Baroque was an architecture of power. Exuding grandeur, drama and contrast, it was loved by rulers and the Catholic Church across Europe after the Renaissance.
Characterised by curving shapes, ornate finishings and chiaroscuro lighting, Baroque was often used for royal residences and religious buildings.
English Baroque, which spanned between 1690 to 1730, was a response to the Baroque style of continental Europe. It was comparatively more conservative and plain-looking with Classical features.
While a few English Baroque sites were built in the early part of the 17th century, the Great Fire of London in 1666 left London a shell of its former self.
Renowned architects such as Sir Christopher Wren were suddenly faced with a blank canvas and a free hand to to develop a new style as they redesigned the city.
English Baroque became unique to England and although short-lived, the bombastic style produced some of Britain’s most important architectural treasures.
After Wren the most significant English Baroque architects were Nicholas Hawksmoor – who built Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard – and Sir John Vanbrugh.
1. St Paul’s Cathedral
The present structure of St Paul’s Cathedral was built between 1677 and 1697 by Sir Christopher Wren, after the old building was gutted in the Great Fire of London.
The cathedral’s layout was a Latin cross as with other English Baroque churches which, in comparison to their European counterparts, featured less airy spaces and were built in a stricter way.
The central dome was one of the world’s largest, emphasising the intersection of the four points of the cross. Its sheer size was a key element to Wren’s Baroque design. Until the 1960s, St Paul’s Cathedral was the tallest building in London.
St Paul’s Cathedral also served as Wren’s final resting place. On the wall above his tomb reads:
Reader, if you seek his memorial, look around you.
2. Blenheim Palace
Built between 1705 and 1722, Blenheim Palace was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh and was one of the impressive examples of English Baroque architecture.
The palace was originally intended as a gift to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, in honour of his military victories.
This was reflected in Vanbrugh’s monumental and theatrical design, which combined dramatic quality with intricate, more romantic details. He used great masses of stone to imitate strength and emphasise shadow.
Vanbrugh was sacked mid-build, and the palace was competed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. However it remained the finest expression of its original architect’s style.
Blenheim Palace later served as the birthplace and ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill.
3. Castle Howard
Castle Howard was Vanbrugh’s first commission as an architect for Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle.
Although building work began in 1699, it took over 100 years to complete its construction.
Set within a monumental park covering 1,000 acres, the English Baroque stately home was one of the grandest in England – more palace than country house.
The 145-room castle consisted of a central nine-bay block surmounted by a 80-foot-high domed cupola, with curved wings forming a forecourt.
In a letter to George Selwyn, the English historian and collector Horace Walpole described Castle Howard as:
a palace, a town, a fortified city, temples on high places, woods worthy of being each a metropolis of the Druids… the noblest lawn in the world fenced by half the horizon, and a mausoleum that would tempt one to be buried alive.
4. Chatsworth House
Sitting in the valley on the banks of the River Derwent, Chatsworth House was originally built in the Tudor style in the 1560s. It was redesigned by William Talman, a pupil of Sir Wren, and Thomas Archer as well as the later Jeffry Wyatville.
The building was a key achievement in the development of English Baroque architecture, and the first truly Baroque country house in England.
A sense of power and opulence emanated from the dramatic facade of ionic pilates and heavy sculptural features through to the interior rooms, which were filled with rich decorations and finishings.
To this day, Chatsworth is often dubbed England’s favourite stately home.
5. Old Royal Naval College
The buildings of Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College were originally constructed between 1696 and 1712 to serve as the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich – now generally known as Greenwich Hospital.
Commissioned by Queen Mary II, the hospital was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor. Sir John Vanbrugh succeeded Wren as architect, completing its construction to Wren’s original plans.
The building’s Painted Hall is considered one of the greatest achievements of English Baroque art, and has been called ‘Britain’s Sistine Chapel’.
Designed by Wren as a ceremonial dining room, it took Sir James Thornhill over 19 years to complete the vast painting scheme. Thornhill, who also decorated the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, was the first British artist to be knighted in 1720.
6. Christ Church, Spitalfields
Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Baroque masterpiece was built between 1714 and 1729, as part of the church building programme initiated by the ’50 Churches Act’ of 1711, backed by Queen Anne.
The Commission appointed to build the new churches stipulated that they should have tall spires as a show of Anglican authority.
Typical of his use of robust lines and bold structural form, Hawksmoor combined the plain rectangular box the a nave with a broad tower topped by a looming monumental steeple.
The church was a supreme expression of English Baroque and has since had an enduring effect on British architecture.