Man behind the arcade

Lord Burlington
January 12, 1996

Burlington Arcade is still used as a setting by advertisers who wish to associate their expensive new products with the glamour of old money, and the Royal Academy's exhibitions are now held in Burlington House, but the man who gave his name to both these buildings is hardly a national figure. The guides of the tourist buses that pass along Piccadilly would find it difficult to incorporate him into their cheerfully anecdotal view of London's history, and their customers are unlikely to go on to visit Burlington's exquisite and beautifully restored villa at Chiswick.

This obscurity is not surprising. Richard Boyle, third earl of Burlington and fourth earl of Cork, was not a particularly cheerful person. Little is known of his childhood, but he became earl in 1703 at the age of nine, and at 20 was a privy counsellor, lord lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire and lord high treasurer of Ireland. The holding of these offices did not prevent him undertaking the Grand Tour in 1714-15 where his interest in architecture as amateur and patron was transformed into that of a possible practitioner. He visited Italy again in 1719, when he particularly studied Palladio's work and whose drawings he started collecting.

On his return he formed the idea of assembling an academy of architects, painters and sculptors to be centred on his newly reconstructed Burlington House. Among those he recruited to his academy was the Yorkshire painter William Kent, whom he had met in Rome. As his first efforts at Kensington Palace show, Kent proved disappointing as a painter, but with Burlington's help he developed into a fine architect, furniture designer and a revolutionary landscape gardener. It is only in the enthusiastic correspondence between the two men that Burlington is revealed as other than a somewhat repressed and dutiful aristocrat; the two chat, gossip and share silly jokes.

Conventional architectural history has suggested that Burlington's importance lay in his taking as authorities in architectural matters not the immediately previous "Baroque" generation of Wren and his associates and followers but England's Inigo Jones and the Veneto's Andrea Palladio, both active more than 100 years earlier. While by the middle of the 18th century the "Palladianism" he came to advocate so strongly began to be overtaken by the results of the ever-widening scholarship of neo-classicism, its influence still persists in popular form in Britain and North America today. The same history proposed Burlington's role primarily as patron and guide of taste rather than as practising architect. We now know that he did make drawings (although he could not draw very well), but that as a gentleman he did not sketch, and took someone with him to do this.

Kent now has his biography, but in spite of the pioneering essays of Sir John Summerson and Rudolph Wittkower no monograph on Burlington as protagonist of 18th-century English architecture has appeared. While the present book's grandiose title suggests that here it is, it is not. Having the air of published conference papers, it is rather a collection of seven essays, some of extreme specialisation and only distantly connected with Burlington, and some of which contradict each other. They consider the relationship between Burlington and Alexander Pope (respectively provider and consumer of good food); the role of Dryden and the Aeneid in the establishment of a Stuart mythology; Burlington's political career; the life of his grandfather the first earl; and a slim note on the Irish neo-Palladian architect Edward Lovett Pearce. As a startled Howard Colvin notes in his Introduction, the most provocative essay is by Jane Clark who discusses Burlington's political career and sympathies. She proposes that although presenting himself as a confirmed Whig, and in spite of his high offices and closeness to George II, Burlington was actually at least a Jacobite sympathiser, and may have used his trips abroad actively to further the Stuart cause. Clark's difficulty is in finding proof of covert activity rather than the hints, possibilities and suggestions contained in correspondence, and she does not discuss what evidence might constitute such proof.

Richard Hewlings contributes the longest essay "Chiswick House and gardens: appearance and meaning", and this constitutes half the book. His intention is to show that Burlington's villa at Chiswick was as much inspired directly by Roman antiquity as by the classical revivals of Palladio and Jones, and that Burlington used Palladio's work and writings mainly as a source of information about Roman building. The method employed is extraordinary. The author has identified 50 "features" - plinths, capitals, statues, friezes - at Chiswick. (Why 50? Is that all there are, are these the most significant ones?) Each feature is described and illustrated, and is followed by a list of examples of where else it is to be found. The possibility of Burlington's having encountered each item is then discussed. The lists rapidly become unwieldy, and are presented without concession to readability or elegance. Since the author's conclusions are presented statistically, "that 6 per cent of the 50 features are indebted to Palladio, 28 per cent to Palladio as archaeological draughtsman and 66 per cent represent Burlington's efforts to replicate ancient architecture", this first part of the essay might have been better presented in spreadsheet or tabular form with totals presented at the foot of each column. The reader would then have been spared the peacocking scholarly display of the 1,040 footnotes (an average of seven per page), many of which merely redundantly refer to a picture of the object mentioned, and which, always lapping at its foot, on occasions rise like a flood to encroach on the upper half of the page. One is finally only inclined to consider the author's argument out of exhaustion and for fear of provoking another list. Appended to this summary is a discussion of the implementation and iconography of the gardens at Chiswick. Here the list format is abandoned, but the revisionist stance is maintained: the garden may be a political allegory of the good government of the ideal city state.

Christopher Woodward is an architect and co-author with Edward Jones of A Guide to the Architecture of London.

Lord Burlington: Architecture, Art and Life

Editor - Toby Barnard and Jane Clark
ISBN - 1 85285 094 9
Publisher - Hambledon
Price - £37.50
Pages - 328

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