Inigo Jones: Britain's First Architect

London show brings together surviving designs of a 17th-century mystery man

TODAY, 17th-century English architect and stage designer Inigo Jones is as mysterious a figure as Shakespeare. In fact, the two men would have have known each other, observes John Harris in the catalog for ``Inigo Jones Architect,'' an exhibition that presents to London, the city of Jones's humble birth and spectacular career, virtually all of his surviving architectural drawings.

This is the first truly comprehensive exhibition devoted to Britain's first Renaissance architect. It is on view here (though Feb. 26) at the Royal Academy of Arts, after showings at the Drawing Center in New York and the Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh.

Though it is to be praised for its scrupulous scholarship, the final effect is frustration. Not only is Jones's personal life as obscure as Shakespeare's; the evidence of his work is far more so.

Inigo Jones was the dominant royal architect under the reigns of James I and his successor, Charles I, during the first half of the 17th century. He can be credited with introducing, in total challenge to the prevailing provincial trends of Jacobean architecture, the measured, clear, symmetrical rationality of Palladian design.

He also brought back to this country from his travels in Europe (Italy, in particular) a wider appreciation and understanding of Palladio's roots in such predecessors as Alberti and Vitruvius (Jones's annotated copies of their treatises are included here), as well as firsthand observation of ancient Roman architecture.

To what he derived from these predecessors he added his own particularly English qualities, principally a kind of dramatic restraint, a quiet relish for contrasts of surface and texture, and a sensible approach to the ornamental and decorative.

But, this said, everything about our knowledge of Jones is maddeningly fragmentary. Records of his activities and projects are either inadequate or nonexistent. Worse still, hardly any of his works survive; only five buildings by him in London can still be seen, and these have suffered alteration in varying degrees.

The Banqueting House in Whitehall is his most impressive and visible masterpiece. That, at least, offers some splendid evidence of the subtle and individual way in which he so intelligently transformed his analytical relish of Palladio into his own vision. But this fine monument may well be just a fragment: Tantalizingly, it was probably only an initial part of a grand plan for a great royal palace - never fulfilled.

It is our misfortune, no less than Jones's, that his royal masters had limited funds. Charles I, of course, ended by being beheaded, and Jones's architectural career, which didn't begin until he was in his mid-30s, was cut short by civil war. Born under Elizabeth I in 1573, he died ``through grief ... for the fatal calamity of his dread master'' in 1652, as a contemporary put it.

The 90-odd extant architectural drawings offer revealing and fascinating insights into Jones's development, thinking processes, and draftsmanship. But they still tell an inconclusive, one-sided story. Unfortunately, the exhibition (as far as I could observe) doesn't include any photographs of his few remaining buildings for comparison, a serious omission.

Some hint of another of Jones's facets is provided, however, by a small number of drawings of the stage settings and masque costumes he designed. For his fame and the foundations of his architect-career were established as a designer of the elaborate royal masques (dramas presented at masked balls), which significantly developed English stagecraft after Shakespeare.

The progression of drawings in the exhibition charts Jones's growth from theatrical fantasist to a practical architect of such economic means and precise statement that he can be seen as a prophet of the severest forms of classicism promoted by Richard Boyle Burlington and his friends during the 18th century. They would look back to Jones, admiring and studying his drawings and actually confusing some of them with Palladio's, as we have continued to do until recently. Through Jones they found their way to Palladianism.

Personally, I could have done with more of Jones's masque drawings, though it is true that they have been more widely exhibited than his architectural works. Not only are his fantastic costumes enchanting, colorful, and sometimes gloriously imaginative, but his stage settings clearly allowed the artist in him free rein to an extent that his architecture didn't.

The understanding and appreciation of architectural drawings is something of a specialist skill. The notes provided both on the walls and in the catalog are a considerable help.

At a time when many architecture enthusiasts here - from Price Charles downward - are maintaining that the British desperately need a greater appreciation of architectural history in order to rescue cities from the depredations of crass modernism, such exhibitions as this are doubtless welcome. Classicism has been promoted as one way out of bland and mindless ``modernism'' - and Jones's drawings do seem satisfactorily ``universal'' and clear in balance, proportion, and geometry, without being intimidatingly grand.

And yet, surely the actual lesson of Jones is: Sweep away the provincial and familiar with the latest and most original! Had he been given more opportunity to complete ambitious projects, that is just what he would have done.

His 18th-century followers also showed little respect for the past when they imposed their classicism on the country as the only worthy style of the day. They gave little thought to fitting their work in with older buildings; they didn't care much for conservation or preservation or restoration. They were too confident for such weaknesses.

In the line of architectural revolutionaries in Britain, Inigo Jones - probably the first man in the land to warrant the title ``architect'' - could fairly be called the country's first modernist.

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