Some of the greatest sites in Britain today are products of the Enlightenment. Delve into some of Christopher Wren’s architectural achievements, including the Royal Observatory and the splendid St. Paul’s Cathedral. Then move beyond London to explore the great country estates of Kedleston and Calke Abbey.
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Christopher Wren and St. Paul’s Cathedral
The multi-talented Christopher Wren was the architect who set about redesigning and rebuilding London after the catastrophic Great Fire of 1666, including many churches that still stand, the City of London’s Monument to the fire, and the Royal Observatory and hospital at Greenwich.
Wren’s greatest achievement was St. Paul’s Cathedral, which has been a London landmark for more than 300 years, and became even more famous when it somehow escaped destruction during the intense German bombardment during World War II. Then, it became, yet more famous, when Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles there in 1981.
Building began in 1675. It wasn’t finished until 1710 when Wren was 78, but that’s relatively quick by comparison with most cathedrals. Wren was the first architect in European history to plan and begin building a cathedral, then have the satisfaction of seeing the job right through to completion.
Wren wanted this dome to be visible all across London, which meant it had to be high. For aesthetic reasons, however, it needed to be much shallower inside. He solved the problem by building a shallow dome inside a much steeper external one, with an empty space between them. Above the dome is the lantern, and finally the golden ball and cross, that make the top of St. Paul’s so satisfying visually.
Wren, son of an Anglican clergyman, did not want stained glass or the usual accoutrements of the many British cathedrals that had started out Catholic before the Reformation. Only in the late 1700s, a century after its founding, did the first statues come in, slowly at first, but then more rapidly during the Napoleonic wars.
Britain’s naval genius of the Napoleonic Wars, Horatio Nelson, is the subject of one of these statues. It was carved by John Flaxman to commemorate his victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson stands on a plinth, like a god, with a fur cape disguising the fact that his right arm is missing (it had been amputated after wounding in one of his many battles).
Britain’s army genius of the Napoleonic Wars, the Duke of Wellington, is the subject of the biggest monument in the body of the cathedral itself. The Duke won, and survived, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and went on to a distinguished political career, including a stint as prime minister. His funeral, in 1852, was one of the greatest state events of the century, for which 13,000 people crammed themselves into St. Paul’s. The floor was cut so that his coffin could be lowered into the crypt below through the hole. His coffin still remains within a massive marble sarcophagus in the crypt.
Andrea Palladio Develops the Palladian Style
The Enlightenment era in Britain witnessed a fashion for the Palladian style. Andrea Palladio was an Italian architect of the 16th century, who aimed to revive building in the style of the Roman Empire. One of the first great Palladian buildings in Britain was Chiswick House in West London, recently restored and now in beautiful condition after some rocky years as a lunatic asylum and a fire station.
Chiswick House is open to visitors regularly, while the grounds are open every day during daylight hours. House and grounds are regarded by historians as equally important, because this was also a pioneer site of English landscape gardening.
In the late 1700s, Chiswick House passed into the hands of the Duke of Devonshire and his famous wife, Lady Georgiana Spencer. She referred to the gardens there as her “Earthly paradise,” and contributed a distinctive classical bridge, which is still there.
There’s also a wonderful Ionic temple on the grounds, rather like a miniature version of the Pantheon in Rome. It’s one of the dozens of classically influenced buildings and statues on the Chiswick estate that can be approached down hedged avenues and winding walkways.
Stately Homes of 18th Century Britain
Let’s move from London to visit some provincial stately homes that were also built in the 18th century. The two I have in mind, Kedleston Hall and Calke Abbey, both in Derbyshire, are owned and cared for by the National Trust, but they tell very different stories.
The estate of Kedleston already belonged to the Curzon family before 1300.
The great hall is immense, with high fluted pillars, marble, brown and cream, with life-size statues of gods, muses, and nymphs in niches. It’s the perfect venue if you’re holding a banquet with 60 guests or a grand ball.
The other staterooms at Kedleston are sumptuous and opulent. Experts have been restoring faded elements, notably the blue damask wall coverings and the gilding of couches and chairs. The plaster ceilings are wonderfully intricate, and the whole house is packed with family treasures from the ages.
From Kedleston, it’s only about 20 miles to Calke Abbey, but Calke radiates a very different mood. Signs, as you enter, declare: “Welcome to Calke, the Un-Stately Home.” Built in the first decade of the 1700s on the grand scale, but by an unknown architect, and at first comparable in magnificence to Kedleston, it was the property of the Harpur-Crewe family. But whereas the Curzons gained in social and political prominence, the Harpur-Crewes became eccentric and reclusive, failed to keep up their great house, retreated into almost hermetic solitude, and let it go to ruin.
When the National Trust finally received the house in 1985, their first thought was to restore it to its days of splendor, like most of the other stately homes they care for. On reflection, however, and in view of the terrifying expense that would have entailed, they decided on a different approach and put it on display as they had found it.
Calke acts as a reminder that old buildings of all kinds require constant work, that privileged people don’t necessarily have good taste, and that the forces of order and entropy are constantly fighting it out.
The Rise of Georgian Architecture
Members of the rising middle-class in the eighteenth century could not afford great stately homes, but the townhomes they favored were often sturdy enough, and graceful enough, to have survived in large numbers. The first four King Georges sat on the throne between 1714 and 1830, so buildings from this era are often called Georgian. The place to see Georgian architecture at its best is Bath, in the county of Somerset.
While you’re in this lovely old city, with its Roman baths and its medieval abbey, go also to “the Circus,”—a circle of proud stone townhouses built in the 1750s and 1760s. Their curved frontage is aesthetically satisfying, and these houses were popular right from the outset.
Britain’s intellectual vitality also continued to increase in the 18th century, as new figures from the middle-class began to affect national affairs. One place to trace their rising influence is in the modest Staffordshire town of Lichfield. It was home to three prominent Enlightenment-era figures: Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, and Eramus Darwin.
Johnson was a novelist, essayist, and journalist, and is best-known for writing the first, full-scale English dictionary. His birthplace and childhood home at the corner of the town square still stands; the square itself features a large statue of him.
Pride of place at the Johnson house goes, as it should, to an original edition of Johnson’s dictionary, which was published in 1755 after nine years’ hard work. It wasn’t the very first English dictionary but it was far more ambitious than its predecessors, and it contributed to the standardization of the language and of English spelling.
A few hundred yards from Johnson’s house, best approached via Lichfield’s wonderful medieval cathedral, is the home of Erasmus Darwin. Erasmus Darwin’s day job was as a doctor, and one of the rooms in the Lichfield house is an imaginative reconstruction of his medical office.