The paved floor of St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
Designing the iconic London churches of the late 17th to early 18th century was a collaborative endeavor. As much as one might attribute broad conceptual sweeps to figures like Wren and Hawksmoor, like today’s phenomenon of the ‘Starchitect’, they had many designers working under them, producing some of what might be the most iconic aspects of the structures today. In its catalogue of the churchyard and miscellaneous Wren Office Drawings of the building, the archive at St. Paul’s attributes the plan for the building’s black and white paving to William Dickinson. Dickinson was one of many draughtsmen who worked under Wren, including Hawksmoor, but also others who rarely get the notice of history beyond a footnote in a Pevsner Guide or a stray short article.
I’ve been looking down a lot lately. The first reason for this is that I am trying to understand, for the scope of my larger work on a baroque aesthetic-theoretical language for English exempla, why black and white flooring became so popular during this period. The second reason is to post about the first one on Twitter, using my phone. This may seem flighty, Millennial, and shallow, but trust me when I say that this mode of scholarly collaboration has been just as cooperative in nature as the work of the draughtsmen in the churches I was seeing, and just as crucial. It began with my learning, from a series church historians and curates who responded to my initial idly curious tweets, who noted early examples of black and white flooring appear in college chapels (for Wren in particular, Trinity, Oxford, and Emmanuel, Cambridge are two striking ones). Kevin Inman sent me excerpts from architectural-decorative history books I didn’t have on hand that confirmed my suspicions about the rising popularity of ‘chequerboard’ paving in the period on the whole. I later checked plans for country houses, and used National Trust photos to look at Vanbrugh and even early Inigo Jones floors I couldn’t get to quickly at the time. The SPAB (Society for the Protection Of Ancient Buildings) featured a helpful blog post which then lead to scholarly sources.
People I knew mostly only on the internet—from art historians and other academics who specialise in the period to artists, designers, architects, and freelance writers and critics—chimed in to shape my research out of generosity and interest. Manu Chander, an online friend and professor at Rutgers working to reshape the study of Romantic-era literature in English, tweeted recently that the ideal model for scholarship in the humanities is not a brutal competitive hierarchy, but a supportive network with differing strengths… a la the Wu-Tang Clan. I guess that could make me the RZA of black and white Early Modern English paving plans if this all works out, which would admittedly be the swankest personal analogy I’ve ever been party to. Anyhow, Hester Lees-Jeffries, a Senior Lecturer in English at St. Catherine’s Cambridge who specialises in Early Modernity, reminded me of George Herbert’s “The Church-Floore”, which is also, I promise, extremely cool:
MARK you the floore ? that square and speckled stone,
Which looks so firm and strong,
Is Patience :
And th’ other black and grave, wherewith each one
Is checker’d all along,
Black and white tiles evoke the virtues the churchgoer is expected to cultivate. The architect, for Herbert in this series of poems, also does double duty as a structuring, guiding stand-in for God.
This isn’t the only time ‘chequered’ pavement comes up in the period literature. An EEBO search revealed an edition of Suetonius, published by H. Lownes and G. Snowdon for Matthew Lownes in London in 1606, that claims Julius Caesar carried around black and white tiles with him on his campaigns to lay down a patterned floor wherever he went. Other Early Modern English textual sources evoked a Roman mosaic link, even though pavers are monumentally larger than tiny mosaic tiles or shards. I intend to pursue this link to antiquarianism, as it was certainly a concern of Wren and other polymathic architects and designers after the Great Fire, who often consciously imitated both period Italianate and what they thought were ancient Roman models. The Getty’s Medusa mosaic, positioned in tandem with the chequered flooring in Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House in Greenwich, is certainly an evocative match. I’m looking further into this link now.
When I excitedly tweeted this comparison, Alex Wragge-Morley helpfully replied with a blog post he had written for the British Library, on the fight between Inigo Jones and John Webb on the one hand, and John Aubrey on the other, about the origins of Stonehenge. Jones and Webb used careful observation to argue it was Roman. Aubrey disagreed. The point Wragge-Morley makes, however, is that the argument, helpfully mostly in print, shows us that Early Modern architects and designers, in their other capacity as historians, scientists, and general thinkers, were interested in both making arguments from floor plans and architectural drawings, as well as textual antiquarian history. This might eventually, with careful looking, allow me to further link Jones’ use of chequered pavers to his thinking about Roman buildings.
Alex is a Clinical Assistant Professor at NYU in New York. Hester is based in Cambridge, England. Kevin lives in San Diego, California. Other interlocutors lived as near as Oxford and London, but also as far New Jersey, York, Washington DC, and Australia. The intricacies of the points I’m going to make about black and white paving in an eventual article and book chapter are made possible by this wide-spread collegiality. Thinking about the history of the overlooked chequered paving in Early Modern London churches is one type of doing new, more capacious, scholarship– but so too is doing that scholarship live, online, and with help.
A complete list, including brief biographies and hand descriptions, is provided by the Wren Drawings Office at St. Paul’s here: https://www.stpauls.co.uk/history-collections/the-collections/architectural-archive/wren-office-drawings/wren-and-his-draughtsmen