neo-classical architecture

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neo-classical architecture was part of a European-wide movement, c.1760–1830, affecting also the fine and decorative arts, to which Britain made a substantial contribution. It was directly inspired by classical antiquity (i.e. the art and architecture of Greece and Rome) and associated with rationalist principles and Enlightenment ideals of the perfectibility of the human spirit through such means as civic ‘improvements’ and exposure to noble monuments.

Consequently, this imposing and severe style was frequently adopted for public buildings such as courts of justice, hospitals, museums, and schools; Edinburgh is a city particularly rich in neo-classical architecture, W. H. Playfair (1790–1857) being one of its leading exponents.

The first stirrings of the neo-classical mentality can be seen around 1760, when Robert Adam (1728–92) initiated a style based more on the direct inspiration of Roman antiquity than on Italian Renaissance, especially Palladian, architecture. Thus his south front of Kedleston Hall, Derbys. (1760–8), suggests the form of a triumphal arch. James Wyatt (1748–1813), who also studied in Italy, was said by his contemporaries to have further refined the Adamesque style, which, particularly for interiors, tended to be decorative. Sir John Soane (1753–1837) developed a personal neo-classical style founded on a deeply felt interpretation of the antique, exploiting the effect of domes and of simplified, pared-down ornament.

By c.1800, an interest in Greek antiquity, based on first-hand archaeological study, had largely supplanted the earlier Roman taste. Symptomatic of this was the acquisition of the ‘Elgin marbles’ from the Parthenon at Athens. Earlier, the first volume of James Stuart and Nicholas Revett's The Antiquities of Athens (1762) had become a source book for the Greek Revival, a movement further encouraged by the important connoisseur and patron Thomas Hope (1769–1831). Neither Stuart nor Revett achieved much success as an architect. However, the former's redesign of the interior of Greenwich hospital chapel (1780–8) was influential, and it became obligatory for the new generation of neo-classical architects such as C. R. Cockerell (1788–1863), Sir Robert Smirke (1780–1867), and William Wilkins (1778–1839) to make extensive study tours of Greece. The aristocratic amateur Sir Charles Monck also visited Greece, a fact reflected in his design for his own house, Belsay Hall, Northumberland (1807–17). Externally, this austere and seminal work made emphatic use of the Greek Doric order as did William Wilkins's characteristic Grange Park, Hampshire (begun 1809). Wilkins, a Cambridge graduate himself, also designed the new Grecian-style buildings of Downing College, Cambridge (1807–20).

An extreme example of the Greek Revival, this time employing the Ionic order, is the church of St Pancras, Euston Road, London (1819–22), by William and his son H. W. Inwood. It embodies features adapted from the Erechtheion, an Athenian temple which the younger Inwood (1794–1843) had studied at first hand. By the 1830s taste was changing in favour of different types of classicism, particularly Sir Charles Barry's neo-Renaissance style.

T. E. Faulkner