Busting out all over

Review of The Baroque Age in England by Judith Hook

The Observer, 25 April 1976

By John Kenyon

The Baroque Age in England
The Baroque Age in England – Book Cover

Baroque art is the art of turmoil and tension. Forsaking the horizontal and vertical precision of Renaissance forms, it placed its emphasis on depth and recession, on diagonal lines in space, and even on spirals.

For if it was one of the functions of the Baroque to express strong emotion, it also demanded even captured the participation of the observer, towards whom the building or the painting that lay before them seemed to reach out. It expressed the doubts and agonies of the seventeenth century racked by war and pulled both ways by the persistent claims of faith and the blandishments of reason. Expensive, ostentatious and glamorous, it also pandered to the ego and helped defeat the doubts of a succession of absolute monarchists and aspiring aristocrats.

In England, the baroque spirit expressed itself mainly through a succession of great architects: Inigo Jones, Wren, Vanbrugh and Gibbs. Much of their work is lost, much was altered to suit the tastes of later centuries; what survives notably are the Banqueting House in Whitehall, St Paul’s Cathedral, Chelsea Hospital, Blenheim, Castle Howard Seaton Delaval, the Cambridge Senate House, perhaps part of Chatsworth. The list is not long. The expense itself curtailed growth: the Banqueting House is a fragment of a larger whole, so is the Senate House; Wren’s grand palace for Charles II at Winchester was never finished, nor was Castle Howard; only the contributions of the faithful and public taxation brought St paul’s and Blenheim respectively to completion; Seaton Hall was abandoned.

St Paul’s Cathedral, The Nave looking towards the choir

And Blenheim itself was a pointer to changing time. No king could afford many extravagances now (William III and Anne could only manage minor alterations at Hampton Court and Kensington), and it needed a grateful and triumphant Parliament to finance this monument to its most celebrated general. But the Whig lords who dominated Parliament were turning away from the Baroque; it was not so much that it was expensive, it was monarchical in spirit, it was too restless, it was vulgar. From his travels, in Italy, the dilettante Earl of Burlington returned with the raw material of restraint, the Palladian or neo-classical style which conquered English taste in a few decades. Palladianism became a test of Whig orthodoxy.

Marlborough chose Vanbrugh to design Blenheim but the giant of the next generation, Robert Walpole called on Colem Campbell to rebuild Holkham. It was Campbell who dismissed baroque architecture as parts without proportion, solids without their true bearings, heaps of materials without strength excessive ornaments without grave and whole without symmetry.

Judith Hook traces the rise and the fall of the Baroque in England with very rare skill and discernment. Too many histories of art or architecture treat of these forms in isolation; they consist merely of analyses of paintings or buildings lumped together with potted biographies of the artists and architects involved. But Dr Hooks training as a historian enables her indeed, forces her to blend art criticism with contemporary philosophy, religion, politics even sociology so that we see the Baroque as just one manifestation of the ethos of the age.

The Chapel, Royal Hospital Chelsea (1681–91), by Christopher Wren

When she discussed Inigo Jone’s Banqueting House, it concerns James I’s attempts to ape manners of his fellow monarchs in Europe; she relates Charles I’s taste in painting and sculpture to the glorification of Divine Right monarchy, and the popularity of the whole baroque style (and the doubts if aroused) to the religious and scientific questioning of the age.

If Baroque was the expression of magnificence, ostentation, overbearing display, neo-classicism was the expression of restraint of good taste embodied in accuracy, balance and proportion, as befitted princes of Parliament who were yet subjects. Interestingly, the Whig lords borrowed Palladianism from the aristocratic republic of Venice, for they were seen, and saw themselves as a ‘Venetian oligarchy.’ In the same way, Blenheim may be said to embody or justify many of the doubts which contemporaries felt about John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough and Prince of Mindelheim.

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