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The Greek Revival

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The Greek Revival began in the 1750s but did not reach its peak until the 1820s. Its inception was a slow process which required three main impulses to establish it as a mainstream Georgian style. These were the theories of Laugier, archaeology, and Roman

The Parthenon, Athens

Classical architecture was invented by the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome, about 2500 years ago. The Ancient Greeks invented the basic elements of the style, which they used for the buildings of the Acropolis, a series of Temples on the hills above Athens. These were built in the 5th century B.C. This is the Parthenon, the greatest monument of Ancient Greece. Greece was the birthplace of western civilisation, and Classical architecture is a direct link back to that ideal.

This diagram shows a typical Greek temple front and sets out the basic elements of the style. Vertical columns support a horizontal beam known as an entablature. The entablature is divided into an architrave, the part that rests on the columns; a decorative frieze, which often features sculptural forms; and a cornice. The building is terminated with a triangular pediment. Aesthetically, it depends on symmetry and the repetition of elements. These are the basic elements of the Classical style, the basic vocabulary of forms. The columns occur in three different degrees of richness, known as the three Classical Orders. The Doric is very plain and simple; it was seen as strong and masculine. The Ionic is more refined and slender; it ends with scrolled forms which are said to be derived from a ram’s horns. This was associated with wisdom. The Corinthian Order is the most elaborate of the three; it has rich decoration based on the acanthus leaf. This represented beauty and femininity.

The Classical style was revived during the Renaissance and later in 18th century Britain.  A major phase of Neo-Classicism was the Greek Revival. This movement began in the 1750s but did not reach its peak until the 1820s. Its inception was a slow process which required three main impulses to establish it as a mainstream Georgian style. These were the theories of Laugier, archaeology, and Romanticism.

Marc-Antoine Laugier (1713-69) transformed architectural practice with his Essai sur I’Architecture (1753) in which he argued that the Primitive Hut was the origin of western architecture, and that the Orders were descended from construction methods such as beams and pitched roofs. He claimed that this link was revealed in the simplicity of the Doric Order. From this argument he drew the principles that the Orders should serve their purpose and express their function clearly. Columns should be used as columns, and not engaged for decorative purposes. Laugier’s principles, which anticipated modernism, influenced many Georgian architects with pretensions to modernity. Initially, however, they adopted Roman architecture as their style, believing it to embody the purity and functionalism Laugier had extolled. This occurred because of the prevalence of English Palladianism. Aspiring purists recognised that Palladio and the Renaissance had been a filter through which Roman architecture had passed, and instead they turned directly to Roman ruins, which seemed to be closer to the origins of architecture.

However, it was gradually realized that Roman architecture was itself highly decorative, even Baroque. It was not pure at all, and far from being functional it made stylized and decorative use of the Orders.’ Enthusiasm for Roman architecture started to wane, and several enterprising figures began to find a truer embodiment of Laugier’s theory in the architecture of Greece. This had taken so long to occur because Greece had been a dominion of the Ottoman Empire of Turkey since the 15th century. Furthermore, the threats of brigands and plague made Greece inaccessible. But by the end of the 17th century the Ottoman Empire was in decline, and Greece became (relatively) safe for those who wanted to rediscover its antiquity.

The second impulse behind the Greek revival, then, was archeology. Greece became an integral part of the Grand Tour, with Winckelmann visiting in 1758. Greek ruins were illustrated by Piranesi (1777) in a series of brooding, grandiose engravings, which did much to publicize the ruins in antiquarian circles. Most notoriously, Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin (1766-1841) removed portions of the frieze and metopes of the Parthenon, as well as various sculptures, and sent them to England. The ship sank during the voyage, and the marbles had to be dredged out of the sea. Elgin was accused of vandalism and theft, particularly by Byron, but the Elgin Marbles were highly influential nonetheless.

Without question, the most significant contribution to the study of Greece was the Society of Dilettanti – a club of young English noblemen who had been on the Grand Tour. Horace Walpole’s oft-quoted remark that the nominal qualification for membership was having been to Italy, but the real one was to get drunk, illustrates the nature of the Society. It consisted, in equal measures, of antiquarian collecting, drinking, learning, and indecent ribaldry. It was opposed to Robert Walpole and the Whig Oligarchy, and therefore to formalized Palladianism. Instead, it possessed “a Romantic and ill-defined enthusiasm for the antique.”

J.M. Crook argued that the Greek revival was an aspect of Romanticism, a view that was corroborated by Summerson. Crook wrote, “the Romantic rebellion brought in its wake a new wave of historicism, eclecticism and experimentation.” All of these are evident in the practice of the Greek revivalists. The Greek revival, then, consisted of the three impulses mentioned earlier, involving: “the selection of historical styles and motifs according to archaeological precedent, and their combination in accordance with new theories of composition [from Laugier].”

In 1751-54 the Society financed James Stuart and Nicholas Revett to make a tour of Greece, during which they meticulously measured and illustrated ruins. The result of this study was the four-volume The Antiquities of Athens (1762), which became the principle sourcebook on the subject. It was scholarly, precise and accurate, and transformed the Society into a serious publisher and patron of study. It was both a reference work for scholars and a handbook for amateurs – simultaneously an archaeological record and an architectural treatise. The book, however, had less impact than might be supposed. It took 82 years for its four volumes to be published, and sold more to patrons than to architects. Its influence was therefore spasmodic, and many of the earliest examples of Greek revival in Britain were by Stuart himself. These include his Doric Temple at Hagley Park, Worcestershire (1758-9), the Demosthenes Lanthom (1770), which is based on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, Athens, and his Triumphal Arch (1764), based on the Arch of Theseus, Athens.

The Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, Athens

Demosthenes Lanthom (1770)

Roman architecture was still being promoted by figures such as Sir William Chambers, who vehemently denounced the Greek style as crude, primitive and barbaric. For example, he criticized the Greek Doric Order for its simplicity and the columns’ lack of bases. The fact, however, is that Chambers was simply too accustomed to Roman architecture, with its novelty, variety and sophistication. He failed to realise that the simplicity and primitivism he criticized were now seen as chief virtues by the Greek revivalists. This is evident from the first major Greek revival buildings in Europe. Downing College, Cambridge (1804) by William Wilkins, launched both the career of its architect and the Greek revival as a fashion.

Wilkins (1778-1839) was a Cambridge don with a background in theater. In 1801-4 he had toured Italy and Greece, and on his return published Antiquities of Magna Grecia (1807) which, like Stuart and Revett’s earlier work was precisely measured and illustrated. His illustrious career included the National Gallery, London and University College, London (1830). Partly because of these works the style permeated the architectural mainstream. But his most significant building is the Grange, Hampshire (1804) which is regarded as “one of Europe”s great neo-Classical monuments.’

The Grange, Hampshire (1804)

Henry Drummond inherited a 17th century house, by William Samwell, when he was eighteen. He was described by Thomas Carlyle as “a mixture of the saint, the wit, the philosopher – swimming, if I mistake not, in an element of dandyism.” As this indicates he was a close parallel of William Beckford, but his taste was for the Grecian. In 1804 he returned from the Grand Tour and commissioned the 26-year-old Wilkins to re-case the house in the Greek style. Drummond therefore influenced the choice of style, but Wilkins used his own experience of Greece, and of Stuart and Revett’s book, for inspiration. The Thesion Temple was the source for the Doric portico, while the Thrassylus Monument influenced the side elevations. Also influential was a project by Robert Mitchell from 1801. Both designs feature a portico on the short side, and have similar side elevations. Both are raised on a podium, and are approached by a flight of steps, which gives them both the appearance of a Temple.

Samwell’s original house, in red brick and Roman style, had four stories. Wilkins ‘visually reduced’6 the elevations by masking the basement with a podium, and the attic with an entablature. This emphasizes the imposing verticality of the building, and imparts the grandeur and simplicity held to be characteristic of the Greek style. The Grange was highly influential. Sir Robert Smirke, Wilkins great rival, designed the highly fashionable Covent Garden Theatre with its Parthenon columns in 1809, by which time virtually all public buildings were Greek revival, which was felt to possess the requisite strength and sobriety. An example is the British Museum by Smirke (1823-47).

British Museum (1823-47)

In the hands of many, the style was often combined with Roman Orders, Palladian plans, and Baroque features, such as at Syon House by Robert Adam. J.M. Crook remarked that the Greek revival was never wholly Greek. Charles Cockerell said, ‘Greek is the style, and all noodles are ashamed of being out of fashion.’ The superficial nature of much of this enthusiasm is illustrated by the next stage in the Grange’s history. Drummond grew bored with the style and quarrelled with Wilkins. Economies were taken with the construction: the original design had a portico with two rows of columns, the actual building has only one. Similarly, the remodelling of the west front was barely started, and Drummond sold the house in 1817.

It was bought by Alexander Baring, who found it inconvenient and unfashionable. Smirke added a single-story wing in 1817. Charles Cockerell, also a devotee of the Greek, was hired in 1823. By then the Greek revival had passed into the realm of the picturesque, which tended to integrate the house with its landscape. Cockerell extended the house through 90 degrees with a metal and glass conservatory. This featured an Ionic portico which compensated for the Doric one by Wilkins that Cockerell found “vulgar.” These extensions gave the Grange a horizontal aspect that linked it with the Capability Brown-style landscape, which indicates that, at its zenith in the 1820s, the Greek revival was closely associated with the cult of the Picturesque. Commenting on the building Cockerell said, “Nothing could be finer, more Classical, or like the finest Poussins . . . There is nothing like it on this side of Arcadia.” This telling remark highlights the essentially Romantic motivation at the heart of the Greek revival: incorporating both archeology and Laugier’s search for pure origins, the impetus was a Romantic quest for Arcadia.

The Greek Revival was popular in the North of England and Scotland. The harsh climate and supposed toughness of the people made the severe Greek style appropriate. In Scotland the style was adopted for the creation of Edinburgh's New Town. Edinburgh has so many Neo-Classical buildings it’s known as the ‘Athens of the North.’ One of the leading figures in Scotland was Alexander Thompson, a Glasgow architect who was known as ‘Greek’ Thompson. He was inspired by Greek architecture, but he didn’t take the Grand Tour. He never left Britain. Instead he relied on published sources, such as Stuart and Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens. He designed the Presbyterian church in Caledonia Road (1856). This emphasises the severity of the Greek style, but it’s also very original. Obviously the Greeks didn’t build churches because it was a pre-Christian civilisation, so Thomson had to adapt the form.

Presbyterian Church, Caledonia Road (1856)

A comparable example of Greek purity is Penshaw Monument in County Durham. This is a reproduction of a Greek temple which stands on a hilltop. It’s based on the Temple of Theseus on the Acropolis. Theseus was the character from Greek mythology who killed the Minotaur in the labyrinth on Crete. This was designed by John and Benjamin Green (1844). It’s a monument to John Lambton, Earl of Durham, a politician who was known as Radical Jack. This tends to be taken for granted, but it’s a direct echo of the Acropolis. There’s hardly a building like this – with such a spectacular site – outside of Athens. Of course, it’s been stained black by pollution, but it’s a glimpse of Arcadia amid the colliery-strewn landscapes of County Durham.

Penshaw Monument, County Durham

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