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Jacques-Louis David  Portrait of Madame Récamier  (ca. 1800, Louvre Museum)

Absolutely Classic
the Rise of Neoclassicism in England 1760-1830

Report of the lecture given by Naomi Motley
on November 23rd 2016

Neoclassicism arose as a result of the rediscovery of Greek and Roman history and style, which showed a more humanist approach than the more typical English Gothic style prevalent prior to the mid-18th Century.  Why this interest in the classic style?  Primarily as a result of the Grand Tour, the archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum and later events such as the Greek fight for independence.

The Society of Dilettanti studied Rome and Greece, which was still part of the Ottoman Empire.  Nicholas Revett and James “Athenian” Stuart, members of the Society, were inspired to visit, produced “Antiquities of Athens” and painted watercolours of the Acropolis, for example, and then sold prints to a demanding public.

Laocoön and His Sons   (Vatican Museums)  Photo: LivioAndronico

The impact of the Grand Tour led to the discovery of sculptures, of which copies were made and taken back home.  One such was Laocoön and His Sons, discovered in one of Nero’s villas, and which was of such importance that Michelangelo rushed to visit the excavation.  The Apollo Belvedere was considered a perfect specimen until it was realised that there was no musculature on the body of the statue.

How was the background to neoclassicism used in England?
Robert Adam was commissioned to make alterations to Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire.  He had fallen in love with Rome, and so designed a Triumphal Arch, columns and a cupola as a rear extension to the house, mimicked in a sweeping staircase.  He then designed an extension to Kenwood House’s Library in 1770, where he even designed the plasterwork.  At Syon House, the Percy family appointed him to redesign the Great Hall, where he sought to create movement in the house.  The ceiling mirrored the floor mosaic.  Adam used the ideas found in Nero’s Golden House, discovered in Rome when a youth fell into it in 64AD, in his refurbishment of Osterley Park.

The second phase of neoclassicism encompassed the Greek Revival, exemplified by Lord Byron’s love affair with Greece, to which he moved to live and die.  A fine example of Greek Revival style is the massive double portico at The Grange, Northington.  Mention must be made of the Elgin Marbles, which were bought by Elgin, not stolen, and which bankrupted him; he paid £78,000 but was only reimbursed £35,000 by the Government.

Neoclassicism in furniture
In the early 18th century, English furniture was very much rococo in style – busy and fussy. Neoclassic style was introduced by the likes of Thomas Chippendale, with plain, straight lines in his furniture design, and Hepplewhite with his shield back chair, typically painted.  Thomas Hope designed the Klismos chair in the Greek revival style, which was intended as a “sit comfortably” chair, with its back a copy of a Greek vase.  The Chaise Longue was introduced in this period, as a day bed, one reason being that ladies’ clothing was more flowing (corsets had gone!) and so enabled her to recline in comfort.  Lady Emma Hamilton, wife of Sir William and mistress of Lord Nelson, wore diaphanous clothes “a la grecque”, and was parodied in satirical prints showing her naked.  Fortunately, Sir William left her well provided for on his death.


This Regency period also produced fine designers of china, pottery and silverware.  John Flaxman designed plates illustrating the Iliad, and much more; Josiah Wedgewood is even better known, of course - his Basalt vase copied the Greek Bell Krater and his Portland Vase was Roman in design.  Paul Storr was a well-known Regency silversmith, who was commissioned by the Prince Regent and his brothers to produce lots of silverware which demonstrated, when on show, the wealth and stature of the owners.

Josiah Wedgwood and Sons Ltd.  Replica of Portland Vase
(ca. 1790,  Victoria & Albert Museum)

In conclusion, I found Naomi to be a delightful and erudite speaker, with an enjoyable presentation style.  If anything, she offered too much information on a subject of which she demonstrated a wealth of knowledge.

Philip Akroyd

Related Link (opens in new window):

Neoclassicism - Wikipedia article