Great British Architects: Inigo Jones

A contemporary of Shakespeare, Inigo Jones was the central figure in the early-17th-century revival of Classical architecture in England. Whereas most designers working at the time knew of Continental architecture and the buildings of antiquity only through books and engravings, Jones travelled to see them for himself.

The journey allowed him to make a decisive break from earlier traditions of English architecture, and rendered him confident and ingenious in tailoring Classicism to English needs. He remained well known throughout his life as the designer of spectacular sets for Court entertainments, and his friends attributed to him many other artistic skills, such as that of sculptor. Yet Jones fought vigorously for recognition as something more than a craftsman, and assumed the Roman title of ‘architect’. Jones’ work was greatly admired by later generations of architects, and established a British tradition of Classical design that continues to the present.

Very little is known of Jones’ early life. He was born in London on July 15, 1573, the eldest surviving son of a clothmaker. His unusual first name may indicate a Spanish or Welsh family connection. Jones, who may have trained as a joiner, began his career at Court producing extravagant sets for masques and entertainments.

In 1613, following a brief period in the service of Henry, Prince of Wales, he received the promise of future appointment to the post of Surveyor of the King’s Works. Almost immediately afterwards, he departed in the company of the Earl of Arundel for a journey that included a prolonged visit to Italy. They travelled to cities such as Vincenza where Jones met Vincenzo Scamozzi, a pupil of Palladio Naples and Rome.

The tour cemented his friendship with Lord Arundel, one of the period’s greatest artistic patrons. In 1615, Jones became Surveyor of the King’s Works. The post, which he held for the next 27 years, allowed him to oversee all royal building operations. Several of his most important commissions, including the remodelling of Somerset House and the Queen’s House at Greenwich, were fulfilled for royal consorts. Jones continued to oversee the production of Court masques and plays, and engaged in an acrimonious dispute with the poet Ben Jonson over the relative standing of writers and stage designers. Jones is credited with having introduced to England the proscenium arch and set designs with side flats and back shutters.

Inigo Jones in London Through Lord Arundel, Jones was involved in attempts to control new building in London and develop its public architecture. Speaking of Jones’ work, one commentator noted in 1642 that the Earl: ‘Observing the uniforme and regular way of stone structure up and down Italy, hath introduced that forme of building to London and Westminster and elsewhere, which distasteful at first, as all innovations are, For they seeme like Bugbeares, or Gorgons heads, to the vulgar; yet they find now the commodity, firmenesse and beauty thereof, the three maine principals of architecture.’ Between 1629 and 1635, Jones realised the first public square in London at Covent Garden.

This integrated a series of identical houses into terraces with continuous arcades, an idea inspired by Italian and French precedents, notably the Place des Voges in Paris.  At the same time, he directed the repair of Old St Paul’s medieval fabric, and an imposing new Classical west front. During the Civil War, Jones travelled to Basing Castle, which he probably helped fortify, and was captured there. He settled with Parliament on the payment of a massive £1,000 fine. Jones died unmarried and without children in 1652. His estate passed to his kinswoman, wife of his foremost architectural disciple, John Webb.

A great legacy Jones’ architectural formula of a symmetrical façade, central pediment and a high roof may have been radical at the time, but it has become so familiar in English country-house architecture as to appear normal today.

 

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