The story may be said to have begun at least as long ago as 1237 or thereabouts, when a house was built on the banks of the Thames for the Bishops of Norwich. The house was later handed over by Henry VIII to his brother-in-law Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, and then by Queen Mary to the Archbishop of York in 1556, at which point it came to be known as “York House”. York House was then in turn owned or occupied by Sir Nicholas Bacon, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, from 1558; by his son Francis Bacon, from 1617; by George Villiers Senior, the First Duke of Buckingham, from 1621; by Villiers’s widow, from 1628; by General Sir Thomas, Lord Fairfax, during the Civil War; and eventually by Villiers’s son, George Junior, the Second Duke of Buckingham, after the Restoration (by which time he had married Fairfax’s daughter Mary). The house survived the Great Fire of 1666. However, it was substantially demolished in the 1670s, whereupon Nicholas Barbon re-developed the site, and in deference to its former owner set out new streets named George, Villiers, Duke and Buckingham – and an alley named Of!
(Incidentally, of York House, only the Water Gate, believed to have been designed and built by the master-mason Nicholas Stone in 1626, survives to this day, in Victoria Embankment Gardens).
I’ve just got back from an extraordinarily stimulating – and free – Gresham lecture at the Museum of London. It was by the Gresham Professor of the Built Environment – and Chief Executive of English Heritage – Simon Thurley, and on the subject of “The Building of England” (which is also the subject of his forthcoming book of the same name, due out next month).
Thurley argued, provocatively but persuasively, that much of what has been written of the architecture of England has focussed narrowly on details of individual style, architects or buildings, and in so doing has lost sight of the bigger picture, of the wider world, and of why rather than how people build.
In his holistic interpretation, architectural innovation has always been associated with centres of financial wealth, the geographic locations of which have tended to move over the course of history as the nature of the economy has evolved from agricultural – pastoral, then arable – to industrial (and ultimately technological or service-based).
Uniquely, London has always been a centre of financial wealth and of architectural innovation. And not the least so in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666, which provided planners with the opportunity to create the world’s first stone-built, coal-burning, essentially modern city.