Revivals and Romanticism

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Revivals and Romanticism

Nostalgia and the Fashion for the Exotic.

Even as Neoclassicism continued to increase in popularity in England, France, Italy, and other parts of the continent, a new wave of romantic architecture appeared. As a movement, Romanticism arose from sources of sentiment similar to those of Neoclassicism. Its appeal lay, in part, in a longing, even nostalgia, for times that were simpler and more virtuous. Much the same impulse had fueled the revival of classical architecture in England and many parts of continental Europe, as designers, patrons, and intellectuals had sensed that a world of austere and elegant simplicity was to be found in Antiquity. Research into the precise nature of classical art and architecture since the eighteenth century has shown that many of the ideas of these Neoclassicists were incorrect. The pristine white, unadorned spaces present in many eighteenth-century Neoclassical designs were not an accurate reflection of antique tastes. Ancient buildings, in fact, had been decorated with a riot of color and ornament. Yet the affection that many Neoclassicists felt for the world of Antiquity was inspired all the same by a sense of the vigor and simplicity they felt had been present in the ancient world. This same longing to reproduce the visual qualities of past, more virtuous ages fueled a revival of Gothic architecture in Europe from the early 1740s. One of the most notable of the many Gothic houses constructed in England at the time was Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill, which he began outside London in Middlesex in 1748. Walpole was the son of Britain's longest-serving prime minister, a writer, and an amateur authority on numerous subjects, including medieval chivalry. In order to complete this rambling, fanciful structure, he required help from some architects, who supplemented his designs. The craze for Gothic spaces was widespread enough to produce at least one textbook in English that informed readers how they might build their own house in this style. In Germany, too, architectural manuals of the time almost always debated the question of the relative merits of medieval and ancient architecture. Like Neoclassical structures, the taste for the Gothic was not always historically correct, with elements of the era's churches being freely adapted onto homes whose scale was far grander than those of the Middle Ages.


introduction: William Chambers was one of the great architects of the neoclassical revival in England. He and Robert Adam served together for many years as royal architects, and both designed a large number of neoclassical townhouses and country estates. The taste for classical design did not prevent the architects of the time from indulging a fashion for other more exotic structures. Many neoclassical designers also produced buildings in the Chinese and Gothic styles. In 1757, Chambers published in both French and English his Designs for Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils. The work was of major importance in sustaining the popularity of things Chinese throughout Europe. Although Chambers was quick to point out the inferiority of Chinese architecture when compared to European antiquity, he nevertheless recommended the Chinese style as a way of adding visual interest to large houses and gardens. His emphasis on the way in which Chinese architecture might add picturesque interest to a large garden was a typical feature of late eighteenth-century design.

These which I now offer to the publick are done from sketches and measures taken by me at Canton some years ago, chiefly to satisfy my own curiosity. It was not my design to publish them; nor would they now appear, were it not in compliance with the desire of several lovers of the arts, who thought them worthy the perusal of the publick, and that they might be of use in putting a stop to the extravagancies that daily appear under the name of Chinese, though most of them are mere inventions, the rest copies from lame representations found on porcelain and paper-hangings.

Whatever is really Chinese has at least the merit of being original: these people seldom or never copy or imitate the inventions of other nations. All our most authentick relations agree in this point, and observe that their form of government, language, character, dress, and almost every other particular belonging to them, have continued without change for thousands of years; but their architecture has this farther advantage that there is a remarkable affinity between it and that of the antients, which is the more surprising as there is not the least probability that the one was borrowed from the other.

In both the antique and Chinese architecture the general form of almost every composition has a tendency to the pyramidal figure: In both, columns are employed for support; and in both, these columns have diminution and bases, some of which bear a near resemblance to each other; fretwork, so common in the building of the antients, is likewise very frequent in those of the Chinese … There is likewise a great affinity between the antient utensils and those of the Chinese; both being composed of similar parts combined in the same manner.

Though I am publishing a work of Chinese Architecture, let it not be suspected that my intention is to promote a taste so much inferiour to the antique, and so very unfit for our climate: but a particular so interesting as the architecture of one of the most extraordinary nations in the universe cannot be a matter of indifference to a true lover of the arts, and an architect should by no means be ignorant of so singular a stile of building: at least the knowledge is curious, and on particular occasions may likewise be useful; as he may sometimes be obliged to make Chinese compositions, and at others it may be judicious in him to do so. For though, generally speaking, Chinese architecture does not suit European purposes; yet in extensive parks and gardens, where a great variety of scenes are required, or in immense palaces, containing a numerous series of apartments, I do not see the impropriety of finishing some of the inferiour ones in the Chinese taste. Variety is always delightful; and novelty, attending with nothing inconsistent or disagreeable, sometimes takes place of beauty.

source: Sir William Chambers, Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils (London: 1757) in Michelangelo and the Mannerists; The Baroque and the Eighteenth Century. Vol. II of A Documentary History of Art. Ed. Elizabeth G. Holt (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1958): 295–296.

English Gardens.

Another sign of the eighteenth century's yearning for simplicity can be seen in garden architecture. By the second half of the century the grounds that surrounded many country houses throughout Europe were being remodeled to take account of a new fashion for natural settings. In many places these more relaxed spaces became known as "English gardens." The primary feature of an English garden was a bucolic, easy flow of brooks, forests, and meadows, rather than the hard edges of clipped hedges and fountains. The taste for gardens constructed in an English style revealed the spread of Enlightenment ideas, which celebrated England's constitution at the time as the most natural, free, and virtuous in Europe. The English garden, eighteenth-century philosophers told their readers, was a cultural embodiment of the country's genius, for in its confines nature was not tortured and made to conform to human artifice, but allowed to proceed on its own course. The English Garden in Munich, laid out in 1789 by the American-born physicist Benjamin Thomson, is the largest and most famous of these many landscapes. Thomson's political views—he supported the Crown during the American Revolution—forced his emigration to Europe, where he practiced a number of professions in the years that followed. At Munich, his plans for the English Garden made use of an enormous space, a block almost one and a half miles square. Into it, he poured streams with rapids, meadows, Chinese pavilions and antique temples to create a pleasurable space on the city's outskirts. Although not quite the naturalistic setting that philosophers had intended, the garden survives today as one of Munich's most treasured spaces.

The Picturesque.

The English Garden in Munich reveals a great deal of the underlying irony of the late eighteenth century's attitudes toward nature and design. On the one hand, nature was believed to function best when allowed to follow its own course. Nature was most appealing when it was unadorned, spare, and untouched by human artifice. On the other hand, patrons and designers could not escape the human tendency to embellish. As at Munich, gardens constructed after the new English taste were often decorated with numerous pavilions designed to appear as buildings from other cultures and eras. Carefully placed Greek, Roman, and Gothic ruins gave the landscape the appearance, not of a natural setting, but of having long been settled and tamed by human inhabitants. Chinese and Japanese tearooms, too, were set down in these gardens at places where they might add maximum effect, while streams, rapids, and lakes were carefully sculpted to appear as if they were not the product of the human hand. While seemingly embracing nature as virtuous, then, the eighteenth-century English Garden was one of the most highly artificial of constructions. Sustaining its popularity was a new fashion for spaces that were "picturesque," a word that was, in fact, coined at the time to describe this phenomenon of carefully constructing gardens in a naturalistic way with vistas that offered a maximum of visual interest. Along a trek laid out by a garden's designers, the landscape presented to connoisseurs numerous views that appeared as if they might have been painted. During the 1770s and 1780s the French queen Marie-Antoinette created one of the most notable of these gardens around the Petit Trianon at Versailles. The walks that led through the garden included focal points of grottoes, a Belvedere, a Tempe of Love, and eventually a medieval French hamlet. This last addition was begun in 1783 and completed two years later to include a village of twelve farmhouses and outbuildings, carefully constructed to appear as if they were of a venerable age. The artifice of Marie-Antoinette's Hameau was complete, including as it did real flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, a pond and fishery, and a group of seeming peasants who were imported to live there. The central focal point of this village was the Queen's cottage, a structure that appeared from the outside as a substantial peasant's house, but which indoors was decorated with the extreme refinement typical of aristocratic houses of the time. Here Marie-Antoinette fled the cares of court to indulge her taste for a simpler, less artificial life. Ironically, this Hameau was perhaps the eighteenth-century's most man-made illusion, and the queen had little time to enjoy it. Its completion in 1785 came only several years before the beginning of the French Revolution that eventually toppled the monarchy.


During the eighteenth century new architectural movements swept across Europe as the tastes of architects and patrons began to change. Although late Baroque and Rococo styles continued to survive in some places, new waves of Neoclassicism and other revival styles vied for the attention of designers and their patrons. The Neoclassical revival that began in Europe at mid-century made use of new insights drawn from archeological excavations in Italy. This Neoclassicism developed most vigorously in those countries in which a strongly classical bent to design had been most evident during the Baroque era. In England, for instance, Neoclassicism followed a widespread Palladian revival that had already begun to transform the appearance of London and other British cities in the early eighteenth century. In France, the longstanding taste for classically inspired façades provided a foundation on which the taste for the more thoroughly ancient elements of Soufflot's and Gabriel's designs developed. Central Europe proved more resistant to the new stylistic tendencies and the Rococo tended to survive longer there than in the West. In Munich, Berlin, Vienna, and other capitals in the region, new churches, private houses, and public monuments began to appear in the Neoclassical style during the later decades of the century. Neoclassicism expressed the longing of the eighteenth century to escape the confines of contemporary history and to foster a more virtuous society, something to which the great upheavals of the French Revolution aspired as well. The histories and literary works of the age celebrated Rome and Greece for the vigor of their cultural achievements as well as for the austerity and elegant economy of their artistic vision. New revival styles throughout the eighteenth century also made use of similar feelings of nostalgia for bygone eras. A taste for the exotic, an affection that had long been embraced by Baroque and Rococo designers, persisted in the continued popularity of structures that made use of elements of Eastern and Near Eastern design. In both England and the continent, Gothic Revival style appeared at around the same time as Neoclassicism, and its rise demonstrates the importance that Romantic sentiments and longings had on the architectural scene at the end of the eighteenth century. Perhaps nowhere is the influence of this Romanticism more evident than in the gardens of the later century that consisted of Chinese pagodas, ancient temples, and Roman and Gothic ruins set within a landscape that appeared as if it had been untouched by human hands. At the same time a careful progression of "picturesque" views provided a backdrop for the musings of those who made their way through these highly artificial, yet seemingly natural spaces. Thus while the eighteenth century desired to escape its history, and to rewrite its culture in a way that abandoned the Baroque tendency toward elaborate adornment, human artifice returned nevertheless to produce designs that were no less artificial than those of the ages that had come before.


Kenneth Clark, The Gothic Revival (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1964).

Brian Fothergill, The Strawberry Hill Set: Horace Walpole and His Circle (London: Faber, 1983).

J. S. Held and D. Posner, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Art (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971).

Nikolaus Pevsner, ed., The Picturesque Garden and its Influence Outside the British Isles (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks, 1977).

David Watkin, The English Vision: The Picturesque in Architecture, Landscape, and Garden Design (New York: Harper and Row, 1982).

Dora Wiebenson, The Picturesque Garden in France (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978).

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Revivals and Romanticism

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