Borromini and the English Baroque

Originally posted on 10 February 2011

Jonathan Glancey wrote a nice little piece in Saturday’s Guardian on Kerry Downes’ new book on Borromini. For anyone who doesn’t know, Downes is one of this country’s greatest and best architectural (and art) historians having written pioneering monographs on Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh and Wren among others. His books on Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh in particular remain essential reading for anyone working on them.

What unites Borromini with Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh et al is, Glancey observes, the Baroque – that most dramatic, illusionistic and sensational or artistic styles. The continental Baroque is broadly speaking usually seen as the artistic outpouring of the Counter Reformation. This was shock and awe of the highest artist intent. That England, a Protestant country, had its own Baroque has only recently been posited. It was Downes’ own book, English Baroque Architecture (1966), which sought to position the drama, monumentalism and licentiousness of late-Wren, Hawksmoor London churches and Vanbrugh’s great houses as the visible manifestation of our very own Baroque age.

If there was a Baroque age in England it was a short-lived one. Soon, so the old story goes, the Palladian straightjacket of Lord Burlington’s aristocratic taste clamped down and extinguished the Baroque’s flame of English individuality. For the Palladians, the Baroque was ugly, luxurious, decadent, even Catholic. Yet while the latter suggests the English Baroque as the product of irresistible urges of the Baroque spirit lapping onto English shores from the Catholic continent, the English and the continental Baroque were quite different.

None of Wren, Hawksmoor or Vanbrugh ever visited Italy to experience the Baroque spirit in its full glory. Wren did meet Bernini while in Paris in the 1660s, but his work shows little trace of the great Italian’s influence. English architects certainly knew of the work of Bernini, Borromini and others through prints and written accounts. But without seeing their buildings in the flesh they would hardly have discerned the sheer drama and delight of these works no matter how vivid their imaginations. The English Baroque was instead a quite insular development.

By the late seventeenth classical architecture had begun to lose its position as signifier of elite status it had had when imported into England by Inigo Jones at the beginning of the century. Classical elements – columns, friezes, consoles, etc – could now be found adorning the houses of even the middle classes: the houses in Spitalfieds’ Fournier Street (above) are prime and still-surviving examples. The Baroque developed out of this context as a grander, more opulent and monumental form of classicism, one quite unavailable to all but the social and cultural elite. Importantly, and this distinguishes it in many ways from many continental variations, it also drew from the architecture of the past, especially the medieval past for the residual authority it still held; many of the country’s most important buildings were, and still are, medieval ones.

However, the English Baroque moment was a brief one. An architectural style which relied on grandiose and individual effects to distinguish the elite status of its owner or patron was to be both economically and aesthetically unsustainable.