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This month, we explore the careers of the early modern architects of the Elizabethan age. Who better than Jonathan Foyle to document the rise of the 'gentleman architect'?

Architects might naturally hold multiple careers and broad interests because experience surely enriches perception. An interest in music should inform architectural rhythm in space and structure; a skilled photographer may heighten contrasts of light and shade to animate volumes, and perhaps medical work would instil a sense of user-friendliness. A sculptor understands the potential of finishes, whereas a scrap merchant knows the value of building materials.

Architect-hairdressers should be excellent at detailing thatch.

The point of this list is that the emergence of the modern architect as a pure designer of buildings has become a bit of a cliché in historical writing. Any epochal 'before and after' is usually a dangerously simplistic scenario, unless a meteor strike is involved. So, in the search for the origins of architectural practice, it is curious that when we explore the notion that architecture suddenly became a distinct profession during the Italian Renaissance - an isolated pursuit as expounded by Alberti in De Re Aedificatoria in 1452 - this age coincides with the emergence of the Uomo Universale, the omnipotent Renaissance man as painter, sculptor and architect (in Alberti's case, his athletic leaps were also considered worthy of his readers' consideration).

How can this momentous emphasis on the professional specialisation of the architect be reconciled with lauded characters like Michelangelo and Leonardo - who between them span poetry, technology, architecture, sculpture, drawing and painting - to represent a burgeoning ideal not of specialism but of artistic diversity? We need to know which stages in the Renaissance period set architects on a path toward architecture as a contained professional discipline. Have we really been living among modern architects for half a millennium?

As a result, we have to be careful to determine what we're looking for when we say 'modern architect'. Was there ever a time when building designers didn't hustle for clients, mustering a mixture of book learning and practical experience to propose resolved whole structures, according to the terms of an illustrated contract? The many Medieval frescoes of designers presenting patrons with models suggest not. Then again, if we're looking for the architectural profession as an independent regulated body of practitioners, we have to wait several centuries yet.

Now, there is a phenomenon which undoubtedly marks the Renaissance era as a new phase: attitudes to architecture changed so that the pursuit of designing buildings became appropriate for the well-rounded noble type and so the practitioner's status was transformed. Architecture was no longer to be a craft tradition to be mastered from the bottom up through apprenticeship wherein the expression of structural technology remained paramount, but it was now to be understood intellectually, from the lofty principles of published book-learning down, so that technology was relegated to a means of realising a pre-ordained ideal form.

That gradual shift created a profound difference in professional structure. It's true that many of the arts were elevated:

painters, once akin to saddle-makers, could now become exalted artist/courtiers, from Mantegna to Van Dyck, but few rulers wanted to be painters. By contrast, architecture was authoritative: to command space and dictate the movement of people and to understand how vast, princely investments in construction were suitably realised were altogether different matters.

If the terms 'socially elevated', 'intellectual' and 'authoritarian' define the character of the early modern architect, then the founders of the profession were indeed the 'gentleman architects', creatures of the later sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. It was a Frenchman who wrote the first unequivocal account of a gentleman architect. Philibert Delorme published his Premier Tome de l'Architecture (Book II, f. 31) in 1567, wherein he stated more clearly than anybody before him that: '?we have sufficiently advised the architect and the Seigneur, or whoever would like to build, of their positions and duties as the two heads of the building enterprise. It remains in this second book to turn our pen to the third class of persons, without whom no building can be perfect. These are the master-masons, the stone cutters and the workmen (whom the architect must always control) who as well must not be deprived of our labour and instruction here, since it has pleased God for us to give it.'

In England, most ecclesiastical building commissions had dried up by around 1540 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, so the skill-base of the waning Masonic guilds needed to diversify.

Henry VIII had accrued so many properties that Elizabeth I built little, while famously encouraging her courtiers to build so they might put her, and perhaps 500 courtiers, up for a few nights.

Harbingers of DIY, many of the new British patrons (such as John Thynne of Longleat from 1554 to the 1580s) were taking control of the appearance of their own residences: if they themselves did not design they usually worked closely with an architect (like William Cecil, who directed his mason-foreman Roger Ward in building Burghley House while complaining that 'we are meant to exceed our purses in this'). In doing so, they set standards for their social circle and created the era of the country house, many of their estates having been carved from monastic landholdings. One might call it a secularised landscape, or one forged by Protestant crusaders. In any case, the centuries dominated by the 'outside-in' design discipline of modular Classical house facades began here.

Elizabethan-to-Jacobean England was home to a couple of notable surveyor-architects who made their sole living from domestic buildings and who might qualify as architects in the modern sense.

Robert Smythson (1535-1614) is the first name to conjure with. He was the subject of an excellent monograph by Mark Girouard (Yale, 1983) that chronicles his career as designer of many of the finest Elizabethan country houses of the Midlands.

One of Smythson's drawing books survives, once owned by Byron and now at the RIBA, packed with thrilling tinted plans and elevations of his catalogue of built achievements. Smythson was probably born in the last year that Anne Boleyn lived and the monasteries still stood: his training was as a mason. His was a world infused with physical allegories and symbolism, but not 'so transparent that every mean mechanic might understand it' (Paolo Giovio, 1555).

Architectural jokes needed to be incorporated into some transmutation of the native traditions of large fenestration along with the Classical pattern-books then arriving from Europe.

A heady brew indeed, one which required a talent for abstraction and a learning that would be out of the reach of an ordinary person. And where was a mason to accrue this knowledge if not from his own initiative and effort? Books were expensive pieces of equipment and, of course, they presumed literacy.

By his late 20s, Smythson had found patronage in high places: he had worked on a lost brick house at Caversham for Sir Francis Knollys, the cousin of Elizabeth I and her vice chamberlain.

After a devastating four-hour fire at Longleat which started at 3pm on 21 April 1567, Smythson's arrival the following year is recorded in a letter of reference addressed to the owner, John Thynne, from Humphrey Lovell, the Queen's master mason:

'According to my promes I have sent unto yowe this bearer Robert Smytheson, freemason, who of laytt was with Master Vice Chamberlaine, not dowting hem to be a man fett for youre worshepe [suggesting a wage of] VIII s a weke and a nage.' A nag - the equine version of a company car - would undoubtedly have been welcome to Smythson, for he had to travel long distances to supervise men and materials. The design of Longleat wasn't his - for a wooden model was already made for Thynne's approval - but the experience was invaluable towards his first commission as an architect.

That first commission was Wollaton House in Nottinghamshire. Smythson's monument in the nearby church records that he was 'Architector and Surveyor unto the most worthy house of Wollaton with divers others of great account', and this testimony is unique for an Elizabethan monument.

His drawing book features a design for the house as occupying the central square in a three-by-three chequerboard containing square gardens to the rear, service courts to the side and a cloistered entrance courtyard for the centrepiece of the front three squares.

The bizarre rectangular tower-on-platform arrangement of the house itself was begun in 1580, but we first hear of Smythson's involvement in an account book that happens to survive from 1582/3. This marks a transition in his professional status, for he is no longer regarded as a freemason but as 'Mr Smythson'.

Among his attributed later designs of the 1590s, Hardwick Hall was built for the serially widowed Elizabeth Countess of Shrewsbury and stands out for its simple, bold massing. In the account books lurks a payment for 20 shillings given to a 'Mr Smythson the surveyour' and 10 shillings to 'his Sonne'.

Robert's son, John Smythson, (c. 1570s-1634) would go on to work at Bolsover Castle and described himself as both 'gentleman' (on his marriage register of 1600) and 'architecter' (in his will).

John Thorpe (c. 1560s-1655) is the second of these gentlemen architects and one of his drawing books also survives, at Sir John Soane's Museum. In it, a plan of Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire, labelled 'Kirby, whereof I laid ye first stone ad 1570' led early historians to believe he was the designer of this sophisticated house, until calculating that he must barely have been out of nappies. Evidently, his father was a Northamptonshire mason-architect (and one familiar with French architectural books) before him and so young John's role must have been as a mascot for the inaugural block.

In his adolescence, Thorpe was not apprenticed through the Masonic lodges, but was employed in the Office of Works as a surveyor of the Tudor royal palaces, such as Richmond and Greenwich. His house was near St Martin-in-the Fields, London, within a few hundred yards of the largest English royal residence:

Whitehall Palace.

After 1601, Thorpe became a freelance surveyor (his friend Henry Peacham called him 'an excellent geometrician and surveyor' in 1612) and it was probably during this time that his drawing book was compiled. Of the 150 or so images, some are for new designs: conceits such as a house formed of two blocks - 'IT', the Latinised initials of his name. Other drawings are surveys of existing structures and some are duplicates of other people's new designs. Perhaps the most spectacular is his vast outer court of Audley End house in Essex, designed c. 1615 for Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk and Lord Treasurer to James I. The court was dismantled, but the illustration gives an idea of its size and effect as the largest example of the 'prodigy house', as Sir John Summerson labelled them.

Beyond his graphic and imaginative skills, Thorpe was also an academic, translating Hans Blum's Latin compendium of the orders (Zurich, 1550) into The Booke of Five Collumnes of Architecure, 1601, and also preparing an English copy of Du Cerceau's treatise on perspective of 1576.

With Robert Smythson and John Thorpe, we have met two men whose careers were focused on architecture, albeit in all its complexities and breadths. They were freelancers, providing a service over a whole site from survey to design with all the fashionable knobs on. During this they supervised workmen whom they had instructed according to their practical and theoretical knowledge, resolved in plans, elevations and details.

Sometimes they would sketch away at a house plan or perspective for amusement's sake. Occasionally they'd copy someone else's design to learn from it and adapt it: in sharing designs they were part of a circle of professionals. And in the search for a highly personalised architectural manner which could be adapted to express the ambitions of their patrons, the reputations of architects as artists in form and space was set to rise.

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