Classical Oasis: The Architecture of Newcastle
The defining characteristic of Newcastle architecture is the persistence of the Neo-Classical tradition established by the speculative builder Richard Grainger and his forebears. This encompassed the central core of Newcastle, including key emblems of the town’s identity such as the Central Station (1849-50), Town Hall (1858-63, demolished) and Literary and Philosophical Society (1822-5). Neo-Classicism, the revival of ancient Greek and Roman models, was recognised as a fundamental trait of the city’s identity at both local and national level. In his inaugural address as President of the Northern Architectural Association in 1897, the architect Frank W. Rich testified to the high regard in which Grainger and Dobson were held by the younger generation of Newcastle architects. Grainger was described as ‘one of those men of indomitable will, one of those captains of industry for which Newcastle is so justly celebrated.’ This portrays Grainger as the cultural equivalent of the industrial capitalists who were establishing Newcastle’s profile on a global economic stage, and views the architectural core as the arena for this explosion of industrial development and prosperity. Many commentators lamented the absence of such a visionary figure during the period under review. Archibald Reed wrote:
Mr Richard Grainger, seventy years ago, set Newcastle an example in looking ahead, when he built streets like Grey Street, Grainger Street, and Clayton Street. What has been done since? Every opportunity to run on similar lines neglected, until the main arteries are all gorged. Old lanes such as High Bridge and the Pudding Chare are being rebuilt without any attempt to open up a parallel street to Grainger Street from Stephenson’s monument to the east of the city.
From a national standpoint, too, Newcastle was defined by its Classical centre. A year after Rich’s address to the assembly of Newcastle architects, the influential periodical The Builder published a special issue on the city, praising the ‘gigantic schemes’ of Richard Grainger, whose vision placed Newcastle architecture ‘on the high level it has since on the whole well maintained.’ Discussing Eldon Square, John Dobson’s sedate residential development, for example, The Builder commented: ‘The whole quiet, simple, solid composition looks like a bit of old Bath dropped down in Northumberland.’ In fact, this consistently high standard had been achieved by adhering closely to Grainger’s Classical idiom. Thus Newcastle was one of a number of cities, including Liverpool and Belfast, which had continued to communicate their ideals through Classicism.
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