English richness revealed
Essays in English Architectural History By Howard Colvin. Yale University Press, 1999. 310pp. £40
This delightful book collects together 18 essays written by Howard Colvin between 1948 and 1997, five being published for the first time. There is, in addition, a useful list of Colvin's principal writings on architectural history. The scope of the essays ranges widely, from 'The Royal Gardens in Medieval England' to 'Architect and Client in Georgian England'. There is, however, a substantial body of studies which are concerned with buildings and events in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the period of the emergence and consolidation of Classicism in English architecture.
While there is no attempt to argue a central thesis, what emerges is a wonderful sense of the complexity and richness of building in England at that time. The essays on 'The Rebuilding of St. Mary Aldermanbury after the Great Fire of London' (see above) and 'Gothic Survival and Gothick Revival' show how persistent the Gothic remained at the height of the Renaissance. A piece on 'John Aubrey's Chronologia Architectonica' describes the first attempt at a classification of the distinct phases of English medieval architecture, written from the perspective of Renaissance science. Aubrey was a Fellow of the Royal Society and, as Colvin points out, its method of classification and comparison was a significant feature of the 'experimental philosophy' of the society.
Several essays are concerned with seventeenth-century houses - Wilton House, Thorpe Hall, Chesterton House and Ramsbury Manor. There is also a wonderful study of the Grand Bridge at Blenheim, illustrated by excellent photographs and beautifully clear plans and sections, which reveal the complexity and drama of the hidden spaces within the piers and above the great arch of the central span.
Two of the previously unpublished essays are scholarly, witty and beautifully illustrated accounts of 'Pompous Entries and English Architecture' and 'Herms, Terms and Caryatids in English Architecture'. The first is about the triumphal arch, permanent, temporary and literary, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; while the second outlines the history of anthropomorphism from its appearance, in 1563, in John Shute's First and Chief Groundes of Architecture, through Wren's screen of 'termains' at the Sheldonian, Inwood's caryatid porticoes at St. Pancras Church, and concluding (not without a touch of irony) with a group of herms by Elizabeth Frink which grace a multi-storey car park in Worthing.
This may, at first sight, seem to be a book for the specialist. Informed throughout by rigorous scholarship, it is certainly that, but, as a non- historian teacher/practitioner, I have found it enthralling. I recommend it strongly.
Dean Hawkes is professor at the Welsh School of Architecture