Inigo Jones: The Architect Who Transformed England | History Hit

Inigo Jones: The Architect Who Transformed England

Amy Irvine

01 Aug 2022
Portrait of Inigo Jones painted by William Hogarth in 1758 from a 1636 painting by Sir Anthony van Dyck
Image Credit: William Hogarth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Inigo Jones was the first notable British architect of the modern period – often referred to as the father of British architecture.

Jones was responsible for introducing the classical architecture of Rome and the Italian Renaissance to England, and designed an array of London’s notable buildings, including Banqueting House, Queen’s House and the layout for Covent Garden’s square. His pioneering work in the field of stage design had a key impact on the theatrical world too.

Here we take a look at Inigo Jones’s life and key architectural and design achievements.

Early life and inspiration

Jones was born in 1573 in Smithfield, London, into a Welsh-speaking family and was the son of a wealthy Welsh cloth worker. Very little else is known about Jones’s early years or education.

At the end of the century, a rich patron sent him to Italy to study drawing, after being impressed by the quality of his sketches. One of the first Englishmen to study architecture in Italy, Jones became very influenced by the work of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio. By 1603, his painting and design skills attracted the patronage of King Christian IV of Denmark and Norway, where he was employed for a time on the design of the palaces of Rosenborg and Frederiksborg before returning to England.

Frederiksborg castle in Sweden

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Christian IV’s sister, Anne, was the wife of James I of England, and Jones was employed by her in 1605 to design the scenes and costumes for a masque (a form of festive courtly entertainment) – the first of a long series he designed for her and later for the king even after he began receiving architectural commissions.

‘Surveyor-General of the King’s Works’

Inigo Jones’s first-known building was the New Exchange in The Strand, London, designed in 1608 for the Earl of Salisbury. In 1611, Jones was appointed surveyor of works to Henry, Prince of Wales, but after the prince died, Jones left England in 1613 to visit Italy again.

A year after his return, he was appointed surveyor to the king (‘Surveyor-General of the King’s Works’) in September 1615 – a position he held until 1643. This placed him in charge of planning and building royal architectural projects. His first task was to build a residence for James I’s wife, Anne – the Queen’s House, in Greenwich. Queen’s House is Jones’s earliest-surviving work and the first strictly classical and Palladian-style building in England, causing a sensation at the time. (Although now considerably altered, the building now houses part of the National Maritime Museum).

The Queen’s House at Greenwich

Image Credit: cowardlion / Shutterstock.com

Significant buildings designed by Jones

During his career, Inigo Jones designed a great many buildings, including some of the most prominent in England.

Following a fire in 1619, Jones began work on a new Banqueting House – part of his planned major modernisation for the Palace of Whitehall (the full extent of which did not come to fruition due to Charles I’s political difficulties and a lack of funds). The Queen’s Chapel, St James’s Palace was built between 1623-1627 for Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria.

Jones also designed the square of Lincoln’s Inn Fields and the layout for the Lindsey House (still existing at Number 59 and 60) in the square in 1640 – the design of which served as a model for other town houses in London such as John Nash’s Regent’s Park terraces, and Bath’s Royal Crescent.

The most important work of Jones’s later career was the restoration of Old St Paul’s Cathedral in 1633-42, which included the building of a magnificent portico of 10 columns (17 metres high) at the west end. This was lost with the rebuilding of St Paul’s after the Great Fire of London in 1666. It is thought Jones’s work had a considerable influence on Sir Christopher Wren in his early designs for rebuilding St Paul’s and other churches.

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More than 1,000 buildings have been attributed to Jones, though only around 40 of those are certain to be his work. In the 1630s, Jones was in high demand and, as Surveyor to the King, his services were only available to a very limited circle of people, so often projects were commissioned to other members of the Works. Jones’s role in many instances was likely that of a civil servant in getting things done, or as a guide (such as his ‘double cube’ room), rather than purely as an architect.

Nevertheless, these all contributed to Jones’s status as the father of British architecture. His revolutionary ideas have led many scholars to claim Jones started the golden age of British architecture.

Impact on regulations and town planning

Jones was also very involved in the regulation of new buildings – he is credited with the introduction of formal town planning in England for his design for Covent Garden (1630), London’s first ‘square’. He’d been commissioned to build a residential square on land developed by the 4th Earl of Bedford, and did so inspired by the Italian piazza of Livorno.

As part of the square, Jones also designed the church of St Paul, the first wholly and authentically classical church built in England – inspired by Palladio and a Tuscan temple. None of the original houses survive, but a little remains of the church of St Paul – known as ‘the Actors’ Church’ for its long links to London’s theatre. Covent Garden had a significant influence on modern town planning, acting as a model for future developments in the West End as London expanded.

Inigo Jones, by Anthony van Dyck (cropped)

Image Credit: Anthony van Dyck, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Influence on masques and theatre

Inigo Jones was also famous for his pioneering work in the field of stage design. Jones worked as a producer and architect for masques from 1605-1640, collaborating with poet and playwright Ben Jonson (with whom he had notorious arguments about whether stage design or literature was more important in theatre).

His work on masques with Jonson is credited to be one of the first instances of scenery (and moving scenery) being introduced in theatres. Curtains were used and placed in between the stage and the audience in his masques, and opened to introduce a scene. Jones was also known for using the full stage, often placing actors below the stage or elevating them onto higher platforms. These elements of stage design were adopted by those working in the early modern stage for larger audiences.

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Impact of the English Civil War

In addition to Jones’s contribution to theatre and architecture, he also served as an MP (for a year in 1621, where he also helped improve parts of the House of Commons and Lords) and as a Justice of the Peace (1630-1640), even declining a  knighthood by Charles I in 1633.

Despite this, the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642 and the seizure of Charles I’s properties in 1643 effectively ended his career. In 1645, he was captured at the siege of Basing House by Parliamentarian forces and his estate temporarily confiscated.

Inigo Jones ended his days living in Somerset House, and died on 21 June 1652.

Amy Irvine

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