MY FATHER HAS often told me of the bl ack sheep in the family, whose maltreatment of his unfortunate wife, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Burlington, drove her to an ea rly d ea th, thu s depriving his descendants of Burlington’s superl ative art coll ec tion , including the finest drawings of Inigo Jones. However, I can partially make up for this loss by walking half a mile north from my ho use to enjoy a superb view ofJones’s handsome pavilions at Stoke Park, one of his very few country house commissions.
Jones remains one of th e most difficult of all the great British artists to evaluate truly. As Michael Leapman’s fine biography makes clear, he suffered from two major handicaps: his ca reer covered the period of un ce rtain ty leading up to the Civil War, a very unpropitious moment to earn important arc hitectural conunissions; and James I and Charl es I, his two greatest patrons, preferred to concentrate his talents on Jo11es: 1111diplo111atic the crea tion of masqu es. Much of Leapman’s book is devoted to fasc inating descriptions of th ese masques, which were designed for the rarefied and idealised world of the Stuart court. We can only imagine the full effect of clouds descend.ing, rocks parting and chariots appearing w ith Charles I and his diminutive French queen, Henrietta Maria, cast as harbingers of a golden age.
Jones’s reputation , however, rests on his work as an architect, and in particular on his two masterpieces: the Banqueting House in Whitehall and the Queen’s House at Greenwich. The Banqueting House, standing among the sprawling mass of late Gothic buildings that made up the Palace of Whitehall, shows his true originality. The clear lines, harmonious proportions and classical detail represented something quite new. Contemporaries had no idea what to make of this Italianate creation, and were suspicious of its novelty, particularly when Rubens decorated the interior with a series of allegorical scenes glorifying James l. This building, so alien to the majority of seve nteenth-century Englishmen, was chose n by O liver Cromwell as the backdrop to one of the most dramatic moments in British history, the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649. T he author places Jones firmly in his historical context. A wide-ranging introduction covers the London in which he lived, the Pallad.ian world of the Veneto, from which he drew his greatest architectural inspiration, and the career of Ben Jonson, with whom he collaborated on some of the most brilliant masques ever conceived.
The author has unearthed a mass of detail about Jones’s world, which was permeated by the influence of the ltalian R enaissance, and which he brings it to life. Elizabethan architecture, with its confection of sp ires, pinnacles and finials , bore no relation to the harmonious and synunetri ca] build.ings being erected all over Italy in the late sixteen th century. That he re turned from the Grand Tour to Italy (where he had met Palladio’s pupil Scamozzi) with a precise idea of how to translate Palladio’s buildings into an English context was Jones’s great accomplishment.
In Leapman’s biography Jones stands revealed, warts and all . Like so many highly creative men, he possessed a d.ifficult character, which led to numerous quarrels and disputes. No respecter of rank or ability, he fell out with Ben Jonson, and with Thomas Wentworth, Earl ofStrafford, Charles I’s powerful chief minister. He was equally undiplomatic in his role as Surveyor-General to the King, and this earned him widespread unpopularity. Fascinatingly, although Jones’s reputation was superseded by the prolific outp ut of his successor Wren, who transformed London after the Great Fire of 1666, it was Jones who exerted the greater influence on British architecture in the eighteenth centu ry. Indeed, Leapman ends his book by summarising Jones’s impact: he describes the ‘Georgian terraces of London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Bath’ as ‘the legacy of a proud, vain, quarrelsome hypochondriac with the clarity of vision and tenacity of purpose that allowed him, in the most diffietilt possible political environment, to exercise his genius in revolutionising British arc hitecture and design’.