How does sound help us understand a Palace?
The Banqueting House, Whitehall, was the Stuart court’s most prestigious theatre and one of the most important buildings in England in the early 17th century. For centuries architects and designers have paid homage to its panache as the first Palladian building to be completed in London. They have celebrated Inigo Jones’s mastery of spatial volumes within its double-height, double-cube Banqueting Hall – the main room, now famous for its ceiling by Rubens. But how did the building work and how can Jones’s masque designs help us to understand this iconic masterpiece?
The answer, in part, is through sound. A recent research project, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, staged a workshop performance of The Masque of Augurs, the first masque that Jones designed for the Banqueting House in 1622. It was almost incomprehensible! The Hall today, with its hard, reflective surfaces, stripped of tapestries and all the infrastructure and accoutrements of theatre, created an acoustic that made it difficult to even understand what the actors were saying. And yet Jones was a leading theatre designer. He had begun his career at court around 1605 as a masque designer for the Queen. Working with Ben Jonson and other playwrights he created extravagant sets and costumes for the Twelfth Night masques that were invariably staged at Whitehall Palace.
To understand the building, we need to know about the temporary theatrical structures and performances that once happened in it. Perhaps then we can understand how the building worked as a theatrical venue.
In 1608 an earlier banqueting house at Whitehall was completed in time for the performance of Ben Jonson’s Masque of Beauty. Although there is no evidence that Jones had a hand in the building, there was still plenty of scope for him to reconfigure the interior for the masques that he designed there. A ‘great Stage fower foote highe from the grounde upon Trestles’ was constructed for The Masque of Queens the following year and Jones’s earliest known set design, for an elaborate ‘House of Fame’, correlates with the Declared Accounts of the Audit Office. This was a double-height structure, ‘all the height of the Banquettinghouse with a floore in the middle’. It was fitted with ‘greate gates and turning doors belowe and a globe and sondry seates above for the Quene and Ladies to sitt on and to be turned rounde aboute’. The elaborate structure, raised up on the stage, was furnished with ‘diverse wheeles and devices for the moving round thereof’. The banqueting hall was fitted out with temporary tiered seating with ‘a greate number of degrees on bothe sides … with railes before the same’ and the Account makes provision for ‘taking downe thereof after the masque was ended.’
Ten years later, just days after the Twelfth Night masque in 1619, this first Stuart banqueting house burned to the ground. Jones, by now established as the Surveyor of the King’s Works, quickly designed its replacement – the building with the magnificent Hall that you can visit today.
His set and costumes for the opening performance of chimed with the refined Classical architecture of the Banqueting Hall. Apollo, draped in a very short toga, descended from the clouds, with the illusion created using ropes and pulleys. A Senate of Gods hovered above Jones’s set for ‘The College of Augurs’, loosely inspired by the Villa La Rotonda, a famous symmetrical building designed by the architect Andrea Palladio. However elegant the new Banqueting House, and sophisticated the dialogue between Jones’s permanent architecture and the ephemeral aesthetics of the masque, though, they were firmly grounded, as before, in the rough-edged reality of theatre.
Even before Jones’s gilded interior was finished Ralphe Brice, carpenter, was at work framing and setting up the tiers of temporary seating that would complete the transformation of the Hall into an auditorium. Courtiers would be packed into bays ‘being seven rowes in height and two boordes nayled upon every bracket’, with a further four rows ‘in the middle gallery’. After the show, perhaps the building was returned to the more austere architectural aesthetic we see today.
Perhaps if we wish to recreate the soundscape of the glittering royal masques that showcased the new building, and all the glamour and magnificence of the royal court, we might need some carpenters, some pretty hefty timber constructions, and a few hundred courtiers dressed to impress!
Head of Historic Buildings and Research