From Italy to Britain III

British architectural and artistic responses

Simeon Monument in Butter Market, Reading, Sir John Soane 1804. Photo Amy C. Smith

During his stay in Italy Winckelmann visited the Greek temples in Paestum (Poseidonia) and included an enthusiastic account of them in his 1762 Observations on the Architecture of the Ancients. At the same time the architects Nicholas Revett and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart—who had met in Italy and travelled together to Greece—began to publish their volumes documenting the ruins of Athens. These and other volumes with architectural illustrations were enthusiastically welcomed by scholars and fuelled the Greek revival in architecture.

Charles Robert Cockerell (1788–1863), another English traveller, excavator and architect, encouraged the British Museum to purchase the interior marble frieze of the Temple of Apollo at Bassai, which he had discovered in 1811. Casts of these marbles decorate the Grand Staircase of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which he designed between 1841 and 1845.

Sir John Soane (1753–1827), son of a Reading bricklayer, took the Grand Tour while studying at the Royal Academy, where he was later appointed Professor of Architecture. He collected many genuine antiquities and casts of ancient architectural and sculptural works, which informed both his practice and his teaching. He adapted ancient styles to neoclassical works such as Reading’s Simeon Monument (1804), the crowning element of which recalls Athens’ Monument of Lysikrates. The banker Edward Simeon commissioned Soane to erect this obelisk supporting – three lanterns to illuminate Reading’s Market Square.

The upper story of Oxford’s Radcliffe Observatory, designed by Henry Keene in 1772 and completed by James Wyatt in 1794,25 copies Athens’ octagonal Tower of the Winds, down to its sculptures of the personified winds, which were well known from Stuart’s drawings. This Grade I-listed, neoclassical building incorporates many other classicising features: an arcade, a range of columnar styles, some pediments and even reliefs that emulate Wedgwood’s jasperware friezes.

At the Royal Academy and other art schools, students like Minnie Jane Hardman, neé Shubrook (1862 – 1952), used plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculptures as drawing models. While ‘premium’ medals were awarded for such drawings after casts, and gold medals for history paintings, silver medals were given for copying oil paintings or drawing figures from life. Hardman received the second-place silver medal for her drawing of a woman, perhaps herself, at the Royal Academy in 1884.

Both the canon of ancient art and the number of plaster casts of Greek original sculptures continued to grow after Winckelmann, as new master works were discovered. Winckelmann had realised that some of the statues he loved in Rome were but copies of the original Greek masterpieces, and yearned to travel to Greece in search of originals. His untimely death in 1768 came as he was planning a journey to Olympia where, in 1877, German excavators were to find Praxiteles’ Hermes.

→ IV. Henning’s architectural sculpture in miniature