his many tactful letters to Lord Carlisle regarding Castle Howard, Hawksmoor commented on his relationship to architectural precedent, that he “wou’d not mention Authors and Antiquity” as architectural designers didn’t “need to Coppy them, but to be upon ye Same principalls”. Nowhere are Hawksmoor’s design principles and his relationship to precedent clearer than in Castle Howard’s Mausoleum.

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Castle Howard Mausoleum with its dense forest of columns. Picture Credit: Matthew Lloyd Roberts

Hawksmoor takes the Greek form of the tholos or round temple and achieves something spectacular. We might compare it to Bramante’s Tempietto in Rome, where 16 Tuscan columns spaciously hold up the entablature. At Hawksmoor’s mausoleum, 20 Doric columns jostle and crowd for space, giving it a potently brooding and mournful feeling. This flexible, creative relationship to precedent is what makes for great architecture.

Icicle or stalactite rustication at Castle Howard Picture Credit: Matthew Lloyd Roberts

Architects of this moment didn’t always have easy or straightforward relationships with their clients. We might consider the notes the Duchess of Marlborough made on John Vanbrugh’s letters that he was a “lying rascal” regarding cost overruns at the gargantuan Blenheim Palace, where she suspected him of renovating the medieval Woodstock Manor in the grounds of the house as his own bachelor pad.

At Seaton Delaval outside Newcastle, a burnt-out pleasure palace with a tragic history of heirs dying young, you see the thrilling combination of ingenious craftsmanship and Vanbrugh the playwright’s natural flare for the dramatic. The thick-banded rustication of the basement bows outward, emphasising the sheer weight of the building above, with its four corner towers evoking medieval architecture, an association Vanbrugh was keen on as his work at the ancient Kimbolton. He sought to retain “something of the Castle Air, tho at the same time to make it regular”.

Fire-damaged stonework in the staircase at Seaton Delaval. Picture Credit: Matthew Lloyd Roberts

Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor’s architecture was a form of classicism unbound by strict pattern-book formalism, with a rule-breaking willingness to change the proportions and the scale of the different elements; to run deeply carved bands of rustication up the length of a Doric column to give the element more weight, more solemnity, more drama.

Rustication simply means the way that stones are dressed and finished, most commonly with simple channels cut between blocks of stone to express the structural logic of the wall. But these buildings positively bristle with different sculptural dressings: vermiculate, literally worm-like; chilling bands of icicles on Thomas Archer’s Cascade House at Chatsworth, sitting atop a water feature designed by Louis XIV’s hydraulic engineer.

Vermiculate rustication at John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Castle Howard. Picture Credit: Matthew Lloyd Roberts

This emphasis on dramatic massing, the expression of weight and solidity, and the close attention paid to materials and texture, evokes a comparison often made between the baroque and brutalism. This comparison is fruitful because it helps us to parse the contemporary reaction against this architecture, which came thick and fast.

James Ralph, an architectural critic of the 1730s, wrote that in Hawksmoor and Archer’s churches, “the builder mistook whim for genius, and ornament for taste” and of Vanbrugh’s houses “nothing is more corrupt, nor can tend more to the degeneracy of true beauty”. Great buildings often suffer this fate.

Nowhere is the simultaneous triumph and failure of the promise of the baroque more apparent than at Castle Howard [5]. Contrary to the engraving produced in 1715 for Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus, the west wing of the building was not completed during Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor’s tenure as designers, but rather by Thomas Robinson and Charles Heathcote Tatham in the prescriptive, copy-book Palladianism of the 1750s. Seeing these two contrasting approaches to architecture rubbing up against each other is a perfect education in what makes buildings great, and we can learn much from them.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover