A lively biography of Inigo Jones (1573–1652), “a proud, vain, quarrelsome hypochondriac” who, in his odd moments, designed some of England’s most famous buildings.
Not many of Jones’s buildings stand intact, allows Londoner and journalist Leapman (The World for a Shilling, not reviewed), and “many works speculatively attributed to Inigo are now thought to have been designed by others.” Still, the plan of Covent Garden and the reality of London’s Banqueting House, before which Charles I lost his head in January 1649, provide ample evidence of his brilliance as a designer and builder who improved Italianate models with his own innovations. Jones’s rise to fame and influence was unlikely, for he was born into comparative poverty, the son of a clothmaker. Yet, thanks to a sort of Head Start program put into place by Queen Elizabeth in the later stages of her reign, he was given a chance to travel to Italy, soak up some culture, and, more important, get to know the nobility. As a dedicated “young man on the make,” Jones soon came into his own as a designer of masques—elaborate and strange rituals of the rich and famous of the day, which Leapman nicely deconstructs—and as a litterateur who was the sometime friend, sometime rival of the likes of Ben Jonson and George Chapman. Considering his highly evolved toadying, it’s ironic that Jones’s most famous building should have been a “backdrop for regicide,” but Cromwell and company almost certainly did so deliberately, counterposing Jones’s classicism with their own ideas of modernity as they relieved Charles of his head. Leapman brightly writes that in this instance Jones’s “scenery, as always, but immaculate; but on this occasion he had no control over the script.”
A capable, readable life of a man who was arguably less accomplished but inarguably more interesting than his younger contemporary Christopher Wren.