Staged Experiences

Architecture and rhetoric in the work of Sir Henry Wotton, Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh

Ph.D Art History University of Groningen/Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (2006)

My Ph.D research focussed on the role of classical rhetoric in English 17th and early 18th century architecture. I analysed Sir Henry Wotton’s 1614 treatise on architecture, Hawksmoor’s early 18th century London churches and Vanbrugh’s country houses, as well as the reception of the classical concept of the sublime via 17th century editions of the classical text of Longinus.

The project was part of a research programme on the role of rhetoric in the visual arts funded by the Netherlands Foundation for Scientific Research (NWO) led by Prof. Caroline van Eck.

Supervisors: Prof. Dr. Auke van der Woud, Prof. Dr. Caroline van Eck.

VU University Amsterdam. Final viva and degree awarded at University of Groningen. 

- Link to PDF version of dissertation

Publication: Sophie Ploeg, Staged experiences: the church designs of Nicholas Hawksmoor, in: Winters, E., Eck, C.A. van, Dealing with the Visual. Art History, Aesthetics and Visual Culture, Routledge, 2005, pp. 215-37.


The architecture of the English architects Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) and Nicholas Hawksmoor (c. 1661-1736) is often categorized as the English Baroque. But despite the habit of many architectural historians to divide architecture into art historical periods, the works by Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor is difficult to fit into the existing style periods. The English Baroque is very different from the Baroque of the European continent and the architecture of Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh is also very different from the more widely accepted English Baroque architects such as Sir Christopher Wren. His St. Paul's Cathedral is considered a highlight of the English Baroque. The works of Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, such as the famous Blenheim Palace (1705-1724) in Oxfordshire and Castle Howard (1699-1712) in Yorkshire, but also the city churches that Hawksmoor designed for London between 1711 and 1731 and the lesser-known, but equally dramatic country houses of Vanbrugh, show a unique English style that is difficult to analyse using the well-known international architectural-historical methods that are often based on stylistic periods and Vitruvian design schematics. Stylistic periods such as Baroque, Gothic and Classicism are often used to place the fascinating buildings in an appropriate box. Vitruvian concepts, such as the floor plan, the elevation, proportions and the use of the classical orders, often form the starting points of an interpretation. John Summerson often made use of this method of interpretation in his important publications Architecture in Britain 1530 – 1830 (1953) and The Classical Language of Architecture (1963) and his influence is still great. In the interpretation of Blenheim Palace, for example, he refers to the different parts of the building and mentions a Doric portico surmounted by a Corinthian portico, which was inspired by Scamozzi. The naming of various elements and the tracing of the sources in the classicist formal language often seem to be the most important purposes in an interpretation of Blenheim Palace.

However, recent publications on the architecture of Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, as well as publications on the Italian Renaissance, have explored a new method of interpreting architecture. Inspired by Michael Baxandall's interpretation of art as a social product that should be approached from a contemporary point of view, historians such as Christine Smith analysed Fifteenth Century Italy, David Howarth the connection between politics and art in the English Renaissance, and David Cast the interpretation of Hawksmoor's and Vanbrugh's work. These authors situated art and architecture in the society in which it was created and attempted to interpret art on the basis of important political, social and literary sources and movements. In the politics and poetics of the English Renaissance, rhetoric appears to play a major role in the creation and contemporary interpretation of art, symbolism, emblems and architecture. The important relationship between artwork and viewer was often approached with rhetorical sources.

Rhetoric is the art or theory of persuasive eloquence. Since ancient times until the late eighteenth century, rhetoric has remained one of the most important subjects in the educational curriculum. The most important classical textbooks are Aristotle's Rhetorica (350 B.C.), Cicero's De Inventione (c. 87 B.C.), De Oratore (55 B.C.) and Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria (A.D. 92-94). Rhetoric formulated the manner in which language can have a convincing effect on an audience. In the three genres of rhetoric; the judicial, political and festive speech, especially the festive speech (praise and blame) saw a major development in the Renaissance. The panegyric developed into a genre with a moral charge: the praise or rejection of certain character traits, persons, subjects or places was put forward in such a convincing way that the listener had to be inclined to follow suit. In this way, this genre of rhetoric became often prescriptive. In Renaissance England, this genre of rhetoric was often used together with emblems and a combination of text and image was used to convey something to the reader.

Rhetorical figures of speech were one of the most important tools for persuading a hearer. Since rhetoric was the only complete system of persuasive communication in the early Renaissance, its theories were soon applied to the visual arts. The figures of speech could be used there to convince the viewer of the message of the art. Rhetoric often also served as an example for the structuring of art treatises, with Alberti's work as the most important and best-known example. One of the most important purposes of an orator is movere, or to move the spectator emotionally and the manuals that Quintilian or Aristotle gave for achieving this goal were applied by the artists of the Renaissance. The imitation of people's natural behavior was strongly recommended by orators and similarly applied in painting, where the right gestures and expressions in human figures could convince the viewer of their emotions and ideas.

The rhetorical theories about touching the spectator's emotions were analyzed and described in the text On the Sublime by the first century Greek author Pseudo-Longinus. The sublime is described there as one of the most powerful styles to touch a spectator or listener and therefore also one of the best means of persuasion. The text on the sublime became well known in the late seventeenth century through a French translation by Nicolas Boileau Despréaux (1636-1711) from 1674, which became very popular in England. Various translated editions and interpretations of Longinus' (or Boileau's) work appeared in the first decades of the eighteenth century and especially Joseph Addison's The Pleasures of the Imagination (1711-12) took up the then popularized concept of the sublime. The later and confusing use of the term sublime by the English author Edmund Burke will give the sublime a new and different meaning which is not yet important for the architecture of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

The popularity of rhetorical means to approach art and architecture is clear in Sir Henry Wotton's work, who probably knew Franciscus Junius, who wrote De Pictura Veterum in 1637. This book is a collection of quotes from classical authors who wrote about art on which Junius comments. One of his most important sources was Longinus. As early as 1624 Wotton showed a rhetorical approach to architecture that emphasized the relationship between building and viewer. Instead of paying attention to plan, elevation, proportions and the classical orders, Wotton tried to convince his reader of the communicative power of architecture. If we try to analyze the architecture of Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh in a comparable way, new and interesting interpretation possibilities open up.

This dissertation examines Sir Henry Wotton's treatise The Elements of Architecture in the first chapter, which will reveal themes that will be discussed again in later chapters. We will see Wotton's approach to architecture in the approach to architecture of Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, but above all this approach will help in a new interpretation of this architecture. The analysis of Wotton's treatise will discuss how Wotton structured his text on the basis of rhetorical examples. Rhetorical terms find their architectural meaning within an early seventeenth century context. It can be concluded that Wotton did not so much write a classicist order book, but a rhetorical eulogy for architecture in which he emphasized how architecture can possess a silent eloquence with an ethical character.

This quiet eloquence is then further explored in Nicholas Hawksmoor's designs for the Commission for Building Fifty Churches, founded in 1711. This commission was responsible for the design and construction of 50 new London city churches. The six churches that Hawksmoor ultimately built for the commission are of such an unusual and dramatic nature that architectural historians have difficulty analysing the buildings within the familiar formal language of plan, elevation, proportions and column orders. However, in a groundbreaking article by Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey from 1989, an accurate analysis of a design by Hawksmoor was presented for the first time. The Basilica after the Primitive Christians was never built, but probably served as a model design for the other churches. The title of the design suggests the context in which we can seek meaning for Hawksmoor's designs. In a later book, Du Prey described the situation surrounding the commission and construction of Hawksmoor's churches. It turned out that many of the figures on the committee that had to oversee the commission for the construction played an important role in the Anglican Church.

They were very interested in – and had often published about – the early Christian Church as it existed around the fourth century A.D. Du Prey added a large number of texts from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to the study of English architectural history. Many of these publications, such as the anonymously published De Templis (1638) and An Account of the Churches, or Places of Assembly, of the Primitive Christians, from the Churches of Tyre, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. Described by Eusebius and Ocular Observations of Several very Ancient Edifices of Churches yet Extant in those Parts (1689) by Bishop George Wheler described the nature and function of churches, but also the desired effects of a church on the visitor. Rather than analyzing Hawksmoor's churches using Vitruvian concepts such as column orders and plans, perhaps the churches can now be interpreted using a contemporary context that prioritized themes such as visuality and eloquence.

Du Prey's book could not quite bridge the gap between Hawksmoor's buildings and the backgrounds of the clients. This dissertation will therefore attempt to provide an interpretation of Hawksmoor's churches that takes into account the rhetorical qualities of the architecture. The churches then appear to have been designed in such a way that the visitor's first view, his walk to the entrance, and his eventual reaching of the altar, was carefully directed and planned by the architect. London's Hawksmoor city churches were designed as staged experiences for the visitor.

The origins of the modern concept of style are examined in the final chapter of this dissertation. Vanbrugh uses architectural elements from different historical style periods as a design tool and can be considered one of the earliest figures to understand and use the modern concept of style. A distinction with the rhetorical style concept will be explained in this chapter. The rhetorical concept of style, in contrast to the clearly defined modern art historical style periods, is a conscious addition to a building, painting or speech. By adding figures of speech, the creator of the work of art can make his work stronger or more eloquent and move or touch his viewers. Based on the description of the tropes in Longinus's On the Sublime, one of Vanbrugh's most dramatic buildings will be analyzed, leading to a new interpretation of Vanbrugh's design method for Seaton Delaval Hall.

The tropes used in Seaton Delaval and the staged experience that Hawksmoor staged in his London city churches come to the fore when this architecture is interpreted using rhetorical concepts and a rhetorical approach to architecture that was introduced by Wotton as early as 1624. Both Seaton Delaval and the churches of Hawksmoor can then rightly be regarded as staged experiences.

- Link to PDF version of dissertation