Is there such a thing as a Whig aesthetic? Do we find buildings or works of art that radiate the liberal, patriotic, small-government values that in time came to define the Anglosphere?
One answer is to imagine how the British Isles might have looked had the civil war ended differently, and had the Anglophone peoples not bucked the seventeenth-century European trend towards royal absolutism. These islands would, I suspect, have looked a lot more like the Continent. Our public edifices would have been grander, our paintings louder.
The British, after all, are technically capable of Palladian architecture. Its greatest master, Inigo Jones (1573–1652), is as fine an architect as our country has produced. But his designs struck opponents of the Stuart monarchy as foreign, autocratic, transalpine.
Jones – who, aptly enough, was captured by Roundhead forces at the fall of Basing House in 1645, naked and wrapped in a blanket – had planned a palace in Whitehall that would have outshone any in Europe. But Charles I never had the money to build it. Like all subsequent monarchs, he was kept on too tight a financial leash by Parliament to indulge the baroque fantasies that, in the rest of Europe, were taking physical shape in marble and statuary.
Nowhere in the English-speaking world is there a kingly residence that, in scale or splendour, can rival Louis XIV’s Versailles outside Paris, nor the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, nor the Belvedere in Potsdam, nor the Herrnhausen in Hanover nor the Buen Retiro in Madrid.
The strength of Whiggery may, in a sense, be seen in the parsimony of Britain’s royal palaces. While Europe’s princes, from Naples to St Petersburg, were overawing their subjects with lapidary projections of their power, the British monarchy was losing property. Many of the great mediaeval and Tudor palaces were destroyed during the civil war, ransacked by Puritan troops or scarred by artillery. Others were sold off. As the historian Linda Colley put it:
"Whereas Henry VIII had been able to hunt game, or women, or heretics out of more than twenty great houses scattered throughout England, Charles II returned in 1660 to only seven: Whitehall, St James’s, Somerset House, Hampton Court, Greenwich, Windsor Castle and the Tower of London."
Although Charles II wanted to restore the glory of these palaces, William III discontinued all his projects, and turned Greenwich into a hospital for disabled seamen.
To see how physically different Britain might be had the Stuarts succeeded, look at the building which they could afford to commission from Jones – the building before which Charles I was eventually beheaded, namely the Banqueting House on Whitehall.
To look properly, you will need something to spread on the floor and lie upon, for the most impressive feature of the building is a ceiling which contains nine virtuoso paintings by Rubens celebrating the union of the English and Scottish Crowns.
They are sumptuous works, swirling and sensual. In the main picture, England and Scotland are portrayed as fleshy women, each holding half a crown. A curly-headed lad between them is the future Charles I. Minerva, goddess of wisdom, hovers above, while below the arms and artefacts of war are consigned to a furnace.
As you sprawl on the floorboards, you find that something is bothering you. The paintings that make up the ceiling are gorgeous pieces, for which Charles I paid the almost unbelievable sum of £3,000. But the whole set-up feels out of place in an English-speaking country. It is too ostentatious, too propagandist, too hierarchical in its iconography.
The more you look, the more you understand the distaste that people across the Anglosphere felt for the Stuarts. In their tastes, as well as in their politics, the monarchs seemed foreign: authoritarian, ritualistic, over-elaborate.
At last, the paradox of the Banqueting House hits you. The ceiling was commissioned to celebrate the union of the English-speaking peoples. James VI and I saw himself as the first Briton, and looked forward eagerly to the full amalgamation of his kingdoms. His son and grandsons fervently wished for the same. Yet their subjects, English and Scottish, regarded the entire dynasty as alien.
Whatever their individual qualities, the Stuarts were never seen as British. Their genealogy, their religious sensitivities, their political beliefs and their artistic predilections sundered them from their countrymen.
Whig beauty depends on scale. As Alan Bennett’s disgraced spy laments from his Moscow exile: ‘So little, England. Little music, little art. Timid, tasteful, nice. But one loves it, one loves it.’
Closely allied to proportion is harmony. As Harry Mount puts it in his beautiful little book, How England Made the English:
"The best English buildings – particularly the medieval ones, of thickly lichened limestone – may not be dazzling, polychromatic jewels, but they are no worse for that. They appear to grow out of the earth they’re rooted in."
Vita Sackville-West said of her childhood home, Knole House in Kent:
"It has the tone of England; it melts into the green of the garden turf, into the tawnier green of the park beyond, into the blue of the pale English sky."
Such houses were a political as well as an architectural statement. The country house poets – Ben Jonson, Thomas Carew, Andrew Marvell – presented them as an antidote to court politics. The palace was effeminate, mannered, artificial, scheming; the country house artless, organic, frank, loyal. A well-tended rural estate became a symbol of a well-ordered polity.
I am posting this piece from such a manor, Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire. Like everyone who comes here, I marvel at the confidence that allowed eighteenth-century landscape gardeners to lay out their seedlings in such a way that the park would reach perfection hundreds of years later. Their confidence speaks of a stable nation. The men who designed these grounds assumed that they would be passed intact down the generations; that they wouldn’t be expropriated by a tyrant, wrecked by a mob or seized by invaders. Here, in short, is a house built by and for people who valued liberty and property.
Such estates define our countryside. In most of Europe, land tends to be divided rectilinearly. In these islands, boundaries follow natural features, skirting ancient copses, undulating with brooks. Garden gives way gently to parkland, parkland to fields.
Hartwell House embodies the ideal of the country house poets. Here is Whig architecture in a Whig landscape, right down to the bust of John Hampden, whose family once owned the estate, on the north door, and the statue of William III in the garden. In the classical stonework, we see made solid the tradition that exalted our freedom and, indeed, that created the American Republic.
Why am I telling you about Hartwell House, in particular? Because, although this was meant to be a cultural essay, I can’t help ending with a political point. The proposed route of the new London to Birmingham rail link cuts through the grounds. Those far-sighted landscape-plotters, so confident that their property wouldn’t be confiscated or damaged, had reckoned without HS2.