In the second half of the 18th century, the Scottish architect and designer Robert Adam and his brothers introduced a new interpretation of the classical features by combining them with gay and colourful decorations, enabling society to have grandeur and elegance at one and the same time. Rooms were designed to provide a sense of excitement and movement by contrasting their shapes and colours. One of Robert Adam’s favourite devices was the use of curved apses at the ends of a room, as at Kenwood. Syon House, Osterley Park and Harewood House were some of the other great mansions he worked on.
Adam’s style owed much to the archaeological discoveries of Graeco-Roman domestic architecture at Pompeii and Herculaneum. In the 1760s Stuart and Revett began to publish a book on the Antiquities of Greece. With enormous skill the urns, sphinxes and vine leaves of the first century AD were moulded by Adam in plaster, ormolu and other materials, painted, gilded and rearranged on candelabra and mirrors, on friezes and cornices in such a way as to achieve the most varied yet homogenous scheme of decoration. At the same time panelling disappeared from the walls which were painted in flat colours with narrow bands of moulding outlining plain areas of various shapes but excellent proportions. Lavish plaster ceilings had gilded and coloured low-relief details and were enriched by paintings framed in panels.
These ceiling patterns were reflected in the floor designs, sometimes carried out in marble or scagliola (an imitation of marble), or as specially designed and woven carpets. While both marble and scagliola were used for columns, many were built of painted timber. Fireplaces, inset with coloured stones and marbles, surrounded metal grates. Every detail of each room was designed by Robert Adam: pelmets, bookcases, and furniture.
Neo-classical architects and designers like Adam followed Greek and Roman styles more closely than Renaissance architects had done, but in their designs, they used simpler geometric forms, such as the square and sphere, rather than baroque swirls and curves.
Another great British neo-classical architect was William Chambers, who designed Somerset House in London. James Wyatt and Henry Holland were also important architects of the period. They used neo-classical ornament more sparingly than Adam, but neither every quite achieved such fully integrated schemes.
Neo-Classical Style in brief:
- Robert Adam exercised total control over his interiors;
- Formality and elegance of utmost importance;
- Circular and oval rooms introduced;
- Classical plaster work for walls and ceilings;
- Ceilings became more important, painted with classical scenes;
- Wall colours dark and light green, pale blues, dark pinks, Etruscan red and black also fashionable.
Neo-Classical Furniture and Fabrics
Neo-classical designers gradually eliminated the numerous curves of the rococo style in favour of the straight outlines of classical furniture. In place of elaborate rococo decorations, neo-classical artisans used thin pieces of plain wood arranged in geometric designs. As in the case of neo-classical architectural design, much neo-classical furniture was inspired by classical motifs that were discovered in the mid-1700’s by archaeologists in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
A number of English furniture makers adopted Adam’s neo-classical style during the late 1700’s. Two of the best known, George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton, prepared design books that popularised the style. The furniture made according to Adam’s original designs was very expensive. Hepplewhite, Sheraton, and other furniture makers simplified the designs to reduce the cost of the furniture for middle-class buyers.
Much of the furniture of the period was painted in matt colours. Of the unpainted furniture, satinwood was the most popular wood (except in the dining room, where mahogany was preferred) and was often inlaid. Neo-classical furniture was generally simple and delicate, with straight legs.
Great advances were made in upholstery techniques at this time. These included air-filled mattresses and spring-cushioning. Seats were padded with a firm, resilient stuffing. In France the upholstery had a domed, stuffed shape whereas in England the upholstery had a domed, squarer profile produced by tufting. Chairs were still covered with expensive materials en suite with the rest of the room and were therefore protected with loose covers.
One of Robert Adam’s innovations was the practice of using window and upholstery fabrics that were either the same or similar in colour. This fashion continued into the 19th century.
The British silk industry was at its height now, with painted silks imported from China and silk damasks and brocades made in England. More sophisticated looms were developed in the second half of the century which could produce complex weaves, giving impetus to the whole industry.
Another development was copperplate printing, which changed the appearance of cotton textiles and made larger repeats possible. This method was used for the first toile, which was printed in Ireland in 1752. It was not until 1770 that the famous factory at Jouy began printing them. Printed in single colours (blue, red, violet or sepia) used vegetable dyes on an off-white background of undyed calico, the toiles featured finely etched neo-classical designs (ancient buildings, rustic scenes, etc.). They were used flat as wall panels so that the detail of the picture could be seen.
Towards the end of the century ikats from the Far East in silk or cotton depicting symbolic patterns of everyday life began to be imported. Muslin was now imported from Switzerland. Glazed chintz was introduced too.
Kashmiri shawls imported by the East India Company from India were popular but very expensive, so British craftsmen started to copy them. From the 1790s Paisley in Scotland became the main centre for producing these Kashmir-inspired designs, giving its name to the new “paisley” patterns.
Most fabrics carried motifs such as bouquets, ribbons, wreaths, garlands or birds. Oriental fabrics and chinoiserie remained popular, and embroidered textiles were still in use.
Neo-Classical Furniture and Fabrics in brief:
- Designs on furniture are refined simplicity;
- Classical detail;
- Cylindrical legs for tables and chairs, often gilded and painted;
- Satinwood and mahogany in use;
- Marquetry and painted furniture popular;
- Damasks, moirés, stamped velvets, striped fabrics;
- Wallpapers printed with classical designs.
- A richly coloured background on walls or ceiling with delicate plasterwork details picked out in white or a strong colour;
- Pale and medium green, lilac, apricot, strong blue, dark green and terracotta (“Etruscan” red);
- The colours are strong and brilliant.
- Pairs of curtains and pull-up blinds both in fashion.
Carpets designed to mirror ceiling pattern.
Mahogany with gilt bronze door furniture.
- Crystal chandeliers;
- Wall sconces;
Osterley Park House, Kenwood House, Saltram House, Culzean Castle, Syon Park House, Harewood House.
© Adrienne Chinn - London