Introduction to Classicism in Architecture

This note provides an introduction to classical buildings as a backdrop to the Victorian art described on these pages, primarily the architectural sculpture. I pretend no particular knowledge of architecture, so if you have any, this page is not for you.

The revival of principles of Greek and Roman architecture we call Classicism, was one of the key 18th Century and early Victorian styles of architecture. Its features are of course symmetrical buildings based on the cube and the pyramid, and the use of pillars – in Doric, Ionic and Corinthian form, as well as composite. There are rules, sometimes obeyed and sometimes not, on which species of pillar is appropriate for which use (for example the tallest pillars tend to be Corinthian, and short squat supporting pillars on the ground floor of a large building tend to be Doric), on the proportions, and on the decoration of classical buildings. These differences reflect differences between Greek and Roman styles. Roman style makes frequent use of rounded arches, vaults and domes, while columns, the principle structural element of the Greeks, may be solely decorative in the Roman (the reason the Romans could move away from the pillar was because they used of different building materials - brick and concrete). Before the latter part of the 18th Century, classical buildings in Britain were all based on the Roman, because the Greek style had not yet become widely known, and even when it arrived, was initially seen as rather simplistic, before a reaction against over-decoration led to an appreciation of the Greek as more pure and perfect in its simplicity. In Victorian times, both simple and decorated variants of classical were in use, and and more ornamental styles derived from the classical such as Italianate, not discussed here. This page briefly runs through the history and key architects, and at the bottom, mentions something on the opportunities for sculptural decoration.

Following on from medieval Gothic and then Elizabethan architecture, classicism had actually arrived in England in the 16th Century. The first important classical architect in England was Inigo Jones (1573-1652), responsible for the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall and the Queen’s House in Greenwich. Later in the 17th Century came Christopher Wren (1632-1723), who designed numerous churches, and of course St Paul’s Cathedral, in what was to be the defining English Classical Baroque building, as well as public buildings and royal palaces. Several artists and craftsmen were particularly associated with Wren’s buildings, of whom we must mention the painter James Thornhill and the wood-carver Grinling Gibbons. Other architects following in Wren’s path include Nicholas Hawksmoor and Robert Hooke.

Classical town architecture, Bath

Before Wren, English churches were in the main medieval and Gothic. After Wren, Hawksmoor et al, there were a plethora of new Classical and particularly Classical Baroque churches, across the country and in London, where so many older churches had been lost in the Great Fire of 1666. Many new secular buildings were also classical, including great houses such as Blenheim Palace (1705-22, by John Vanbrugh), and university buildings such as the beautiful Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford (1664-9, Wren). Major 18th Century buildings were Palladian, much plainer than the ornamented classical Baroque of Wren and Hawksmoor, inspired by the writings of the Italian architect Palladio (1508-1580). Inigo Jones had worked in this sort of style, and an 18th Century exemplar was William Kent (1685-1748), responsible for buildings such as Horse Guards in Whitehall. Other classical architects of the time included James Gibbs (1682-1754), the architect of St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square, and George Dance the Elder (1698-1768), who designed Mansion House in the City. Bath had been planned out as a Classical town from the mid-17th Century, to be followed in the 18th Century by Brighton, Hastings and Cheltenham. The leading Georgian classical architects in the later 18th Century were William Chambers and Robert Adam. Chambers, still strongly Roman, was the architect of Somerset House in the Strand. Adam and his brothers, more varied in their oeuvre and prone to decoration, designed some of the great Classical squares in London from this period – Portland Place, Fitzroy Square and the largely vanished Adelphi scheme.

Adams brothers' Adelphi

Some of the first artists of the Royal Academy appear now, relevant here because they worked on the interiors of buildings by Adam and his contemporaries. They include John Flaxman (1755-1826), Joseph Wilton (1722-1803), Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), and a clutch of Italians including Zuccarelli and Cipriani.

The next generation, working into the early 19th Century, include Henry Holland (1745-1806), James Wyatt (1746-1813), George Dance the Younger (1741-1825), John Soane (1753-1837) of Bank of England fame, Thomas Hardwick (1752-1829), a pupil of Chambers, and John Nash, with his huge and beautiful classical facades around Regents Park.

So we conclude this group well into the 19th Century, at the end of the Regency and at the onset of the Victorian era with which these pages are largely concerned. Illustrated guidebooks to London from the 1820s show page after page of Classical buildings, from churches to townhouses, town halls to palaces and museums.

Our Classical architects who worked on into the Victorian era, then, start with William Wilkins (1778-1839), who just survived long enough to be included, and was responsible for the National Gallery, and Robert Smirke (1781-1867), a pupil of Soane whose most important classical building was the British Museum, largely complete by the late 1840s, with its huge frontage of 48 giant Ionic pillars – a splendid work of ancient Greece in central London. Also important were Decimus Burton (1800-1888), who worked for Nash and also built the Athenaeum, George Basevi (1794-1845), another pupil of Soane, responsible for Belgrave Square, working for the builder Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), as well as the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, C. R. Cockerell (788-1863) who designed the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and the unfortunately short-lived Harvey Lonsdale Elmes (1814-47), responsible for one great Classical building – St George’s Hall, Liverpool.

Hansom's Town Hall in Birmingham

The great Victorian architect Charles Barry (1795-1860), though best known for his Gothic Houses of Parliament, also designed Classical buildings, including what is now the Manchester Art Gallery, and George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), who typifies the Victorian Gothic, built one important Classical work in his Foreign and Colonial Office in Whitehall. We must also mention Cuthbert Brodrick, designer of the Classical Town Hall and the Corn Exchange for Leeds. Another great round Classical building is the Royal Albert Hall, by Captain Francis Fowke (and afterwards, H. Y. D. Scott), who also designed the V&A. William Tite built the Royal Exchange, with seriously large Corinthian columns, in 1841-49. Joseph Hansom designed Birmingham Town Hall in the 1830s, which was completed only 30 years later.

Brodrick's Corn Exchange, Leeds

The Government architect James Pennethorne (1801-1871), who trained under Nash, extended William Chambers’ Somerset House in a similar style to the existing building, and among his other classical works is the excellent rear side of Burlington House, (now occupied by the Royal Academy, previously the ethnographical collection of the British Museum, and originally built for the University of London).

Towards the end of the Victorian period, and running into the Edwardian, we must mention what we now call Edwardian Baroque, which harked back to the style of Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral mentioned above. Colchester Town Hall by John Belcher is a good example, and Cardiff Town Hall by Lanchester, Steward and Rickards is considered an outstanding example of the type. A London example is the Treasury frontage onto Parliament Square and Great George Street.

Euston and Birmingham terminals of North Western Railway

The examples of Classical architecture above are largely confined to civic buildings, though of course there are plenty of examples among churches and country houses. We should note as well that the Classic style has always been favoured for triumphal arches – among the best examples from our era are the Hyde Park Corner Screen and what is now Constitution Arch (Ionic, 1825, Decimus Burton), and Marble Arch (Corinthian, 1828, John Nash). The North-Western Railway built the grandest of classical arches for the London Euston (sadly destroyed) and Birmingham (still extant) terminals - the architects were Philip Hardwick and his son, P. C. Hardwick. And of course triumphal columns must needs be Classical – we have in London firstly the Monument (Doric, 1671-77, Robert Hooke), and then from the 19th Century, Nelson’s column (Corinthian, 1839, William Railton) and the Duke of York column (Doric, 1831, Benjamin Wyatt).

On the smaller scale, the most common classical work is funerary, in churches and graveyards. 18th and 19th century pillared mausoleums in classical style are a feature in the cemeteries, and even inside the cathedrals and larger churches, and smaller monuments and tablets adapt naturally to the classical.

Classical monuments

And what about the sculptural decoration of Classical buildings? The main opportunity is the pediment – the triangular space above the pillared portico – and sometimes free-standing statues or emblems or pots up on top, silhouetted against the sky. From the end of the 18th Century, the opportunity for these was increased by the advent of Coade Stone, and later on hard terra cotta – with these materials, even an exposed pot or statue could withstand the weather and the pollution and may look as good today as when first put up, as opposed to softer carving of limestone, which gets worn away by the wind, and eaten away by acidic car fumes. Niches with statues (good for preserving against the weather) are certainly a possibility in Classical architecture, but not used so widely compared with the Gothic. A suitably large building might feature a sculptural frieze or panels, while for the more decorative buildings, a stretch of white wall could include roundels containing perhaps a bust or Wedgwood-style relief. And any space around or above a main entrance even on a fairly modest building, is suitable for a pair of spandrel figures or perhaps free-standing ones supporting a shield or emblem.

Classical figure sculpture is widespread in churches and graveyards, either in alto relievo on panels, often with classical surround, or free-standing on square or classical pillar bases. Up till the early 19th century, a particularly common subject is the classical mourning woman, draped against or even over a pillar or pot or bier of the deceased, which itself may show his portrait in a roundel, and perhaps some emblematic accoutrements at the base. She may look down at the grave, or up towards heaven in an old-master painterly style. In the late 18th and early 19th Century, she may appear to be lounging rather than collapsing with grief, resting her elbow on the grave and comfortably crossing her legs.

So far as the style of statue goes, classical sculpture falls into two broad camps. Firstly, it can be severely Hellenic often with calm, even still poses and straight-hanging drapery - think of Flaxman. Later comes a more more baroque Hellenistic style, turning and twisting, often only to be appreciated from more than one viewpoint. (The bleaker, less flattering Roman style of portrait sculpture was occasionally used for male subjects)

By way of concluding remarks, classical style architecture is perhaps more comfortable to the modern eye than Gothic, because it is a small step from the simpler versions of classical to the entirely unornamented, to the rows of identical featureless windows and flat pale surfaces of more modern styles. But as Victorians, we both want our ornament, so find much to please us in the Gothic, yet may feel that when the classical goes to its most flamboyant, it has gone too far and loses much of the dignity and essence which draws us to the more severe work. On a personal note, I am drawn to the larger classical buildings with massive porticoes and free-standing pillars, rather than the flat-fronted restraint of the quieter classical or the excesses of baroque. How could not an ancient Greek of the best period, transported to modern times, appreciate the Birmingham town hall or British Museum, and feel their heart swell with pride at the development of their craft? So far as the sculpture itself goes, unless we are lucky enough to have a building with sculpture designed organically with the building it decorates, as with the Chartered Accountants building or the old Lloyds building, then I enjoy most the simple spandrel figures so frequent on classical Victorian buildings; what space was ever more perfectly filled with a seated figure than the gap between an arch, a pillar and the base of a pediment?

We end with a list of a few examples of sculpture on classical buildings:

Free-standing sculpture, friezes

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