Herms, terms and arches

Essays in English Architectural History
January 7, 2000

Christopher Woodward is an architect and co-author with Edward Jones of A Guide to the Architecture of London. He was formerly senior lecturer in architecture, Bartlett School, University College London. In the final essay of this selection, Howard Colvin describes how in the 1930s Sir Albert Richardson, when head of the Bartlett School of Architecture, used to provide signed certificates of authentication of authorship for country houses and churches: "Anything at all baroque was apt to be given to Hawksmoor, anything elegantly neo-classical to Henry Holland." Colvin decided to put an end to this "widespread but unscholarly habit of attributing even the most commonplace buildings to one or two well-known architects of the appropriate period", a habit that in spite of his efforts persists today. Surveys frequently show that the only architects' names the public now knows are those of Sir Christopher Wren and perhaps Sir Norman Foster, but that people are unclear which of the two is alive or which designed, for example, St Paul's cathedral.

The weapons that the young teacher first of medieval history then of architectural history brought to bear against Richardson's charlatanry and the anecdotal amateurism of much of what passed for architectural history in England at mid-century were those of continental art history introduced at the Warburg Institute, with its emphasis on clear description, attribution, typology and iconographical studies. These methods were taken up too by the young John Summerson, and imported in their authentic and original form from Germany by Nikolaus Pevsner. Iconography is not much use in talking about architecture itself, although it can be applied in analysing decorative programmes and church monuments. In the late 1940s, when Summerson had already written the first of his excellent but now unfashionable narratives, Georgian London , it was to questions of attribution that Colvin turned. The result in 1954 was the first edition of his Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1660-1840 , most recently revised in 1995. This single work established new standards of serious architectural scholarship. It started to disentangle, for example, the work of the various designers in the Office of Works under Wren's long period as surveyor general and began to identify those many masons, bricklayers and other craftsmen who, in the 17th and 18th centuries and before the profession of architect had become recognised, could rightly be credited with the role of designer. One incidental and welcome result of this work was to reduce the importance of building activity in London in relation to the rest of England: to open up new provincial territories, often with the help of Rupert Gunnis, who was compiling a parallel "History of English Sculpture", his large black sports car and a Christ Church tie.

Of the present selection of 18 essays, a third are concerned with questions of attribution, the facts always assembled first from keen observation of the building itself and presented using a wonderfully precise vocabulary; and then from primary documentary sources: architects' instructions, builders' accounts, parish records and the archives of aristocratic houses' muniments rooms. Stylistic labels are rarely used and attributions on stylistic grounds are almost entirely avoided, and while Colvin assures us that "these are perfectly legitimate provided they are responsibly made", he clearly rarely believes he has enough evidence to be sufficiently responsible. The essay "The south front of Wilton House" is an elegant paradigm of the method. "That (its) architect was Inigo Jones has often been taken for granted, and may indeed be substantially correct," it begins. Eighteen pages and 16 illustrations later, and after an extraordinarily detailed account of fires, changes of plan to both house and garden, the involvement of at least two French architects, comes the denouement: "Those who have attributed this icon of English Palladianism to Inigo Jones were perhaps not far wrong."

Two longer essays take quite a different thematic form, unconstrained by matters of attribution. The first, "Pompous entries and English architecture", discusses the usually temporary apparatus of public pomp and circumstance and political advertisement, provided in the 20th century,with the exception of victory parades, by "the press, radio, television and aerosol". It was the earlier means, the temporary "buildings" of timber and painted canvas, or of plaster, often in the form of arches spanning streets through which royalty could process and from the tops of which loyal addresses could be announced, that in the 16th century first introduced the language of classical architecture to the citizens of a London of medieval form. In 1533 German merchants paid for a pageant to celebrate Anne Boleyn's coronation, and 20 years later both German and Italians commissioned classically designed arches for the coronation of Queen Mary. It was to take a whole generation before the first permanent classical architecture was erected at Whitehall in the Banqueting House designed by Inigo Jones. His contribution to the arch type, a permanent triumphal arch, Temple Bar, designed with John Webb in 1636-37, was never realised. In the meantime, Colvin suggests, the lessons of the temporary arches were taken up on a smaller scale by the designers of ceremonial doorways, most notably in the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, where a multi-storied classical "frontispiece" could be placed in the centre of a facade of otherwise late-medieval design. Arches as the decoration for a parade lost their raison d'être when royalty took to processing in closed carriages rather than on horseback: they could no longer have heard the speeches. The last two permanent arches built in London, Marble Arch and Constitution Hill, never served any ceremonial purpose and now merely provide respectable scenography for televised events.

The second long thematic essay, "Herms, terms and caryatids in English architecture", published here for the first time, tells two fascinating, intertwined stories: of the idea that the classical orders of architecture were related to the human figure either metaphorically or, as in the Erechtheion's caryatid portico, literally; and of the herm, a road marker in the form of a rectangular block surmounted by a sculptured head of Hermes, protector of travellers, and from which projected his realistically carved, excited genitals. Colvin painstakingly documents the transformation of this rude object into an architectural feature supporting any notable person's head and shoulders that could be employed as a post to support balustrades or railings, as at Wren's Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre (via a screen by Le Vaus at Vau-le-Vicomte seen by Wren in 1665).

The final essay in the book, from a lecture delivered at the launch of the third edition of Colvin's Biographical Dictionary and describing its writing, is a fitting coda: history from the historian who, with Eileen Harris, Pevsner and Summerson, has, in David Watkin's words, "changed the face of English architectural history". We now have Colvin's selected essays; next we need the collected.

Christopher Woodward ia an architect and co-author with Edward Jnes of A Guide to the Architecture of London . He was formerly senior lecturer in architecture, Bartlett School, University College London.

Essays in English Architectural History

Author - Howard Colvin
ISBN - 0 300 07034 9
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 310

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments