What were the key influences of Greco-Roman Revival in the Neo-Classicism of England?
If you are trying to do something and it doesn't work out but goes all wrong. What do you do?
You'll either throw it away and start afresh, maybe if it is not too bad, you mend or hide the damage, or you might drop the idea altogether. Personally, I usually like to start afresh. What about you?
In the 18th century, Architects and artists in England realised that they were doing something wrong. Baroque hadn't made it home. In 1715, Colen Campbell collected documents of all the prominent buildings in England and published them as Vitruvius Britannicus. After which, he claimed that Baroque artists had corrupted humankind with excessive exuberance and flamboyance.
Around the same time, the Protestant Reformation was gaining hold over England's religious and political beliefs. So much so that King George I was crowned partly due to his protestant inclination. Alongside this, Science came up with ground-breaking discoveries based on ‘rationality’ and ‘principles.’ Remember, every action has an equal and opposite reaction?
The artists and the architects were saturated by Baroque, the excessiveness, the randomness and the freedom. The reaction was a quest for simplicity and principles, the 'true' style. This quest led them to the ancient cities of Rome and Greece.
It was not like they jumped back directly from Baroque all the way to the Classics! It was the age of Science, of experiments, of trials and errors. The first step to mend the damage was redesigning the exterior inspired by the works of Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. In 1715, Palladio's The Four Books of Architecture were translated to English by Giacomo Leoni.
Even after two centuries, Palladio's work inspired many in England. Richard Boyle, the Earl of Burlington, designed some of the finest examples of Neo-Palladian Architecture. Along with William Kent, he designed the Chiswick House and Holkham Hall. Another exemplary work was Castle Howard by Nicholas Hawksmoor.
Palladian designs had simplicity and order. They were glorious, yet not excessive. In Palladianism, England found its redemption from the excess of Baroque. However, it took time for the English to get rid of Baroque completely. The early Neo-Palladian designs were adorned with Baroque and Rococo motifs and ornamentation in the interiors. Architects began to experiment, pairing different styles together. In London, George Dance designed the Newgate Gaol. The outcome was a mix-influence of Piranesi's Etruscan theories and Neo-Palladianism.
The English soon realised that Palladio's work was influenced by Ancient Rome but not directed by it. Robert Morris pointed out that Palladio was not limited by principles. His work deviated from antiquity to suit the needs of his time. He proposed his own theories of proportion, which played an instrumental role in defining Neo-Palladian architecture. England, however, was now interested in ancient Rome and Greece. Like in France, the Grand Tours were inspiring English architects to look directly at the classical orders.
Nicholas Revett and James Stuart were sent from England to Athens in 1751 to study the architecture of Ancient Greece. During the endeavour, they engaged in a rivalry with French representative Le Roy, the debate on who will first publish an architectural compilation on Athens. They published their findings in 1762, four years after Le Roy, as The Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece.
The delay in Revett and Stuart's publication was justified in their documentation; the accuracy of drawings and the details were minutely crafted. Ironically, their work was a little ahead of its time in England, because of which it did not have a significant impact, not immediately at least. Revett gave up the interest in the project, while Stuart went on to publish four more volumes.
Meanwhile, the Newgate Gaol was damaged during the Gordon Riots of 1780. George Dance was commissioned for repair works. He recruited John Soane, an architect struggling to establish a practice in England, for small measuring jobs. Soane had just returned to England in 1780 from his Grand Tour, in debt and without any work. He survived the next few years on small commissions across England until 1783. It all changed when he got a project for a country house in Norfolk. There was no looking back then. Soane became one of the most influential advocates of Etruscan and Roman architecture in Neo-Classical England. Alongside, Revett and Stuart were also getting commissions. Their designs, however, reflected more on the Greek orders.
In the late 18th century, the politics in England reflected on the ideas of Nationalism. These ideas found expression in the Greek orders. William Wilkin's Doric design for Downing College in Cambridge defined the popularity of Greek-style in the public buildings of England. It was now that the efforts of Revett and Stuart bore fruit. Their publication played a pivotal role during the Greek Revival in 19th century England. Art collectors and designers such as Thomas Hope facilitated the development of artefacts and interiors in the Greek orders.
Neo-Classicism in England was a contrast to that in France. While for the French, it was an exploration of Beauty through redefined principles and meanings, the English did not like to dwell too much on the principles. They believed in the outcome: implications, detail, and measurements. In other words, Neo-Classicism in England was an amendment. They realised something wasn't right and set out to make it so. And they tried all available options.
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About the Writer
Pranjal Maheshwari is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. He has interned at Rethinking The Future (RTF), India Lost and Found (ILF) by Amit Pasricha, and Sandal Kapoor Associates.
About the Editor
Falak Vora is an architect, architectural historian, writer and essayist. She is a graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London (UCL), UK and Sarvajanik College of Engineering and Technology (VNSGU), Surat. She has experience working at Aangan Architects, Eternity Architects, Wall Space Architects, Studio i!, Guallart Architects and The Universidad Politécnica de Cartagena (UPCT).
About the Illustrator
Itika Atri is an undergraduate architecture student at the Deenbandhu Chhotu Ram University of Science and Technology (DCRUST), Murthal (Sonepat). She is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer. She has experience working as an Architectural Journalism Intern at Rethinking The Future (RTF).