The Queen’s House on the edge of the Royal Park at Greenwich near London was designed by Inigo Jones—probably the greatest of all English architects—early in the seventeenth century. It was a major architectural feat because it represented, all at once and in a single building, the introduction of a new kind of architecture in the face of a well-established and reactionary building industry.
Before Jones (1573–1652) stepped on her architectural stage, England had been trying for almost a century to come to terms with the new forms of the Italian Renaissance. Henry VIII’s attempts to bring Italian craftsmen to England had been resisted by his subjects, and his later breach with most of Catholic Europe had stemmed the inflow of artistic ideas. The cultural standoff was maintained through Elizabeth I’s long reign and well into the seventeenth century. Anything of the Renaissance that did reach England came, often in clumsy caricature, through northern European pattern books, and attempts to use supposedly Italian details in English architecture generated the epigram. “The Englishman Italianate is the devil Inkarnate.” Single-handedly, Jones changed that.
His early life is obscure, but in 1603 he was working for the Earl of Rutland. Two years later Anne of Denmark, James I’s queen, asked him to design scenery and costumes for a royal masque at the Palace of Whitehall. In 1611–1612 he briefly held the office of Surveyor to the Crown Prince, Henry, and shortly after his master’s death, he was promised the position of Surveyor of the King’s Works. The following year Jones traveled in Italy with the Earl of Arundel and visited Venice, Vicenza, Bologna, Florence, Siena, Rome, and Genoa. He was impressed with modern Italian architecture and especially the country houses designed by Andrea Palladio (died 1580). He bought a copy of Palladio’s The Four Books of Architecture, published in Italian in 1570. Soon after returning to England Jones succeeded Simon Basil as Surveyor.
His first royal architectural commission was for the Queen’s House for Anne of Denmark. James I often went down from London to Greenwich (perhaps for fear of the plague) where Pleasaunce Palace stood on the site of the present Royal Naval College. Anne wanted a villa linking the palace garden and the Royal Park, which were divided by the main road between Deptford and Woolwich. Jones built the house with a two-story wing on each side of the road, joined at the upper level by a bridge, making it possible to pass from the palace gardens into the park without crossing the thoroughfare. When Anne died in 1619 work was halted. The basement and unfinished ground floor walls were covered with straw to protect them from frost, and a decade passed before work resumed.
In 1629 James’s son Charles I gave the house to his queen, Henrietta Maria, and Jones completed it for her. By 1635 the outside was almost finished. Apart from its ingenious siting, the house was un-English in a number of ways, most notably for its carefully proportioned H-shaped plan, that contrasted with the rambling layout of contemporary English houses. Spatial organization within the Queen’s House was symmetrical, geometrically laid out in keeping with the principles of visual harmony set down by Palladio. The Great Hall at the building’s core was a 40-foot (12-meter) cube, the pattern of its marble floor matching the geometrical composition of the ceiling panels. From one corner of the hall, the so-called Tulip Stair—the first cantilevered staircase in England and of the kind recommended by Palladio—led to the king’s and queen’s separate apartments on the upper floor. Each suite comprised rooms planned to fit the court routine: a presence chamber, anteroom, privy chamber, antechamber, bedchamber, inner closet, and outer closet. A loggia on the south side of the house looked out across the Royal Park.
Another major departure from convention was the outside appearance of the house. The park front had a loggia in the center of the second story, and the proportions of solids and voids can be related to Palladio’s Palazzo Chiericati at Vicenza (1550–1580). The riverfront had a central full-height projection to relieve its flatness; a horseshoe stair led from the palace garden to the podium on which the Queen’s House stood. The building was crowned with a balustrade. The plain upper walls were set above a ground floor with regular, deep recessed joints. The stories also had windows of different heights, but in the eighteenth, century the ground floor windows were lengthened. All is not what it appears, because the house is built of brick covered with white stucco in imitation of stone and prompting the alternative name “the White House.” Although Jones believed that the outside of buildings should be “solid, proportionable to the rules, masculine and unaffected,” the interiors were a different matter, and the Queen’s House was lavishly decorated and fitted out.
The ceiling panels of the Great Hall, showing Peace surrounded by the Muses and Liberal Arts, were painted in 1635 by the Italian father-daughter team Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi. Henrietta Maria furnished the rest of her house so opulently that an impressed visitor exclaimed that it “far surpasseth any other of that kind in England.” But the fact was there was no other of that kind in England.
The interior was possibly incomplete when civil war erupted in 1642. When the king’s houses were seized by Parliament in the following year, Jones’s surveyorship was terminated. In 1645 he was arrested and his property confiscated; that was put right a year later. The king was executed in 1649, and Jones died (some say of grief) in 1652. Anti-Catholic feelings compelled the queen to flee the country. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II intended to live in the Queen’s House while building a new palace, but Henrietta Maria (now Queen Mother) moved in and remained until her death in 1689.
Jones’s student and nephew John Webb undertook the restoration of the house in 1662, following his uncle’s meticulous documentation and adding two bridges to make the plan of the upper floor into a perfect square. In 1690 the Queen’s House became the residence of the Ranger of Greenwich Park, and in 1708 the ground floor windows and original casements were altered, spoiling Jones’s careful design. The house was painstakingly restored in the 1980s.
It is difficult for us to grasp how innovative, even alien, the white, classical Queen’s House would have appeared in Stuart England. Inigo Jones had categorically departed from every English precedent, and his design was regarded by one critic as “some curious device,” because no one understood the theory upon which his architecture was based. His lead would not be followed for a hundred years. His architectural feat was achieved for a number of reasons: first, he was a new kind of architect, with royal patronage; second, he was no slave to fashion but had a thorough commitment to the principles that underlay Italian Renaissance architecture; and third, he was a practical man with consummate drafting skills that allowed him to communicate exactly what he required of the craftsmen, although they were unfamiliar with his kind of architecture.