Friday 1 March 2024

'Inigo Jones - Inventor of the Glitter Ball' by Karen Maitland

Inigo Jones (1573-16520
Artist: William Hogarth (1697-1764)
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Today, we mainly remember Inigo Jones as an architect, but he actually got his first shot at designing a building, a shopping-mall – the New Exchange on the Strand, for Secretary of State and arch spy-master, Robert Cecil – after coming to prominence as a designer of costumes, scenery and special effects for the grand royal masques staged for James I and his Danish wife, Queen Anne. And the special effects Jones created for the stage were remarkable. 

Inigo Jones was born to a Welsh clothmaker in Smithfield in London in 1573. He travelled to the Court of King Christian of Denmark in the retinue of the Earl of Rutland and it seems likely that Queen Anne was introduced to Jones through her brother, Christian. Jones was first employed to design the sets and costumes for a masque for her in back in England in 1604, alongside the controversial playwright, Ben Jonson, with whom he had a creative but stormy relationship. 

Scene of Witches from 'The Masque of Queens'
By Ben Jonson
Artist: Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)
Yale Center for British Art

Royal masques were elaborate allegorical plays incorporating music and dances, staged to celebrate anniversaries and events such as Twelfth Night. The queen and her ladies took part, posing in classical costume or riding on the backs of mechanical animals, while professional actors spoke their lines, though the actors often got too drunk in the ‘green-room’ to remember them. But Jones’ audiences and royal patrons demanded that each masque should be even more spectacular than the last. 

The stage Jones devised for the first royal masque was four feet above the ground, forty-foot square and could be wheeled into place. Hand-operated machinery below the stage allowed the mechanical creatures to move. A curtain painted with landscapes, dropped to the floor to reveal a fairy court or the sea made to roll onto the shore by raising and lowering painted cloths. Actors appeared to be ride through the waves on giant sea-horse or shells carried by sea monsters.

Masque Costume - 'A Star'
by Inigo Jones
Using only candle flames, oiled cloth, coloured glass and prisms, Jones managed to create lighting effects that could suggest a nocturnal glade with twinkling stars, or a blazing desert with a scorching sun. He would make the audience gasp by suddenly switching from white moonlight to brilliantly-coloured torchlights. He sometimes had lights in glass cases lowered from the ceiling that moved around above the stage to distract the audience from scenery and prop changes 

He produced clouds that moved across a sky and fake trees which half sank into the stage before opening their branches to reveal the performers. He devised mechanical monsters, which appeared to move on their own and designed the most extravagant, often transparent costumes, some of which were worn by Queen Anne and her ladies. A Venetian ambassador attending a performance of ‘Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue’ in January 1618, was shocked to observe that several of the ladies’ costumes left them bare breasted.

Masque Costume
'A page like a Fire Spirit'
by Inigo Jones

By 1611, Jones had introduced side wings - scenery that poked out from the sides of the stage and were angled to create the illusion of perspective, as well as places of concealment for the actors. He also introduced shutters that slid in from both sides and closed together, and could be drawn in and out to reveal different scenes. 

From medieval times, English audiences had been accustomed to gods and angels being lowered down from the ceiling onto the stage, but Jones managed to produce chariots, clouds and giant birds on which actors could appear to fly right across the stage.

On one occasion, Jones had a specially mixed perfume puffed across the audience at a key moment – the original smelly-vision – and he even invented the glitter ball: a large, revolving, silver ball decorated with gold that hung above the dancers, sending sparks of light darting round the set. 

The cost for staging the masques varied enormously from an extravagant £3,000 in 1609, to around £719 two years later. Perhaps some costumes and devices had been recycled. Certainly, Queen Anne raided the vast numbers of sumptuous gowns left by Queen Elizabeth for fabrics, jewels and embroidered panels to decorate costumes for herself and her ladies. 

Inigo Jones and Ben Johnson were well paid for their efforts. For their work on one of the masques, each received £40 in fees, but not as much as the instructor who schooled the ladies-in-waiting in their dances for the same masque, who was paid £50 – about two and half times the annual salary of a skilled tradesman. But given the drunken antics of the court ladies and their outrageous flirting, perhaps the poor dance tutor had earned it.

Inigo Jones' costume design for
a nymph for'Tethy's Festival'
by Samuel Daniel

But Jones’s royal patrons were to prove his undoing, for when Civil War broke out, Jones was assumed to be a royalist, and forced to flee. He was finally arrested, and lost everything he worked so hard for, sadly dying just three years after the execution of King Charles I.


For anyone interested in reading more about this remarkable man and his amazing and turbulent life, I thoroughly recommend the fascinating book ‘Inigo – The life of Inigo Jones, Architect of the English Renaissance by Michael Leapman, pub. Headline, 2003 


KJ Maitland’s final novel in her Jacobean quartet, ‘A Plague of Serpents,’ set in the aftermath of the gunpowder plot, will be published in April 2024.


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