Inigo Jones: a Stylistic Revolution

“In the 1620s it was Inigo Jones who brought the Italian Renaissance to Britain and, in so doing, created a stylistic revolution…” – Doreen Yarwood: The Architecture of England (1974)

In 1623, there was nothing like it in London. The crisp lines of the Banqueting Hall must have taken the city by storm. In order to show why this was such an innovation in architectural style, we must first consider what came before and the visual sources that have inspired Inigo Jones to create such a masterpiece. I shall examine two of his buildings, the Banqueting Hall, a piece of Royal, ceremonial architecture, and St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, part of a revolution in city planning.

It is important to note the fundamental difference between the buildings that Jones saw on his travels in Italy and his own buildings. Italy has lots of sunshine, England does not. As a scenic designer, the effect of light on the scenery was a first consideration when creating an atmosphere. Jones must have been astounded by the reflective properties of light on the classical exteriors of the buildings that he saw in Europe. Those type of exteriors when transplanted to the dull, grey light of London would make full use of the limited light available. Here is an example of the Banqueting Hall photographed on a cold March day. The flat surfaces of pilasters in pale stone reflect wonderfully and you could almost believe you were in the Italian sunshine.

So what did Jones see in Italy that so inspired him? At that stage of his life he was a scenic designer. It is believed he started his career as a stage carpenter. This role extends far beyond creating props for the stage. It was the carpenters who built the Globe Theatre, making it portable it was actually taken down and moved after a legal argument over ground rent. During his travels with Thomas Howard, the second Earl of Arundel in 1614, Jones filled a book, now in the Chatsworth collection, with sketches and notes. He was collecting engravings too and he states in his notes that he would copy them for practice. Later some of these ‘practice’ sketches became scenic designs. On this trip he met a number of painters, notably Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, known as Guercino, who was famous for his rapidly executed calligraphy with parallel cross hatching. This influenced Jones’s own style of drawing. He obtained a copy of Palladio’s treatise, the Quattro libri dell’architettura in order to compare the actual buildings with the woodcuts. This copy is now in the collection in Worcester College. Palladio had illustrated his patron Daniele Barbaro’s Italian translation of Vitruvius’ De architectura, thought to have been written around 15 BC. Jones owned an Italian edition of Vitruvius’ book in which the author asserts that stage design was part of architecture. Jones absorbed himself in the philosophical theories as well as the visual drama of the antique classical style. Taking his inspiration for his designs from Vitruvius and in many cases, simply copying them and also the designs of other artists, Jones has his architectural apprenticeship in the small scale world of scenic design. His drawings for royal masques, now kept at Chatsworth House, show that he was a skilled draughtsman. He only had to scale up his building designs and hand them to a master mason to have them realised in real life. He rehearsed his architectural designs in his scenic studies. There is a drawing for the first scene of ‘Time Vindicated’ performed in 1623 with the Banqueting Hall inserted into the Tudor and Medieval city scape of Westminster Palace.

Here Jones is showing to the King and the court an image of the building in which they are seated for the performance while accentuating the contrast between the old buildings on either side of his new design. The heavy Tudor chimneys and the round gateway to the left lead into the old Whitehall gardens. What is so startling is the small size of the windows in the older sections. Jones uses his windows, not just for light, but to give form to a symmetrical facade. The lines are clean and economical and bright. On the right side there are the old medieval buildings with a clutter of towers and turrets. For the sophisticated English court the difference was obvious, and for a King who wanted to compete with the monarchs of Europe, it would be irresistible. For Jones, this is his ‘branding’; part of his media profile, his Instagram.

Jones does this again in 1637 in his design for Britannia Triumphans. It shows old and new buildings and in the distance there is the old St Paul’s which Jones helped to restore in a classical style. By this time Jones was well-known as an architect and he could afford to show off his classically proportioned designs to his patrons in the theatre.

In 1630, he was commissioned by the Earl of Bedford to build a square in London. This was the first planned square to be constructed in a city which is now famous for its squares. The Earl wanted to provide a church as this would assist in his obtaining his permission to build, but churches were notoriously expensive and he wanted to economise. There is a famous exchange between the two men, where the Earl told Jones to erect a ‘barn’ and Jones is said to have replied that he should have the ‘finest barn in Europe’. Jones again took his inspiration from Vitruvius and selected a style associated by Palladio with agricultural buildings. The layout of the square was inspired by the Piazza San Marco and other squares that Jones had visited in Italy.


As a former stage carpenter, Jones would probably have built something like this in wood early in his career. John Summersoni tells us that ‘Jones had concerned himself with the Tuscan style fifteen years before Covent Garden was begun’. This was in the building of a brewhouse and stable for James I’s new house at Newmarket. The building does not survive, but Jones drew heavily on Palladio for inspiration. St Paul’s Church has a temple-style facade with a prominent pediment supported by columns of the Tuscan order which was plain yet visually and structurally strong, reflecting its rustic origins. From the angle in the picture above it is clear how the pediment and roof might have been traditionally constructed in wood. It is a small, beautiful building and the Earl got a bargain at a cost of £4,886. The church of St Paul’s, commenced in 1631, was the first building to be erected and was then surrounded by three terraces of houses completed in 1637. The large central square, was a new concept for London, but was familiar to Jones from his travels in Italy. This first square has played a significant part in future of building in London. In 1635 Jones did a drawing for Florimène, an anonymous French pastoral masque. There may have been earlier versions of this performed by the Queen’s Ladies so it is not inconceivable that Jones had produced similar drawings for those early productions. In the drawing below, we can see the chunky bases supporting plain columns. Compared with the photograph above of St Paul’s church, the similarity is striking.


When we go into the garden at the west entrance of St. Paul’s, we find something quite different. This was the main entrance to the church, and the plainer west front has a pediment, but no portico with classical columns. The exterior was originally rendered with stucco. Jones was constrained by a tight budget. In 1789, it was decided to cover the walls in Portland stone. When this was removed in 1888, it was found to be badly done and the building was clad in the unrendered red brick we see today. The same prominent pediment is repeated on this side of the church with clear glass windows and steps leading to the formal west door. These steps were originally found on the eastern side too but the level of the piazza was raised gradually over the years until the steps disappeared. The subsequent changes to the church have distorted our view of the original building, but if we envisage the west side with the same pale coloured finish as the east, and add the steps to the east side, then Jones’ design becomes balanced and cohesive.


Jones takes his ideas from a number of sources. In Italy he bought many drawings by Andrea Palladio. He was also able to see the buildings in detail and he owned copies of Palladio’s books. He studied and drew on the ideas of Bramante, Serlio and the French designer, Jean Barbet. In Venice he met Vincenzo Scamozzi, who completed the work of Palladio and wrote the L’Idea dell’Architettura Universale, a

study of his thoughts on architecture published after his death. It is in Jones’s scenic designs that we can first see the strong influence of Vitruvius. John Peacock2 in his book on the stage design of Inigo Jones asserts that there is a sense that Vitruvius believed ‘that stage design comes before other architectural activities’. Peacock tells us that Jones annotated his copy of Vitruvius’ De architectura by ‘observing how stage design preceded building in the architectural literature of antiquity’.

The ‘stylist revolution’ in architecture cannot be separated from the tide of creative energy in performing arts that came with the reign of the Elizabeth I and was further established in reign of James I. Germaine Greer3 says in her 2011 article in The Guardian that, ‘Harmony and symmetry entered English architecture with stage designer Inigo Jones, who brought the aesthetic of Palladio first to the new-build Queen’s House at Greenwich and then to his replacement for the destroyed Banqueting House at Whitehall’. Long before these buildings, Jones was rehearsing his vision of a new architecture in his theatre designs before putting it into practise. He informed and educated the taste of the elite and when his time came to build, his patrons were already sure that the style of the Italian Renaissance was what they wanted.

1 Summerson, Inigo Jones
2 Peacock, the Stage Designs of Inigo Jones : The European Context.

3 Greer, The English Renaissance: The rebirth of refinement. The Guardian 2011