When Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) was building his exquisite villas across the Venetian terra firma, English architects were constructing such weird confections as Wollaton Hall (1580-1588), Barlborough Hall (c1583-1584), Hardwick Hall (1597) and Burton Agnes Hall (c1600).
In the late sixteenth century England was segregated from Catholic Europe, where the Renaissance had been flourishing for generations. Builders in England could only understand the vocabulary of classical architecture through pattern books – and often got the proportions wrong.
Only Inigo Jones (1573-1652) had the good fortune to travel on the continent, and returned with the capability to design the Queen’s House at Greenwich (1616-9/1630-5), the Banqueting House at Whitehall (1619-22), St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden (1631), and Wilton House, Wiltshire (1633-40).
The man who eventually brought Palladian architecture to Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century was Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork (1694-1753).
In his early twenties he made three Grand Tour visits to Europe, and on the third, in 1719, he took with him a copy of Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura, which catalogues the Italian’s built and unbuilt designs.
On his return he added a pavilion to the Jacobean family seat, Chiswick House, then in a rural setting a little less than ten miles from the City of London.
This exquisite little building – which is now known as Chiswick House, the Jacobean building having long since disappeared – was completed in 1729, and was described by Lord Hervey (Alexander Pope’s ‘Lord Fanny’) as “Too small to live in, and too big to hang to a watch”.
It derives obviously from Palladio’s Villa Capra, but with only two porticos instead of four, a taller dome more in keeping with Palladio’s intention, and obelisks that serve as chimneys, a necessity in England but not in the Mediterranean.
The villa and the surrounding garden were carefully designed to suggest a Roman original, based on Palladio’s patterns rather than direct archaeology.
It represented a huge departure from the heavier Baroque buildings that had been erected in the late seventeenth century – Chatsworth, Blenheim, Castle Howard – and it became the precedent for elegant buildings for a generation.
Lord Burlington’s social status and aesthetic authority enabled him to promote a coterie of architects – Colen Campbell, William Kent, Matthew Brettingham, Henry Flitcroft, John Wood the elder, James Paine and John Carr of York – who designed the great houses of the early eighteenth century, such as Holkham Hall, Houghton Hall, Stourhead House, Prior Park and – most of all – Wentworth Woodhouse where an old-fashioned west wing is concealed by the magnificent Palladian east wing.
The long line of classical beauty, ultimately derived from the Greeks and the Romans, passes from the Roman writer Vitruvius to Palladio, then to Lord Burlington, and it continues to the present day, if you know where to look.