Elizabethan Architecture: Its Rise and Fall, 1540-1640

February 4, 2010

Mark Girouard's Elizabethan Architecture is concerned with "the intensely artificial, elaborately composed houses of great people, as artificial as the clothes that encased their inhabitants". It is up to date, opinionated and brilliantly written. No one knows more about the subject than Girouard, who surveys every aspect of the field, from the artisans who built the mansions he examines to the men who designed them and those who commissioned them. His text is accessible to the non-specialist, exhilarating in its grasp of detail, sweeping in its range, lucid in explication. It is a pleasure to read.

That's only partly because of Girouard's expertise; there's nothing dry about his approach, which is instinctively concerned with the vitality and eccentricity of the people whose lives thread in and out of his narrative. For instance, Sir John Thynne "made a substantial fortune by no very scrupulous means"; James I's passion for hunting "amounted to a mania"; the tower room at Melbury was accessible only by newel staircases, "which Elizabethan ladies in full rig would have had difficulty in negotiating"; while at Bourne Mill, he considers "the eccentric and endearing Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, who disported herself with her tribe of sisters beneath its extravagantly shaped gables".

Girouard's gift is his psychological engagement with those who created the buildings about which he writes. If it seems an odd feature of an architectural study, it shouldn't; his survey of such a distinctive period of English history demands that kind of depth. At one point he writes of the "extent, elaboration and intensity of composition" of Elizabethan designers, and those qualities seem peculiarly apt for the buildings constructed during the period. The abiding question of this volume is: where did they come from? Any response is bound to be cumulative, rendered often in passing details, such as the observation that the Elizabethan house "was planned round the stomach", or that lodges were built "to hunt, meditate, relax or keep a mistress". Elsewhere, Girouard outlines the aspirations that underpinned the desire for "loggias to parade up and down in and high-ceilinged state rooms jacked up onto the second floor".

The effect of this welcome combination of patient scholarship and imaginative insight is to endow the buildings with a kind of inner life. The chimneypiece at Loseley Park is "ebullient and extraordinary, if barely under control" because of the loving care with which it was planned and designed. Similarly, the character of the Gatehouse at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge - a "delicious little building" - reflects that of its architect. Girouard is conscious of every feature; the great screen in the hall of the Middle Temple contains "luscious cartouches derived from Antwerp engravings by Benedetto Battini".

Appropriately for a book that imagines the past so vividly, the ubi sunt runs through it like the lettering in a stick of rock. Out of the many hundreds that may once have existed, no more than 50 Elizabethan gatehouses survive today, while Girouard is dependent on 18th-century paintings for his knowledge of some of the larger buildings. His subtext is a restrained elegy for what was or what may never have been - whether it be Holland House, "unforgiveably" demolished in the 1950s, the "ghost" of unbuilt parts of Castle Ashby, or Nonsuch Palace, Henry VIII's rambling extravagance, based on Chambord: "Nonsuch was a fantasy too, but in timber, slate and plaster, not stone. It was (apart from a stone gatehouse) a traditional English timber-framed structure, perhaps the biggest ever built in England, with two towers at the outer angles of its courtyard rising up into cantilevered belvederes and turrets, the skyline alive with an army of little lions holding gilded standards, in the traditional Tudor manner. But all the timber framework, both inside the courtyard and on three of the external facades, was covered with carved and gilded slate, and the spaces between the timbers were filled with hundreds of plaster reliefs, depicting gods, heroes and scenes of classical mythology."

From that perspective, the idealising impulses of the Elizabethan period represent a perfection of which succeeding ages were the vandals - in some cases quite literally, for it was over centuries that some of its greatest buildings were shorn of their projections, their top storeys removed, their skylines reduced to the horizontal, their windows filled in or replaced by sashes, their top-floor state rooms abandoned, or their long galleries subdivided, to make them approximate to Georgian standards.

Yale University Press is to be commended for having had the sense to illuminate Girouard's wide-ranging text with more than 600 illustrations, most of them colour photographs of the houses under discussion. The care with which they are reproduced complements the scrupulousness with which Girouard has composed this remarkable book in which the high-Elizabethan spirit lives again, "adventurous, strange, outrageous and beautiful".

Elizabethan Architecture: Its Rise and Fall, 1540-1640

By Mark Girouard. Yale University Press, 288pp, £45.00. ISBN 9780300093865. Published 12 November 2009

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