There are now only two surviving buildings designed by Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington in London, and so the normal reasons for including architects on 9 architecture do not apply to him. But apart from his own considerable achievements as an architect, he was by far the most important single influence in the movement usually called Palladian which uprooted the English Baroque style and established late Italian Renaissance ideals as the only acceptable architecture in England by the second quarter of the eighteenth century.
Very little is known of Richard Boyles’ life between his birth in 1694 and his succession to the title at the age of ten. His grandfather, the first Earl, had built up a great fortune as a side line to his political activities, and in 1704 the boy came into extensive Irish and Yorkshire properties, a town mansion in Piccadilly and a Jacobean country house at Chiswick. His mother was a lover of music, and Handel first stayed at Burlington House in 1712, later dedicating his opera Teseo to the young Earl.
Lord Burlington was extremely intelligent, perhaps lacking in sense of humour, and he was described at the age of nineteen as being “a good natured pretty gentleman, but in Whig hands”. In 1714 he set off on the regular Grand Tour, visiting Germany, Switzerland, most of the major Italian cities (but notably omitting Vicenza on this visit) and Paris. He met William Kent in Rome, starting a friendship which was to become of great importance later.
While he was away, Queen Anne died and George I almost immediately appointed Burlington a Privy Councillor apparently in error as he was still a minor. Upon his return in 1715 other honours were poured on him, and he was immediately accepted as one of the Whig leaders.
But he had no personal political ambition, his passions being directed to all forms of art. At this time he gave Handel a set of rooms in Burlington House and later restored the composer to George I’s favour. Within the year he started work with the landscape designer Bridgeman on the gardens at Chiswick, and in 1716 he engaged Gibbs to rebuild the facade of Burlington House.
Then he had the revelation which was to develop into the passion of his life. He apparently saw an early volume of Vitruvius Britannicus in 1716 and got in touch with its author, Colen Campbell. One can imagine the wily Scottish propagandist selling the young man the idea of the purity of Italian Renaissance architecture, coupled with the English precedent of Inigo Jones whom they misleadingly labelled a Palladian.
Lord Burlington reaction was extraordinarily quick. He drew Campbell into his circle and promoted his cause among likely clients. He dismissed James Gibbs and gave Campbell his job at Burlington House, with instructions to rebuild the facade on Palladian principles. Richard Boyle himself designed a small garden pavilion at Chiswick which still survives beside the later villa. It seems possible that he did not like Campbell personally, for their relationship did not last long. Burlington left him to get on with the rebuilding while he devoted much time to promoting the movement as a whole.
In 1719 he decided that he must study Palladio’s buildings at first hand and he set off for Italy by sea, arranging that William Kent and the sculptor Guelfi would meet him in Genoa. This time, he spent almost the whole visit in Vicenza and Venice, where the most important buildings by Palladio are to be seen. He studied the buildings very thoroughly, making copious notes, and buying all the drawings by Palladio to be found. By Christmas Richard Boyle was back in England, bringing Kent and Guelfi with him.
He provided them with rooms in Burlington House to act as a core for the miniature court of artists and craftsmen which he proceeded to set up there. For all his proteges he worked hard to obtain employment and preferment. But it was Kent who was the dominant member of the household, where he was known as “the Signior”, and who had the most fascinating and unlikely relationship with the Earl.
Lord Burlington did not find it easy to make close friends. The cold face shown in his portrait, with arching brows and a long thin nose, eyes and mouth perhaps a little pinched, is confirmed by all we know about him. William Kent provided a complete opposite in personality and looks and somehow gave Burlington a warmth that few others could. Kent was a jocular little man who adored the frigid Earl and showed a total lack of deference. Their letters to each other make extraordinary reading, but Kent could hardly do wrong at all in Burlington’s eyes.
Kent’s position in this artists’ court was originally that of painter, and Burlington was able to get him the job of decorating the state rooms of Kensington Palace in preference to that very fine painter, Thornhill. Kent was really a very moderate painter indeed but his patron, the great arbiter of Taste, had a completely blind spot about this for many years. He used all his influence to get Kent an extraordinarily high reputation and a great deal of work, which was only to prove justified when the painter turned to landscape design and architecture.
In the architectural field, Campbell and Leoni were now safely established with considerable practices, especially in the great country houses which the Whig nobles were building. Flitcroft, Morris, Ware and other Palladians were soon prospering too, and were gradually taking over the Royal Office of Works. Kent remained only a painter and decorator until 1730 but Richard Boyle himself was already an active architect.
He probably designed the courtyard colonnade of Burlington House (demolished) and in about 1721 designed Petersham Lodge near Richmond, a country house which has since been re-built. This was the start of a series of buildings which he designed, earning the disapproval of Lord Chesterfield, who thought it wrong for a nobleman and virtuoso to do such work himself.
In 1721, the same year as he designed his first important building, Burlington got married to Lady Dorothy Savile, a good-natured girl with a talent for drawing caricatures of her friends. She seems to have had no difficulty in accepting “the Signior” as a necessary part of her new household, and she and Kent liked each other. She had a fine bosom and when Kent heard that another lady of the court was highly praised for the beauty of her neck, he told Lady Burlington that she had nothing to be jealous of as she herself was known as “Cupid’s kettle drums”.
Later she became a forceful character, and a story of 1727 tells of a fight on the stage between two prima donnas, with Lady Burlington in a stage box verbally supporting one and Lady Pembroke, sitting opposite, supporting the other in a slanging match at the top of their voices. Evenings at Burlington House must have been strange affairs, for Burlington writes in one letter that he is sitting dealing with his correspondence, while a party goes on all around him.
Before he was thirty Lord Burlington had achieved a remarkable success in his campaign for Taste. Apart from his honorary political appointments, he was the principal sponsor of the foundation of the Royal College of Music and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries.
The list of major works of Lord Burlington is huge but here are some famous and most remarkable works in London.
The most famous building designed by Richard Boyle, the house for General Wade in Great Burlington Street of 1723 was demolished in 1935. This loss was a disaster in the architectural history of London, though much less than a disaster for potential occupants, since the house was notorious for the discomfort caused by the symmetry imposed on its plan.
The Earl’s other London buildings have all been destroyed. They probably included the Burlington School in Old Burlington Street, Richmond House in Whitehall, and another house in North Audley Street. In addition, it is said that he assisted Kent with the designs for the Royal Mews building at Charing Cross built in 1732 and demolished in 1830. Professor Wittkower’s researches have left no doubt that he worked with Kent on several designs and that his influence on his protege’s later buildings remained powerful. Between them they devised the type of Palladian building, with complex advancing and retreating parts, of which the Horse Guards is the most important London example.
It should also be mentioned that Summerson has convincingly shown that the houses, which the Earl financed in the streets behind Burlington House (Burlington Gardens, Old Burlington Street, Savile Row etc.) saw the birth of the Palladian town house, in both its grand and its simpler forms. Most of the finest houses of the eighteenth century were derived from these models, which were themselves rooted in the Lincoln’s Inn Fields houses designed by Architect Inigo Jones. Such London houses are normally of brick, often with stone trimmings, and the type provided the bulk of good quality London houses for the next hundred years (Kent’s No. 44 Berkeley Square is a particularly splendid example).
In 1733 Richard Boyle withdrew almost completely from public life. It seems likely that the chief cause of this was his personal financial difficulties stemming from his own building activities around Piccadilly and at Chiswick, though the political spark was the introduction of the Excise Bill by Walpole.
In protest, the Earl resigned almost all his honorary posts and ceased to be a Whig. In the following year he closed up most of Burlington House (though his proteges continued to occupy their rooms) and took his favourite pictures and furniture to Chiswick. From then on he spent almost all his time there, though he still frequently visited Yorkshire, and Lady Burlington remained close to the Queen at Court.
He did not stop architectural work altogether, for in 1734 he helped Kent with the design of Holkham Hall in Norfolk and in 1736 he attended the ceremony for the opening of the Assembly Rooms at York, which he himself had designed six years earlier. But most of his time was spent cataloguing and studying in his vast library in the ground floor of Chiswick Villa, or attending to his estates. He wrote to his wife from Yorkshire that he was sending “a doe which I suppose will be more for the Signor’s Gola than anyone else” and mentioned that the vicar had complained of his “greatest coldness” of manner.
The last ten years of Lord Burlington life were spent very quietly, and he died in 1753, before the architectural reaction to his Palladianism set in. He had succeeded in his ambition to change English architecture radically and his name was widely respected throughout Europe. This was especially so in Italy, and the great Piedmontese architect Juvara, among others, dedicated a book to him. He was buried at Londesborough in Yorkshire. Lady Burlington, who had become famous for her rages in later life, died five years later with “curses and blasphemies even on her death bed”.