II. ARCHITECTURE

The marbles shared in supporting the classic wave against the Gothic ripples in the war of architectural styles; a thousand columns—Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian—advanced to oppose the amateur efforts of Walpole and Beckford to restore the pointed arches and towered battlements so dear to medieval knights and saints. Even in secular structures the columns won; Sir William Chambers’ Somerset House (1775 ff.) is a spreading Parthenon, and many a country house looks like a Greek peristyle guarding a Roman palace; let James Wyatt’s Ashridge Park mansion (1806–13) serve as a stately instance of the kind. In 1792 the future Sir John Soane, son of a bricklayer, began to rebuild the Bank of England behind a Corinthian portico, combining the Arch of Constantine with the Temple of the Sun or Moon.

The Gothic revival inaugurated by Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill (1748–73) could not maintain itself against the avalanche of pillars, domes, and pediments. William Beckford was the romantic hero of this medieval trance. Born rich of a father who twice became mayor of London, he was given more education than he could stand: he received piano lessons from the young Mozart, architectural training from Sir William Chambers, and history via the Grand Tour. At Lausanne he bought the library of Edward Gibbon. After some ambisexual scandals he married Lady Margaret Gordon, who died in childbirth. Meanwhile he had written Vathek, the most powerful of the Oriental mystery novels that were swelling the Romantic wave; it was published in English and French (1786–87), and won high praise from Byron. Helped by Wyatt, Beckford began in 1796 to build a Gothic abbey at his Fonthill estate in Wiltshire, filled it with art and books, and lived there, hermitically sealed, from 1807 to 1822. Then he sold it, and shortly afterward its collapse revealed basic faults in its structure and design. He died at Bath in 1844, aged eighty-five. John Hoppner’s sympathetic portrait (c. 1800) preserves a spirit poetic, mystic, and humane.

John Nash lightened the heaviness of British architecture by adding a bit of rococo gaiety. Well seconded by Humphry Repton as landscape gardener, he designed country estates with a distribution of cottages, bowers, dairies, in French, Indian, Chinese styles. They pleased the bored nobles and gentry; Nash became rich, and won the patronage of the lavish Prince. In 1811 he was commissioned to rebuild a mile of Regent Street to run from the Regent’s Carlton House in a sweeping curve out to the countryside. Nash varied the lines with crescents and terraces, interspersed open spaces of grass and trees between the building groups, and used Ionic columns to grace the curve of the avenue. (Most of the work has been demolished to allow more buildings and less grass.) It was a brilliant essay in town planning, but its cost shocked a nation that was half starving itself to defeat Napoleon.

Nevertheless the delighted Regent engaged Nash to restore the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, which had been a favorite resort of the Prince and his friends. Nash accomplished the task between 1815 and 1823, at a cost of £160,000. He rebuilt the pavilion in Hindu-Moorish style, with tentlike domes and flanking minarets. Its banquet hall was remodeled with a convex ceiling and Chinese decoration, including lotus-and-dragon chandeliers costing £ 4,290.4 The first impression was one of bizarre splendor; the final judgment condemned the excess in ornament and cost.

In 1820 the Regent became George IV. Soon he commissioned Nash to rebuild Buckingham House as a royal palace. Amid the destitution and nearbankruptcy that had followed the victory over Napoleon, Nash labored and spent until the royal wastrel died (1830). Then the exuberant architect was summoned by the new government to explain his expenditures and some alleged defects in the construction. Seldom had England been so splendid, or so poor.

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