James Stuart and Nicholas Revett published their highly anticipated The Antiquities of Athens in 1762, a chronicle of their observations while travelling through Greece documenting the region’s ancient monuments and architecture. Seven years in the writing, it brought the architectural wonders of ancient Greece to the British public and immediately became an invaluable resource for architects, designers and antiquaries.
While interest in ancient Greek and Roman art and architecture had been building during the 1750s, spurred on by the discoveries of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748, Stuart and Revett’s book provided a clear and comprehensive discussion of classical design to a population tired of the frivolous excesses of the rococo. They outlined the five classical orders (Doric, Tuscan, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite) in meticulous and accurate detail and set about standardizing their scale and proportions, and introduced their readers to the vocabulary of classical architecture.
While architects like William Kent had been experimenting with classical design since the 1730s in the form of the heavy and sometimes brutal severity of Palladianism, the neo-classicists slowly shifted to a more feminine and lighter interpretation of classical design, introducing ornamentation taken directly from Greek and Roman sources. Urns, laurel garlands,anthemion, rams’ mask and bucrania all became standard elements incorporated into architecture, interior design and the decorative arts. The Scottish architect Robert Adam quickly became the primary standard bearer for this approach, designing not only magnificent houses and public buildings in the classical style, but also dictating all the furniture and fittings meant to fill them.
An early George III mahogany console table, offered in our Fine Antiques auction in October 2013, exhibits the characteristically robust style of the early Neo-classic period. Dating to circa 1760 and descending through the family of Countess of Albemarle, the impressive alabaster and verde antico marble top rests solidly on six substantial square tapered legs with volute tops below a frieze carved in shallow relief with Vitruvian scrolls and acanthus, the outer legs separated by finely carved shell motifs. This fine example reached £103,250 on the day.
As the neo-classical style progressed over the next forty years the general components remained the same but adopted a lighter more feminine appearance. Legs became longer and thinner and were frequently fluted or reeded, perhaps with a twining vine motif and frieze panels became shallower and more surface decoration was introduced.
The decorative arts also embraced the new style as objects inspired by the antique were required to furnish neo-classical interiors. A pair of George III ormolu mounted blue john cassolettes by Matthew Boulton, sold in the October auction for £37,250, are based on classical urns but produced in luxury materials of the 18th century. With their rams mask handles and laurel swags, they epitomize the application of neo-classical motifs into the decorative arts.
The neo-classical movement lasted well into the first part of the 19th century, dictating not only architecture and interior design, but also fashion and popular culture. No gentleman’s education was complete without a Grand Tour of the wonders of ancient Greece and Italy, his travels nurturing a hunger for all things ‘antique’. The desire to surround oneself with these objects continues to this day, and the cool measured order of classical design resonates just as strongly to collectors today as it did to those who first encountered it in the pages of The Antiquities of Athens.
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