The built environment
Even travel abroad to view classical art was not invariably beyond the reach of at least skilled artisanal workers. Between June and October 1867, 3,000 working men from London, Sheffield, Coventry, Bradford and Newcastle-under-Lyme attended the Paris Exhibition, on special subsidised excursions funded by the Society of Arts and the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce.40 At government level, the chief supporter was the radical MP and excavator of Assyrian antiquities Austen Henry Layard, who personally led the first batch of 200 workers around the wonders on display at the Louvre.41 One of the delegates, a London cabinet-maker named Charles Hooper, recalled visits to other museums, galleries and lectures halls, including a tour of the fine art at Versailles.42
In the access to classical civilisation available to Britons, visual culture has often been paramount. The passion for ceramics informed by ancient art required workers who were knowledgeable about ancient vases and iconography, as we shall see in Chapter 21. Several important draughtsmen were also born into low social classes: James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, who with his wealthy friend Nicholas Revett published one of the most influential books in the history of architecture and aesthetics, The Antiquities of Athens Measured and Delineated (the first volume appeared in 1762), suffered a near-destitute boyhood in Ludgate after the death of his father, a Scottish sailor.43 As the eldest son, to support his mother and siblings, he was apprenticed to a fan-maker on the Strand. One biographer believes that the decorative Grecian buildings he painted onto the fans directed his mind ‘to the study of classical architecture’.44 It was only by good luck and a massive autodidactic effort that Stuart learned Latin and Greek and travelled to Rome. There, after becoming an expert engraver as well as a connoisseur of fine art and architecture, with Revett he conceived the plan to visit Athens to draw its antiquities in person.
The taste for the antique encouraged by the work of Stuart and Revett can be seen even earlier in dozens of 18th-century stately homes usually built by nouveau-riche bankers, merchants or adventurers returned from the colonies. At least, they ordered them to be built, hired fashionable architects and interior decorators, and handed over the physical work to local labourers. As Brecht put it in the opening lines of his poem ‘Questions from a Worker who Reads’, composed in 1935:
Who built seven-gated Thebes?
In the books are stated the names of kings.
Did the kings drag the boulders up?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed—
Who built it up so many times? Where are the houses
In golden-gleaming Lima where the people who built it live?
The night the Great Wall of China was completed, where did
The masons go? Rome is great
And full of triumphal arches. Who erected them?4’
The 18th-century hyper-rich who adored antique art and architecture—rather than the construction workers who fulfilled their fantasies—have attracted myriad academic studies.46 A taste for the antique allowed people of means to signal their class identity ostentatiously. The Neo-Palladian obsession distinguished those who favoured it from the associations of the Baroque, by this point seen as Francophile, unenlightened, decadent and feudal.
Neo-Palladianism means the imitation of the architectural principles of the 16th-century Paduan architect Andrea Palladio. In Britain the most important text for the dissemination of neo-Palladianism was Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus, the three volumes of which were published between 1715 and 1725—that is, at the same time as the emergence of an agreed classical curriculum, based in the ancient languages, for the teenaged sons of leisured gentlemen. Architectural and artistic books were mostly published by subscription, and the more luxuriant the format, the richer the subscribers needed to be. This ‘Neo-Palladian bible’ was supported by the upper echelons of society, including many peers of the realm. The original success of neo-Palladianism ‘was a direct result of the extensive links within these highest social strata’,47 newer members of which were determined to associate themselves with hereditary aristocracy rather than trade, and to showcase what they wanted to be seen as their intellectual accomplishments. One of the grandest and earliest neo-Palladian structures was the water gardens, with their Doric ‘Temple of Piety’ and Ionic ‘Temple of Fame’, built at Studley Royal in West Yorkshire by the enterprising John Aislabie. Studley was designed by Colen Campbell himself, and the plans published in Vitruvius Britannicus.™
The men who disguised the mercantile origins of their wealth by creating the classicising fantasy at Stourhead in Wiltshire were Henry Hoare and his son, also called Henry. Henry Senior was himself the son of a successful Smithfield goldsmith, Richard Hoare, who founded the oldest surviving private bank in Britain, C. Hoare & Co. Henry Senior made an enormous fortune out of the South Sea Bubble crisis in 1719. His son Henry junior (1705-1785) expressed his self-definition as a Hellenistic philosopher-king in the Arcadian landscape he commissioned at Stourhead, with its numerous Neo-Palladian buildings and allusions to ancient literature. He stated that it was ‘the habit of looking into books and the pursuit of knowledge which distinguishes only the gentleman from the vulgar’.49 Hoare dedicated the Stourhead Pantheon to Hercules, who chose to pursue virtue rather than pleasure, in order for Hoare to visually represent his own refined taste and commitment to moral rectitude. Indeed, by adopting Neo-Palladianism, like purchasing their sons a classical education, the new rich demonstrated to the powerful landed aristocracy that they were highly educated and cultured Enlightenment gentlemen whose children were entitled to intermarry with nobles.
The new money often came from colonial ventures. In a typical socioeconomic pattern, Robert Clive himself, made newly but fabulously rich by India, bought the Claremont Estate in Surrey from the widow of the Duke of Newcastle, thus removing it from the possession of an old aristocratic family with a prominent profile in government. There he built his Palladian residence, designed by Capability Brown and Henry Holland. Similarly, Basildon
House, an outstanding Neo-Palladian architectural pile in Berkshire, obliterates any reference to the source of the money that built it: India. It was the creation of Francis Sykes, son of a modestly prosperous Yorkshire Yeoman (i.e. non-aristocratic) farmer. Sykes arrived in Calcutta at the age of 18 to work for the East India Company. He rose to become immensely powerful, in Bengal second only to Robert Clive. When he returned to England in 1769, he had amassed a gargantuan private fortune of half a million pounds. He was the archetypal ‘nabob’. Sykes formally joined the aristocracy when he was made a baronet in 1781, although allegations of corruption dogged his attempts at a parliamentary career. His ascent of the class ladder found its ultimate expression in his self-fabrication at Basildon as a classically educated member of the land-owning gentry. Every detail, from the plant pots and statues in the extensive gardens to Doric facades and internal piasterwork, reinforces the classicising illusion.50
An ostentatious aficionado of the classical style was Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet of Nostell. In one portrait he displays his wife Sabine Louise d’Hervert as one of his valuable possessions, likened by the integrated classical bust and pic-ture-within-the-picture to a Grecian goddess. They stand in the fabulous library Winn had commissioned at the family seat, Nostell Priory in Yorkshire; its shelves, holding tomes including Greek and Latin classics, are adorned with busts of ancient poets and sages.’1 When Rowland succeeded his father in 1765, he began to turn Nostell into a sumptuous neoclassical stately home, hiring Robert Adam as architect and interior designer, Antonio Zucchi, Angelica Kauffman and Hugh Douglas Hamilton for the lavish figurative painting on classical themes, and Thomas Chippendale to make the furniture. How many workers they needed between them to complete the spectacular mansion is anybody’s guess. Some of the internal paintwork delicately replicates frescoes uncovered at Pompeii and Herculaneum. But the façade featured the elaborate Corinthian-style columns which Adam had recently made famous in Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia (London, 1764): only the palace fit for a Roman Emperor was good enough for the 5th Baronet.’2
The Winn family, originally textile merchants, had acquired their Baronetcy as a reward for Royalism on the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. They made money not only from textiles but from corn and the mining of coal, already a well-developed industry around Wakefield by the mid-18th century: there was a coal-mine in the area of Nostell as early as 1541.53 When the neoclassical landscape of Nostell Priory was designed, scrupulous care was taken to conceal the path taken daily by the local miners on their way to the pits, distastefully close to the house, using gentle mounds and artfully placed vegetation.
The 5th Baronet’s extravagant tastes brought his dynasty to the brink of bankruptcy by his death in 1785. Its fortunes were not restored until the estates were inherited by his capable grandson Charles in 1817—the product of a scandalous interclass elopement. Charles was born to Sir Rowland’s daughter Esther and the Nostell Priory baker, John Williamson, after they had defected together to Manchester.
Some working-class people must have acquired familiarity with classical art and architecture through close association with such edifices, whether as builders, miners who laboured a stone’s throw from their elegant windows, or women in domestic service. And classical revival architecture was not confined to country estates. Working-class people built and walked past countless municipal buildings such as the Doric Town Hall in Bexley Square, Salford, which was begun in 1825, with its personifications of Agriculture, Music, Lyres and Poetry, and Unity (a bundle of fasces or rods), War and Peace, all classical in costume and conception. It was designed by Richard Lane, who had studied neoclassical architecture in Paris with Achille Leclère, famous for his restoration of the Pantheon in Rome. For decades from its erection in 1837-1838, the entrance to Euston station was a spectacular Doric propylaeum, seventy-foot high, facing onto Drummond Street.54 Across the Euston Road, St. Paneras Church, designed in 1818-1819 by William and Henry Inwood soon after the nation acquired the Parthenon sculptures from Elgin, boasts eight elegant caryatids inspired by the single one looted from the Athenian Erechtheion.”