Keeping up with Jones
Edward Chaney investigates the institutional squabbles which are preventing a magnificent exhibition of Inigo Jones's architectural drawings from being shown in Britain
At the crack of dawn a week ago last Monday it was left to assorted members of the acting profession and an especially energetic Democrat MP to protect the fascinating remains of the Rose Theatre from reburial (in Ridley-speak, 'preserva- tion') under a ten-storey office block. Those one might have expected to be on hand to support so obviously worthy a cultural cause were either not there (viz: academics, architectural historians, editors of Elizabethan literature, poets and play- wrights), or were there (viz: English Herit- age in the person of its acting chairman, Simon Jenkins), but were still failing to do what they should have done before to secure the site.
Just a stone's throw to the east of the Rose is the site of its great successor, the Globe. This is also to be excavated in the near future, resolving, it is hoped, once and for all the great debate about the shape of Shakespeare's theatre. On the other side of. the Rose, in a dramatic riverside plot, are the foundations of what is to be a massive theatrical and educational com- plex, featuring a fully functioning recon- struction of the Globe. Though fire regula- tions have necessitated compromise, it is also planned that this complex, will in- corporate a recreation of the London 'Part Two followeth after the break.' theatre which Inigo Jones planned, it is thought, in the 1630s — a key transition in the history of theatre design between the Tudor and Restoration periods. Though fund-raising for this massive venture is being conducted in both Britain and Amer- ica and most of the academic expertise behind the reconstructions is British, the project is in essence the creation of one man, the enterprising American actor- director Sam Wanamaker.
Inigo Jones's original drawing for this theatre belongs to Worcester College, Ox- ford, but is currently on show, together with almost 100 more of his designs, at an extraordinarily successful exhibition of his Complete Architectural Drawings at the Drawing Center in New York. Once again, in the apparent absence of initiative in this country, it has taken an American, in this case the dynamic young director of the Drawing Center, Martha Beck, supported by privately raised American funds, to get this exhibition of British drawings, from British collections, catalogued by British scholars, off the ground. Our own John Harris, the former curator of drawings at the RIBA and almost equally dynamic, young and adept at private fund-raising, should get much of the credit for dreaming up the exhibition and writing the excellent comprehensively illustrated catalogue in collaboration with Gordon Higgott, upon whose Courtauld Institute PhD the bulk of it is based. But not only would the exhibi- tion never have taken place without fore- ign flair and initiative, even now that it has been set up, complete with ready-made catalogue, and is drawing unprecedentedly large crowds, receiving rave reviews in the New York Times and Time magazine, and moving on to the Frick Museum in Pitts- burgh prior to its return home — in spite of all this, due to a more spectacular than usual lack of initiative on the part of British museums and galleries, combined in this instance with spasms of petty squabbling in high places, Jones's drawings are due to return to their various institutions on arriv- al at Heathrow without being shown to the great British public.
Of the many great Englishmen who lived between the 16th and 18th centuries, where the visual arts are concerned the greatest of them all was Inigo Jones, architect, traveller, collector, connoisseur, draughtsman and designer of masques. His architectural achievement was especially impressive, single-handedly establishing the classical style in a country which sophisticated foreigners considered so artistically backward as to be irredeemably `gothic'. For the first time since the death of his heir, John Webb, the exhibition in New York gathers together all Jones's architectural drawings, which are now scat- tered between four British collections: the RIBA, Worcester College, Chatsworth House and the Ashmolean Museum. Dur- ing the course of last year, Martha Beck and John Harris persuaded these institu- tions to lend all their relevant drawings without too much difficulty. Harris and Higgott meanwhile prepared their superb catalogue. This was published in Britain, but, given that both it and its authors were funded by the Drawing Center, the latter retained the copyright. Both exhibition and catalogue rights are nonetheless on offer free of charge. Indeed Harris, Hig- gott and Beck are understandably keen that the fruit of their considerable efforts should be shown in Britain.
It is refreshing to discover that the otherwise maladroit regime at the Victoria and Albert Museum responded positively when Martha Beck proposed that they might host the exhibition on its return to this country. Perhaps they considered it would make a welcome change from ex- hibitions devoted to knitwear and socks. Taking offence at not having been con- sulted first, however, the powers-that-be at the RIBA, lender of the largest number of drawings to New York, refused to cooper- ate, arguing that they had decided to mount a version of the exhibition on their own premises. For better reasons, Worces- ter College were also unfavourably dis- posed to a V & A venue, with the result that these negotiations were terminated. Henceforth only the most informal of approaches to other museums in Oxford and London were made. With one excep- tion these responded negatively, muttering about the expense, even though, thanks to the Drawing Center, an unusually small sum is required and its patrons, if asked, are almost certainly prepared to help fund a British showing. The exception, at least initially, was the Royal Academy, or cer- tain enlightened members of that generally more go-ahead institution. To my surprise, the secretary general of the RA, Piers Rodgers, seemed to have an available slot for next winter.
Unfortunately, since then even the RA has cooled. Its mysteriously declining en- thusiasm may well have had something to do with its modernist exhibitions officer, Norman Rosenthal, but is no doubt also
the result of the RIBA's persistence in attempting to mount its own inevitably partial version of the New York exhibition. Even now it is not entirely clear that the RIBA has given up this attempt, despite Worcester College's unwillingness to lend their crucial 25 drawings, and the Drawing Center's understandable reluctance to, cooperate with a less than complete ver- sion of its splendid exhibition. Both Worcester and the Drawing Center have, on the other hand, expressed enthusiasm about the idea of a Royal Academy show- ing of the exhibition.
Bill Rodgers, director general of the RIBA, tells me he is ready to consider favourably any reasonable proposals relat- ing to the mounting of this exhibition. This being Britain, however, it seems that there is no one — no one at least in a senior or official position — who seems ready or willing to initiate such proposals or indeed promote this exhibition in any effective way. Meanwhile the proverbially enterpris- ing American, in this case Martha Beck, continues to make long-distance phone- calls to London to no avail.
One hears all too frequently of major exhibitions bypassing Britain. In this inst- ance we are dealing with one of our greatest artists, with our own scholarship and with works of art exclusively from our own collections. The exhibition has already been set up and the catalogue published. Surely it does not require the likes of Prince Charles, a Sainsbury or a Getty to rescue so worthy and straightforward a cultural cause?
Edward Chaney is a research fellow in architectural history at Lincoln College, Oxford, and is writing a biography of Jnigo Jones.