We were British, subjects of King James when first we settled in Jamestown (1607). We were culturally Shakespearian*, engaged in all things British. We were patriotic, though divided in the English Civil War. We cheered the Restoration and the return of monarchy (the Virginia Cavaliers, et alia**); well, most did. We were faithful to our country’s traditions and eager for the fashions of our London capital. We followed the taste of king, queen, and nobility. We were ambitious to become the proud ornaments of the kingdom, to achieve excellence in the arts of pictuary, statuary, building. Yet, early we showed ourselves to be rather less officious, rather more neighborly, and though we dutifully followed England’s Roman Renewal, I don’t know, the imperial pomp-and-circumstance seemed a pretense. We were polite, yes, “close-to-the-chest”, you might say, upright, domestically public, comfortable and homey. You will notice, the American Georgian is communitarian, an architecture of community, rather than the architecture of authority.
English architecture is Roman architecture in seed, trunk, branch, leaf, and root. Well, yes, I heard someone say, “Stonehenge”, a word in point of the thesis. The Lloyd, the London pickle … are these buildings “English” architecture. No, those are foreign fashion, fickle and frivolous, less English than is the rumba, deserving of ridicule, contempt. English architecture is an architecture both practical and serious, the sensible architecture of adults.
There is little certainty of the wandering peoples of Bronze Age Britain, there is some little knowledge of antique British languages, and there are meager artifacts of the sometimes-stable British cultures, those objects of wealth and war and conquest. Too, there is evidence that Britain shared civilization’s collapse, circa 1177 before Christ. Certainly, the Britons were a people of the Eurasian steppe, Eurasians, as were the people of the Mediterranean … and the British Gauls (“Celts”) were one with the Galatians of the Hellespont, the Gallo-Graeci (“Gaulish Greeks”), as F. Bacon named them. Then too, there is neither a unifying Celtic language nor a Celtic identity of the Gauls in whole. The British were British when Roman.
Students of history have enjoyed the Arthurian debate, the historicity of the Roman-British, King Arthur (nomen-gentile, “Artorius”), semi-legendary hero of the type who would have existed, yet cannot be known; contemporary chronicles are non-existent, later accounts are dubious. This king will have warred with the Angles (those Germanic peoples who were flooding into Mediterranean Rome [recall, the Roman empire existed England through Europe into Africa past Persia]), held them briefly at bay, then succumbed, losing supremacy, language, architecture. Two centuries later, Romans returned to Christianize and reRomanize, the Romanesque, a Roman revival.
The British are and always have been Roman by name***, by turn of mind, by history and ascendence, by the architecture of home. In Romaness we might review the disappearance of the Round House, the British Roman villa, fortress, town and shrine, the Romanesque (Roman continuance), the Norman and each Roman Renewal, St. Mary’s Kempley to Quinlan Terry, yet this introduction concerns the kings George, the House of Hanover, and the continuance of Roman tradition in empire and architecture.
You will recall Andrea Palladio, the Venetian who measured and adapted antique Roman forms to suit the composition of his villas, and who composed a book of his villas design, a guide to building adapted from Vitruvius, an Imperial Roman architect. Well, Palladio’s book, The Four Books of Architecture prompted George I to commission an English facsimile from Leoni. Leoni Anglicized, some have said, “improved” upon Palladio, 1715. Another book that will have pleased the cultural ambitions of King George, Gibb’s Vitruvius Britannicus, 1725, an ambitious undertaking. Yet, one book more than any other made the Roman Revival accessible to Britons of the extended empire, James Gibb’s Book of Architecture, 1728.
Each book had its champion, and each champion his argument, and all arguments served to refine taste, prompt innovation, and encourage excellence. George III, a skilled practitioner of architectural drawing, publicly urged and sometimes commissioned buildings of the highest standards, yet it was the aristocrats and the rising middling class who rose to taste and practiced excellence.
Witness the well-measured houses of Williamsburg whose simple sheds and stables attest to refined taste and sturdy judgment. We might say, “the Williamsburg outhouse is of a higher architectural order than the McMansion and the McModern, and most skyscrapers of the starchitect and stale architect”. The Classive nature of the Anglo-Roman embodies a gravitas worthy of a people who by liberty might lead the world into civilization.
* Shakespeare’s The Tempest is based upon source material before 1610, perhaps the founding of the Virginia settlement, Jamestown, 1607. In my notes (apology, cannot find them just now) there are records of Shakespeare’s plays being performed shipboard in the Atlantic in the decade’s following his death; and there is a 17th Century record of an Indian gifting the works of Shakespeare to a British officer.
** The Washingtons, the Madisons, the Marshalls were Cavaliers all, Royalists who fled to Virginia in hope of escape from bloody Cromwell. Here, always like to share this tidbit: John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, et cetera, was “Secretary for Foreign Tongues” in Cromwell’s Commonwealth.
*** Derived from the writings of the geographer Pytheas (born, circa 350 B.C.) who mapped the northern reaches and described the Hyperboreans, those people beyond Boreas (the “North Wind”), and while in the land of the Hyperboreans, Pytheas recorded in his journal the “midnight sun”, the summer solstice of the Arctic Circle, et cetera.
Our Georgian, the American Georgian, is found in four style variations:
The Hanoverian (German) George I, when he come to power (when granted the kingship by Parliament) brought with him the reforming influence of Renaissance Palladio, a check on the Baroque (Catholic) James II. There are regional variations of the Early Georgian, some by precedent, others by religious sympathy (Catholics tended to the Baroque, Protestants to the Palladian). Construction materials vary: New England, wood; Mid-Atlantic, wood and brick; in the South, mostly of brick because the wood tended to rot and burn. Best examples of Early Georgian are found in Southern plantations, and in Williamsburg.
An increasing symmetry of the Colonial; a prominent façade of large windows double-hung; hipped roofs become common; a blending into one tradition along the Atlantic seaboard.
An increasing symmetry, geometric and rectangular, bold in massing and detail.
In Dutch New England yet Gambrell, gabled and hipped in the Mid-Atlantic, dormers and dentil cornice throughout.
Most often five bays, double-hung sash with large panes of glass, occasionally shuttered.
Raised on a low base delineated with a water-table and a belt-course between stories. Most often gutterless.
Mostly two stories of flat façade without overhang.
Double-pile (two rooms deep) with a central hall and flanking rooms.
Chimneys centered on the roof pinnacle.
An entrance centrally placed above a raised step. A simple lintel or distinguished pediment that frames a paneled door.
Generally dark, grays, reds, and browns, though sometimes white.
The Middle Georgian begins where the high-style Williamsburg ends, and it declines in 1776, when we Americans self-consciously reject George III and his family’s fashion. Until then, detailing became bold and confident, as archeology advanced and pattern-books became common. Then too, Middle Georgian houses begin to exhibit the monumental qualities of public buildings, reflecting pride in advancing civilization and personal accomplishment.
The façade is symmetrical and boxlike.
Lower pitch than Earl Georgian. The occasional balustrade, sometime Chinoiserie.
Sashed rectangular windows, and fanlights.
Masonry, timber, stone, the timber sometimes treated to appear like stone. Quoins are common.
Rectangular block. In the South, five-part Palladian: main block, flanking wings with connectors.
Chimneys close to the geographic center of the house, especially in the hipped roof variety.
Sometimes showy pediments, entrances, and pilasters and columns of full height.
Usually white, with that yellowing linseed tint, also the pale colors, and light gray. Shutters are most often green.
The Late Georgian tends to mastery and the delicate, refined touch alike the high-taste absorbed from Anglo-Roman pattern-books of Inigo Jones and Robert Adam. Then too, our American architects become professional, and come to us from England (Charles Bulfinch, Benj. Latrobe, et alia). Colors tended to mute, to become pleasantly pastel with the lightness of Pompeii (discovered 1709, formally excavated 1748). Best examples are found from South Carolina through Maryland, though excellent examples can be found all along the seaboard. Soon, Asher Benjamin’s The Country Builder’s Assistant, 1797, extended the Georgian westward to Ohio.
A delicate symmetry and detailing, with an Adamesque lightness refinement.
A continually lowering hipped roof. Often, the balustrade that hides the roof.
Windows are six-over-six, shallowly recessed. Palladian and elliptical windows become common.
The wood frames are often bricked. Sometimes, decorative low-relief makes an appearance.
Double-pile in plan, two or three stories in elevation.
Chimneys become slender.
Again the central doorway, though now flanked by sidelights, topped by a semi-elliptical fanlight. Pilasters and columns become prominent.
The color becomes pastel, highlighted in white. Brick is occasionally whitewashed. The roofs continue green, as do the shutters. Door color is often left to the owner’s whim.
This American Georgian (Georgian Revival) boasts a marked uniformity, inventive symmetry, and proportions easily mastered by the brilliant, often forgotten architects of the century passed. A more correct, better-informed archeology allowed American Georgian architects of the XXth Century to create domestic masterpieces. Notably, the American Georgians employed forms ascended from the Roman to the Italian to the English, forms that became American Georgian of a fourth, native-born generation.
Symmetrical masses of two stories and more.
The roof might be gabled or Gambrell (depending on context and influence), though mostly hipped.
Double-hung sash, most often six-over-six. Palladian windows are often celebrated. The modest examples sport shutters.
Might be of masonry or clapboard, though some now are of limestone finely carved, if in rectangular friezes, you might find the swag, garland, or trophy expertly treated.
Double pile, hierarchical in plan, the central block might sport wings to dependencies.
The best examples sport an aedicule (the door surround) that admits scholarship and mastery. Balusters, pilasters, and columns are well-measured, well placed.
White becomes the most common color, after natural brick.
Georgian architecture respected the scale of both the individual and the community.
If I could create an ideal world, it would be an England with the fire of the Elizabethans, the correct taste of the Georgians, and the refinement and pure ideals of the Victorians.
I once rented the Georgian town house that Jane Austen lived in down by the Holburne Museum – so I lived in Jane Austen’s house, and slept in Jane Austen’s bedroom. You can walk along these Georgian streets and it’s like you’re in a Jane Austen period drama.
I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Ah! There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.
Jane Austen, Emma
Andrea Palladio, The Four Books of Architecture, Italy, 1570.
Colen Campbell, Vitruvius Britannicus, London, 1725.
James Gibbs, Book of Architecture, London, 1728.
William Kent, The Designs Of Inigo Jones : Consisting Of Plans And Elevations For Publick And Private Buildings, London, 1727.
Robert & James Adam, Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, London, 1770s (three volumes).
* * *
will be found in this month’s Beautiful Home,
Featured image: “Gunston Hall”; credit Bill Cizeck.
* * *