ESSAYS / ARTICLES
[Continued] To what degree were classical influences on architecture adopted and adapted in Welsh building styles 1500-1800?
For Wales, the sixteenth century was period of peace and prosperity. The acts of Union at the beginning of the century were important in creating internal peace, and greater security amongst the Welsh people who no longer had to fear an English invasion. In England too, factional and family feuds which had been such a feature of the fourteenth century faded with the strong, competent rule of the Tudors. This greater feeling of security in England and Wales lead to changes in the nature of houses, making defence no longer a prime concern. The great castles and houses of the middle ages had large high walls and fortified entrances to prevent the enemy access. Windows were generally small and placed on first or second floor level, and if the threat of attack was particularly strong, the outer wall would perhaps have no windows, only slits from which to spy and shoot arrows, and the building would perhaps be protected by a moat such as at Beaumaris. Houses were generally introverted. With the more relaxed atmosphere of the sixteenth century, houses began to be more extroverted, and fortresses gave way to the more decorative manor and country houses which reached there peak between 1700 and 1760. Also the Increased wealth in society, largely because of this more stable and efficient rule, meant that the gentry now had the financial means to embark on more adventurous and lavish building ventures.
The Reformation also brought about significant developments, which in time, came to influence Welsh building styles. Arguably it was in large part the Reformation which brought about the shift in emphasis from ecclesiastical buildings to domestic, which allowed the nobility and gentry to concentrate on building impressive houses for themselves. With the Reformation the focus shifted from the "public" wealth of churches, to the "private" wealth of individuals. Protestant teachings of predestination, and the futility of man's actions in the light of it, lead to a whole new attitude governing lifestyles. In the middle ages, individuals were worried about surrounding themselves with riches, believing it was sinful, and thus desired to live moderately, but now the belief of predestination mean that individuals felt the need to look for signs of God's favour, and wealth was seen as a sign. People began to make the most of their wealth, spending it on their houses and bodily comforts, and dying nobles and rich men no longer felt it necessary to bequeath money to the building and maintenance of a church. Also the Reformation, with its emphasis on the need to be familiar with the Scriptures, gave rise a new attitude towards privacy, although the humanism of the Renaissance also played a part. If individuals were to study the Scriptures they needed a quiet place to retire, and this created the desire for individual space, which arguably played a part in the development of the personal bed chamber. This desire for privacy was significant in changing building styles. In the middle ages, houses were far from private. The plans were simple, and the number of room less than a handful. In many houses there was only the Hall, which although was often divided into bays, offered families little privacy from servants. With an increased desire for privacy, houses became larger as more rooms were added, usually horizontally. In time, this development lead to the double pile house, which gave added rooms, but less external wall, which improved the warmth of buildings, and the "Ty hir" which tended to house both animals and people, became a human residence only, the animals being relegated to separate buildings.
Technological improvements, and practical developments also changed building styles in this period. It was largely because of technological advances that the more sophisticated buildings of the seventeenth century and eighteenth were possible, and the coming of the fireplace was of paramount importance. Not only did it greatly improve methods of heating, but it also meant that vertical extensions were possible. In the middle ages, the open hearth fire had meant that vertical extensions were impossible as there was nowhere for the smoke to escape, now an additional floor could be added, which also meant that rooms could be added without having to take away a proportion of the land, which for the lesser farmers was perhaps a necessary consideration. By the end of Elizabeth's reign, storied houses were becoming increasingly popular, even amongst the lower classes. Arguably the coming of the fireplace and flues also helped people to achieve a greater privacy. The open hearth fire made it rather impractical to have many rooms as there would be no means of adequately heating them as it would be dangerous not to mention unhealthy to have such a fire in every room, but Chimneys and flues meant that any number of rooms could be heated. The chimney and fireplace thus gave a greater freedom in designs, and encouraged a move away from the cruck framed open to the roof hall house, to the more private, compact, storied house.
Neither was the classical style the only continental style to influence domestic buildings in Wales. As Michael Reed states;
"Many of the new ideas came ultimately from Renaissance Italy, although frequently through the filter of France and the Low Countries rather than directly from Italy itself." (3)
Indeed, Dutch styles were quite influential in Wales, particularly in the North. This was largely due to the influence of Richard Clough who had travelled the Low Countries, and impressed by the architecture he saw there, desired to build a home in a similar style in Wales. This he did, and his house, Plas Clough had crow-stepped gables which were so fashionable in the Low Countries. This set the mould for further use of it in the area, for example in Plas Mawr, Conwy and in Faenol Fawr in Bodelwyddan, built in 1597. The Romantic style of the middle ages was also relatively popular and remained so. Also in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the gentry did not want to break completely from the past, as one of the requirements of gentility was ancient lineage, and what better way to display this than in the ancient family home, which seemed to separate them from the "new houses"of the nouveaux riches.
It is also necessary to take into consideration cultural, practical and financial factors when considering the degree of influence of classical styles. It is arguable that one of the reasons Renaissance principles did not have a profound influence in this period was because the gentry did not necessarily like the styles. They were completely different to what they were used to. The Welsh people had an innate conservatism which made them rather cautious towards any "foreign" influence, whether it be from Italy or even England. Many may not have wanted to incorporate Italian styles into their buildings, believing that their was nothing wrong with their own style, and a classical column here and there and a parapet would look rather ridiculous in a cottage. Neither was the architectural styles of the medieval period entirely inferior to that of the Renaissance. Quite the contrary, some medieval architecture, especially the perpendicular style could be particularly breathtaking. Also Columns, arches and notions of symmetry were not exclusive to the classical style but could be seen in many building of the high middle ages in Europe, even in England. The interior of Salisbury Cathedral for example, is beautifully symmetrical, and the Nave of Durham Cathedral has arches and columns, perfectly arranged and proportioned. Arguably the people of Wales preferred their own traditional styles. This can be seen in that "Houses continued to be built to traditional designs long after the seventeenth century had come to an end".(4) This was perhaps partly because the Classical styles were rather impractical to their needs. To begin with the Welsh climate, especially in the upland region, is generally cold, and the weather is often wet. The openness and spaciousness of Italian buildings suited the warm Italian weather, but was not suited to wind, rain and snow. Large, grand doors and windows may have looked nice but they were also draughty, and large rooms difficult to heat. Flat roofs would be impractical considering the rain and snow they would have to withstand, and it is therefore not surprising not that the more appropriate slanted roof was never replaced. Hilling argues that in this period "...dignified appearance was more important than comfort",(5) but this was not always so. As much as the Renaissance man may have wanted dignity and beauty in his house, warmth and dryness were still overriding factors, as Francis Bacon declared; "Houses are built to live in not to look at." (6)
Even had the Welsh population at large desired to build extensively in the classical style, the financial and economic situation of Wales would have forbidden it. For most of this period Wales was a relatively poor country. She had few centres of urban wealth, no Royal Court, and even the Welsh gentry were not as wealthy as their English counterparts. This lack of wealth was a serious handicap to the flourishing of Classical ideals. To build large houses with columns, arches, long, decorative windows, flat roofs and parapets required money, and lots of it. Therefore classical styles were beyond the reach of the poor, who in the later sixteenth century when prices were high, and wages low, could barely afford basic comforts such as stone paved floors or glazed windows. Even by the late eighteenth century, the lower classes had not gained sufficiently in wealth to be able to buy or build grand houses. In the sixteenth century building materials were not cheap. Glass alone was phenomenally expensive. Neither were the materials needed to build in the Classical style readily available in Wales. Building materials tended to be dictated by regional position. In the north for example, stone and slate were plentiful, and these tended to be the materials commonly used. The south, in contrast, was richer in timber, and particularly near the Severn Valley timber was the most popular building material. Classical styles, to be effective demanded a flat surface stone or preferably bricks, but such stones and bricks were not produced in Wales to any great extent. Therefore, if individuals desired to use them, it would be necessary to import the materials. This would not only be problematic and time-consuming considering the inadequate modes of transport, but also very expensive. It is likely that they would have to import architects and workmen too as it is debatable whether or not the local builders and craftsmen would have been sufficiently familiar with the classical ideals to do a good job. Many gentleman simply could not afford to build grand houses from scratch, and had to content themselves with renovating their old residences.
Thus cultural, financial and practical reasons meant that the Welsh were obliged to adapt classical styles if they wanted to adopt them. Just as the Italian architects had adapted the ideals to modern needs, so did the Welsh. What they did was take the aspects of classical architecture which most appealed to them, and adapted them to the vernacular building styles. As Pallister argues, "tradition mingled with continental influences to produce a new and vigorous secular architecture" (7)The way Classical styles were adapted can be seen in some of the architecture of the period. Powys castle, a thirteenth century fortress had fashionable windows inserted, and Carew Castle, which was the home of John Perrot had an extra wing with giant windows and semi-circular bays. Plas Teg (1610) shows how the ideals could be incorporated into new buildings. This house clearly reflects classical notions of symmetry and proportion, but also retains some of the Vernacular influence in its style, having four towers incorporated into the symmetrical pattern of the house. One of the prime examples of a house adapted to classical ideals is Old Beaupre. An otherwise moderate house on the Vernacular tradition, it was modernised to incorporate a truly classical style porch, which fully embedded the Renaissance qualities and orders of columns the Doric, ionic and Corinthian. From the late sixteenth century onwards lengthy windows and large doors became popular, but as was predictable, they were draughty. To compensate for this, the late Tudors and early Stuarts, had internal and external porches added, to keep the cold air at bay. One of the ways classical ideals could be incorporated into Welsh buildings which was not as drastic or as expensive as erecting new buildings, was to change the interior. Classical ideals advocated that buildings should be beautiful, and if the Welsh were limited in what they could do to the exterior of their houses, they could at least make the interior grand. But again, this development can not be attached solely to the influence of classical ideals, it was very much a part of the general "evolution" of houses in this period ,and owed as much to the Reformation, the increased prosperity in society, and general technological advances.
It can be seen therefore that although classical influences were both adopted and adapted by the wealthy in their homes, the influence was limited. The styles could not be adopted in their entirety primarily because of climatic, financial, practical and cultural reasons. Classical styles if to be adopted had to be adapted, and this is what largely occurred. Even houses that were built to emulate the style of the Renaissance were not completely classical, but retained some of the vernacular, medieval tradition. Classical influences were not the only influence to change building styles in Wales, Dutch were also important, but despite the limited influence it did exert, the ways in which it did were central to the development of Welsh and British architecture in the future, by fully imbedding in building styles notions of symmetry proportion, style and beauty, and for bringing in professional architecture. Pallister argues that "...artists and craftsmen under Elizabeth displayed a strong continuity with their medieval English past, absorbing only what suited them of continental influences." (8).