It is not in reality much more easy to trace accurately the origin of architecture in our land, than that of the other arts, inasmuch as, although certain rude efforts in the art were effected by the earliest inhabitants of this isle, some specimens of which still remain ; yet that which formed the real foundation of architecture was imported into this country from others, and from time to time received an impulse from them. The rise and growth of this art may, nevertheless, be traced with the greatest facility and accuracy, on account of the durability of the specimens which are preserved. It is, moreover, ever in a state of progression and mutation, and is affected by every variety of circumstance that may arise.
Representations are still existent of the huts used by the ancient Britons, circular in form with pointed roofs. Of the rude British temples which were erected in this country at the very earliest period of its history, we have the remains in Stonehenge and Amesbury, as also in other parts of the country. In Brittany these relics are still more perfect and more extensive, and serve well to exhibit the nature of those once raised in this country. The introduction of Christianity not only caused the destruction of many of these edifices which were intended for idolatrous worship, but with Christianity was introduced the art of architecture in an advanced state, and churches were erected by its propagators after the style of those at Rome. Some of the Saxon temples constructed for Pagan worship were however, we are told, converted into Christian churches. These buildings were most of them in the first instance made of wood. As the arts of civilization progressed, stone was more generally used; and as the taste of the country improved, or as artists from Rome and other countries where the art was in a more perfect condition visited us, these buildings were erected with greater skill and refinement, and more attention to ornament was bestowed upon them ; and thus, in the manner I have described in some of the preceding chapters, various styles were introduced.
In the Anglo-Saxon missals, very accurate representations are preserved of the houses and other domestic buildings, as well as of the churches and castles of this period.
From the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, Gothic architecture prevailed over the greater part of Europe. It may be seen in a constant state of change and transition and progression, variously affected and modified as to its peculiar features and style by different circumstances. The period of the thirteenth century is that of its nearest approach to general uniformity. It then diverged into various national characteristics, which are nowhere more strongly or more distinctively marked than in England; and finally, when a classical style of building was revived as if by common consent among nations, each arrived at its object by a different path.
As civilization gradually progressed, architecture, with the other arts, advanced in its career; and in this country towns and cities adorned with churches and public buildings, and castles and halls and mansions, in time uprose. Like the varying scenes in a dissolving view, the whole face of the country became by degrees changed from a wild forest and a dreary morass, to a cultivated district, animate with population, and intent on improvement.
The stupendous magnificence of some of our cathedrals and churches in the early times, bear honourable testimony both to the taste and munificence of those days. In later ages, however, artists of very extensive genius in this department, have been produced. Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren, whose name must ever live in the admiration of every one who views his sublime and stupendous structure St. Paul’s Cathedral,in its exterior at least far more classical and more picturesque than St. Peter’s at Rome,may be referred to here.
The grand national edifices of any nation cannot, however, be correctly referred to as tests of the condition of architecture among the people, because not their ordinary dwellings, but only certain public buildings are the data from which we here form our opinion. Over the construction of the latter the generality have no control; the erection of them is directed by a few, and is perhaps effected by foreign artists, or was attained by those of a preceding age.
From the important and leading nature of the ancient national buildings in this country, such as our cathedrals and abbeys and castles and halls, these edifices may, nevertheless, be fairly referred to as the best samples of the kind; although perhaps from their magnitude, and the wealth expended in their erection, they are less likely to have been executed by native artists.