I keep hearing the name Inigo Jones in various books I’m reading, and it always makes me kind of want to giggle because it reminds me of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride. It’s kind of hard to take seriously someone who makes you think that they’re about to jump out at you and accuse you of killing their father, and then threaten to kill you. But no, Inigo Jones was actually the first British architect of the early modern period, and despite his Spanish sounding name, he was thoroughly English, born in Smithfield in London and the son of a Welsh clothmaker.
I actually owe a debt of gratitude to Jones. It’s pretty much thanks to him that London has so many residential squares. He introduced the idea when he was designing St. Paul’s in Covent Garden. The Duke of Bedford commissioned him to build a residential square like an Italian piazza. The Duke felt obliged to provide a church, though he cautrioned Jones that he wanted to economise. He told his architect to simply erect a “barn”. Jones’ oft-quoted response was that his lordship would have “the finest barn in Europe”. The front is known for its buskers, but if you sneak around in the back, there’s a lovely garden where one can sit and eat a sandwich quietly. I spent many happy lunch hours reading Harry Potter books in the garden at St. Paul’s.
He was self-taught, never went to college. Born in 1573, he travelled abroad around 1600 where he was hugely influenced by the Roman and Greek columns in Italy, and he brought that back to England. He rose quickly through the ranks, and became a surveyor for the Prince of Wales, and eventually became Surveyor General to the Office of Works, where he was involved in a number of large scale building projects. His work wasn’t particularly original, and much of it looks rather generic to us, but he’s well known and respected because he brought classical architecture to Gothic England.
One of his most famous commissions was Queen’s House in Greenwich, which, though it looks plain, caused a sensation when it was built because it was so different than anything else in England. He also built the Banqueting House, which is the only surviving building that was part of the grand Whitehall Palace. It was used for state banquets and receptions, hence the name, and it also looks very classical with columns and decorative details in the frieze.
Jones was also famous for working in the theater, designing sets, scenery and costumes for plays and masques, often in collaboration with the poet Ben Johnson. By the 1630’s he was in high demand, and since he was still the Surveyor to the King, his services were only available to a select group of people.
Towards the end of his life he was caught up in the English Civil War because of his close association with the Royal family. His property was seized, though it was returned a year later. He lived his final years fairly quietly. The famous Christopher Wren was Surveyor General several years after him, and built a monument to him which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.