How many of us would notice the proportions of any room we might walk into today? Even if the room shouted out its dimensions as we crossed the threshold? If it did, would we care? Yet, many people in the Regency, especially those among the beau monde, would have been well-aware of the proportions of a certain type of room, typically found only in the grand town houses and the great houses on country estates.
The axioms and arithmetic of cube rooms …
The cube is one of the perfectly symmetrical shapes in geometry and is also one of the Platonic solids. From at least the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the cube was believed to hold special properties. According to Pausanius, the cube was the symbol of the god Mercury, who represented Truth. The god Apollo was often worshipped at a cube-shaped altar. The cube, also known as a hexahedron for its six sides, was one of the simplest of the solids and was held to represent earth, one of the basic elements of life. The cube, like the earth, was seen to be stable and therefore the most secure of the elements, the others of which were water, fire and wind. The cube and the other Platonic solids became part of the system of Euclidean geometry, which continued to be studied through the centuries, all across Europe. One of those who studied Euclid’s geometry was the sixteenth-century Venetian architect, Andrea Palladio.
Palladio was heavily influenced by Greek and Roman architecture, and his work, in turn, influenced architects for several centuries, right through the Regency. One of the reasons his influence was so pervasive was due to the publication of his treatise on architecture, published in 1570, I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture). This set of books would not be translated into English and published in Britain until the early eighteenth century. But it was studied by many English architects long before that time. One of those architects was Inigo Jones.
By 1615, Inigo Jones had traveled extensively through Italy, studying ancient buildings and the work of Palladio, before he was appointed the Surveyor of the King’s Works, that is, the royal architect to King James I. The following year he began work on the Queen’s House, a residence for James I’s wife, Anne of Denmark, in Greenwich. In 1619, the temporary banqueting house of the Palace of Whitehall was burned down when workmen cleaning up after a New Year’s celebration decided to incinerate the collected debris inside the building. The king commissioned Jones to build a new, permanent Banqueting House. The Queen’s House was the first residential building in England designed in the Italianate classical style of Palladio, and the Banqueting House was the first public building to be designed in that same style.
King James I was a rather peculiar man, but he was also a dedicated scholar and man of learning. There were some who compared him to the wise king of ancient Israel, Solomon. When Inigo Jones began his designs for the Banqueting House, he incorporated his fondness for pure, simple geometric measurements. In this case, a cube would not have been appropriate, but Biblical history came to his rescue. He knew that the interior of the Temple of Solomon was a double cube. Jones was also well aware that the king enjoyed being likened to King Solomon. Therefore, Jones designed the main room of the Banqueting House as a double cube. A double cube room has a length twice its width and height. In this case, the Banqueting House was 110 feet by 55 feet by 55 feet. Construction of this magnificent new building in Whitehall was completed in 1622. In this building, Jones associated James I with the Biblical King Solomon and with the geometrical perfection of the double cube, which was also a symbol of Platonic virtue.
However, duplicating the proportions of the Temple of Solomon was only the beginning of the various ways in which the Banqueting House was made to honor James I. The King himself died in March of 1625, but he was not forgotten. His son, who became King Charles I, could not match his father’s intelligence, but he was a great connoisseur and patron of the arts. In 1635, he was able to lure the artist, Peter Paul Rubens, to England with the promise of a knighthood. The king commissioned Rubens to produce a set of paintings for the ceiling of the Banqueting House to glorify his father, the late King James I. In the main central oval of the ceiling, Rubens painted The Apotheosis of James I, an allegorical painting of the glorious birth of James I. The two large rectangular panels which flanked the central oval also honored James I. In the north panel, The Union of England and Scotland, in the south panel, The Benevolent Government of James I. The smaller ovals in each of the four corners depicted the virtues of James I: Liberality Trampling Upon Avarice, Reason Subduing Faction, Heroic Virtue (in the person of Hercules) Striking Down Envy and Wisdom (in the person of Minerva) Overcoming Ignorance. Thus, the entire Banqueting House was a paean of praise to Charles I’s father. In a sad irony, it was from the central window of the upper level of the Banqueting House that, on 30 January 1649, King Charles I stepped out onto the scaffold which had been constructed for his execution.
Not long before Rubens began the ceiling paintings for the Banqueting House, Inigo Jones remodelled the Queen’s House for the new Queen, Henrietta Maria, the wife of the new king, Charles I. Yet again employing the pure geometric proportions which he found so appealing, Jones added an elegant new principal room to the northern wing of the Queen’s House. This grand salon was in the shape of a cube, its dimensions 40 feet by 40 feet by 40 feet. Charles I commissioned the Italian artist, Orazio Gentileschi, to do a series of paintings for this room. The ceiling painting was the Allegory of Peace and the Arts, as well as a pair of large wall paintings, Finding of Moses and Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife
With his designs for the Banqueting House and the Queen’s House, Inigo Jones brought the Italianate Palladian classical style full-blown to England. Because both of these buildings had been constructed for the reigning monarch, this style was almost immediately associated with royalty. It soon became popular with the aristocracy of England, who began remodeling and updating their old, medieval-style country homes in this new, classical style. One of the first aristocrats who wanted to employ this new style was Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke. He was a close friend of both James I and Charles I, and a notable patron of the arts. In fact, it was Pembroke who had sponsored at least one of Inigo Jones’ trips to Italy. Unfortunately, in 1635, Inigo Jones was much too busy finishing the remodelling of the Queen’s House, so he was unable to accept any other commissions, even from his erstwhile patron, the Earl of Pembroke.
The family seat of the Earls of Pembroke was, and still is, Wilton House, in the county of Wiltshire, near the city of Salisbury. The 4th Earl decided that he wanted to add a new wing on the south side of Wilton House in the new Palladian style. It seems that he was able to prevail upon Inigo Jones to provide a few basic sketches for the exterior of this new wing. It was then left to one of his assistants, Isaac de Caus, to prepare full drawings for the builders. It is believed that this new south wing was completed sometime before 1645. Then, in 1647, disaster struck Wilton House, in the form of a fire which ravaged the new south wing.
Though the new Palladian classical style had become very popular in aristocratic circles in England in the years immediately following the completion of the Banqueting House and the Queen’s House, by the late 1640s, it had fallen out of favor as Oliver Cromwell and his puritanical followers were seeking to overthrow the King. One of those followers was the Earl of Pembroke, who had broken with Charles I over his puritanical religious views, which the King did not share. Pembroke was in good standing with Cromwell, allowing him to renovate his home as he pleased, and with the King occupied in protecting his throne, Inigo Jones had few commissions. Therefore, in 1648, Inigo Jones accepted Pembroke’s commission to rebuild the south wing of Wilton House. Jones was getting older at this time, so he was assisted by John Webb, who had married his cousin and heir, Anne Jones.
A series of seven state rooms were to be included in this new version of the south wing at Wilton House. Once again, Jones returned to his love of pure geometric forms, designing the center of that series of rooms as a double cube. The dimensions of this room were 60 feet long by 30 feet wide by 30 feet high. This grand room was decorated in white and gold, with deep relief carvings of lush swags of flowers, fruit and classical masks surrounding the paneling. Two very large paintings by Anthony Van Dyck were hung in this room, one of the Children of Charles I and the other a group portrait of the Earl’s own family. The ante-room to this great state room was designed in the form of a single cube. Its dimensions were 30 feet by 30 feet by 30 feet. In the cube room the coved ceiling was ornamented with a series of arabesques, in white and gold. There were dado paintings around the room with scenes of Acadia, by Sir Philip Sidney, a pastoral romance Sidney had written in the sixteenth century for the amusement of his sister, Mary Herbert, who had become the Countess of Pembroke at the time. When they were completed, probably around 1650, these two rooms were considered two of the most beautiful rooms in all of England.
John Webb is believed to have designed a few other cube and double cube rooms for aristocratic manor houses after the death of his mentor, Inigo Jones, in 1652. However, this lush architectural style was not widely in favor in England during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. But after 1660, when Charles II was restored to the English throne, classical architecture was once again very much in fashion. In fact, the king’s architect, Hugh May, incorporated a double cube room into his renovations at Windsor Castle, which began about 1675. By the early eighteenth century, the golden age of the great house in England, cube and especially, double cube, rooms had become status symbols. Simply being in such a room was believed to elevate the spirits and enlarge the mind. Double cube rooms, in particular, had dimensions which were completely inappropriate for anything but a grand manor house or a very large urban town house. Such rooms was also very formal and would never have been seen in the simple country houses of the gentry. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, Robert Adam continued the tradition of the double cube room in a number of the great houses to which he made additions or did substantial remodeling. But instead of incorporating the complex and heavy ornament which had been employed earlier in the century, Adam adorned his double cube rooms with the much more restrained and refined neo-classical style which is his hallmark.
During the era of the Grand Tour, many English tourists decorated their double cube rooms, all or in part, with the art objects they had acquired during their travels. The double cube room in any great house was almost always the most prominent room in that house. Thus, the family’s most valuable and prized possessions were usually on display in these rooms. Most of these rooms also had a ceiling painting or other ornate ceiling decoration, which typically included a liberal use of gilt carving. In some rooms, gilt carving might also be used on the paneled walls and the furniture in these rooms was usually in the highest style. Regardless of their decoration, double cube rooms were always very elegant, and usually only very important people would ever be invited in to them. They were seldom, if ever, used by the family for ordinary, everyday activities. In fact, from the latter decades of the eighteenth century, right through the Regency, double cube rooms were often used as the ballroom of these great houses.
By the end of the eighteenth century, another important property of these double cube rooms had been recognized. Perhaps because so many of these rooms were used as ballrooms, it was discovered that the acoustics of rooms with double cube proportions was particularly good. It was believed that the unique proportions of a double cube room ensured that the sound waves passed back and forth between the walls, ceiling and floors so that they struck the ear with the most pleasing and accurate effect. Many were also of the opinion that badly proportioned rooms were unhealthy because they were noisy, as well as not conducive to the appreciation of good music. From the latter eighteenth century, right through the Regency, double cube rooms were regularly used as both ballrooms and as the very best room for a musicale or other musical entertainment. Those who were both wealthy and very serious about music often had their music rooms constructed as a double cube. Very serious music lovers would forbid the carpeting of a music room, at least during a performance, particularly a double cube room, since the fibers of the carpeting were believed to deaden the sound in the room.
Cube and double cube rooms were still considered a status symbol during the Regency, and they were still being built into some of the great mansions and town houses which were constructed or remodeled during that decade. They had not lost their connection to the idea of Platonic virtue, but they were also under much closer study by architects and mathematicians. In fact, in 1810, The London Encyclopaedia: or Universal Dictionary of Science, Art, Literature, and Practical Mechanics, … included the seven proportions which were assigned to rooms. These proportions were known as "harmonics" or "agreeables." The choice of the term "harmonics" had nothing to do with the discovery of the double cube room’s excellent acoustics. Rather, its source was the fact that the various proportions were considered to be harmonic ratios which represented balance and harmony. These seven proportions were: "The cube, cube and half, double cube, the subduple of 4, 3, and 2 — ditto of 5, 4, and 3 —ditto of 6, 4, and 3 — and lastly of 3, 2, and 1" However, though there were a number of both cube and double cube rooms built, cube and half and the various subduples seem to be quite rare. The London Encyclopaedia continued: " … Nature has taught mankind, in music, certain rules for proportion of sounds; so architecture has its rules dependent on those proportions, or at least such proportions as are in arithmetical harmony; and those we take to be dependent on nature. The square in geometry, the unison or circle in music, and the cube in building, have all an inseparable proportion, the parts being equal, and the sides and angles, &c. give the eye and ear harmonic pleasure."
In February of 1815, the noted architect, Sir John Soane, delivered a series of lectures at the Royal Academy devoted to his views on the design and construction of cube and double cube rooms. He noted that too many people were building such rooms into their homes without giving due consideration to unifying that room with structure into which it was incorporated. Interestingly, he felt that the cube room was more appropriate to a residence and that double cube rooms should be used only for large rooms in public buildings such as performance halls and churches. Though Soane briefly acknowledge the acoustical properties of these rooms, he seems to have focused the bulk of his remarks on their proportions and their fitness for incorporation into certain types of buildings.
As they had been for more than a century before the Regency began, both cube and double cube rooms were a definite status symbol. There is no doubt that those among the beau monde would have been well-aware of any house which included one of these grand rooms. So would have many among the gentry and middle classes and they would have felt quite honored to be invited into such a room in a great house. Though it was believed that being in these rooms could lift the spirits and elevate the mind, one must wonder whether spirits were lifted and minds elevated due to the harmonic and agreeable mathematical proportions of the room, or by virtue of the fact that one had been invited into such a grand room. Certainly many ballrooms were double cube rooms and the music rooms of those who could afford it would also have been double cube rooms. In addition to their large dimensions, these rooms were typically lavishly and fashionably decorated, with fine furniture and objects of art. However, those rooms which had been built in the eighteenth century might still retain their original decoration and thus appear overly grand, if rather old-fashioned.
Dear Regency Authors, could a cube or double cube room have a place in one of your upcoming novels? Might a large double cube room be the venue for a very elegant ball in a grand London town house or country manor? Perhaps an annoying social climbing woman is always reminding everyone that she has bought a home with a double cube room, in a vain effort to make herself and her husband more socially acceptable. Or, perhaps a young woman is pressured into giving a musical performance at the home of an aristocrat, assuming she will have to perform in some badly proportioned salon, only to be delighted to find when she arrives that she will be performing in a double cube room with perfect acoustics. Though few people today would be at all interested in a cube or double cube room, those who lived during the Regency would have been quite impressed by such a grand space.