Tory Historian's blog: spread of Renaissance ideas in England

Posted by Tory Historian Monday, September 30, 2013 ,

Tory Historian has made a momentous decision to concentrate in future blogs on books and what one can gleam from them. It will be a kind of a reading diary of books that might be considered to be relevant to the blog.

First off, a book picked up in a strange little bookshop near South Kensington station and next to Daquise restaurant (which is still operating, TH is glad to say, and serving excellent Polish food). The books is entitled Inheritance with a subtitle that explains all: The Story of Knole and the Sackvilles, by Robert Sackville-West, the 7th Earl Sackville, a publisher and chairman of Knole Estates, and, with his family, the inhabitant of one part of Knole, most of which is open to the public.

The story starts with that formidable and somewhat piratical Elizabethan, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, who survived many things, including the enmity of the Earl of Leicester and who built Knole as the great Renaissance palace in the middle of Kent.

Because the various documents to do with the building and decorating have been kept and have survived through the centuries, the names of the many workmen are actually known, something that is rarely true. On pages 14 and 15 of the paperback version there are names of ironmongers, stonemasons, locksmyths, brasiers, plommers, plaisterers and so on.

The Earl supervised the building whenever he managed to get time in his busy life (he died of what must have been a stroke or a sudden heart attack in the middle of a Council meeting) and ideas were taken from books published on the Continent about architecture and decorating. There were, at the time, no architects as such and ideas were handed on from father to son, from employer to apprentice. This is what Sackville-West says after describing some of the paintings and decorations in the Great Chamber and on the Great Staircase:

These matches, and copies, show how the design scheme for Knole was assembled. They are also and example, more generally, of the Renaissance in action in England: of how ideas, or least motifs, spread. Thomas Sackville had been on grand tours of France and Italy in the 1560s, where he must have seen many of the new Renaissance buildings. He and his master craftsmen would also have been familiar with the pattern books, newly printed in France, Italy or the Netherlands, which circulated amongst a small group of builders, like source books or design magazines today, providing inspiration and templates. Patrons swapped ideas, and recommended - and poached craftsmen - to and from each other. Designs were adapted and spread across England, site by site, gradually creating a distinctive national style. This did not mean that the English builders necessarily understood the philosophy and intellectual principles that underlay the Renaissance approach to architecture: merely that they liked some of the devices, which they could then graft, in a pick-and-mix way, on to a more homegrown tradition. 


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