The ‘English Baroque’ was an economic phenomenon more than a stylistic one. Construction was the second-biggest industry in London, and much went on elsewhere, too, but few people made their livings as architects in our sense. Design was an activity, an ad-hoc role. Many figures today identified as carvers, masons, and so on turned their hands to it in the course of shifting and varied production affiliations driven (commentators agreed) by individual self-interest. Competition was identified as a powerful driver of progress in the building trades, and so was the conspicuous architectural consumption that demanded equally conspicuous production, and producers. Descriptions of the carver Grinling Gibbons’s ornament, for example, suggest that what Michael Baxandall called ‘qualitative self-differentiation’ formed part of artisanal career strategies. In terms of both money and praise, this is, Gibbons’s work was valued not only for what it was, but because he had made it.
Is a building, then, only the sum of its many commodified parts, an accumulation of the products of more-or-less skilled and famous hands, both local and far away? Yes, early modern England would have answered: that is how one valued a building. Suggestively, it used architecture metaphorically, to explain the global economic order as the cumulative result of individual human strivings, not of design or regulation. Very soon, however, the country arrived at something approximating the modern condition. English architects became author-architects, and ambitious artisans were no longer subjects of interest.
Organised by Professor Deborah Swallow (Märit Rausing Director, The Courtauld Institute of Art) and Dr Alixe Bovey (Head of Research, The Courtauld Institute of Art).