5 October 2021

Painting London and its architectural monuments

As a plein air painter, I am constantly reminded of the architectural history of our capital. The skyline is heavily marked by colonial history as well as ancient revivals. Trying to capture different eras in one painting is probably what makes the art timeless. Whether one likes it or not, London has its own narrative while all artists have their own individuals preferences. By acknowledging our past and our present, a painting can become a global vision in which elements from different periods have their own place and rights.

Although the Regency period was remarkably short (1810-1820), it has left our landscapes and London’s skyline forever changed. Beyond just being an era of exploration of the world and of the British colonies, it intellectualised different architectural tastes. Since the Regency was a time of colonial expansion, it almost automatically became a time for archaeological discoveries and enterprises. Indeed, after some excavations less than a century before the regency, the discoveries of Herculaneum and Pompeii rekindled a solid intellectual interest in Ancient Rome. Similarly, ancient Greek artifacts and monuments started being scrutinised by scholars from England and other European powers. French explorations under Napoleon (1798), for example, revived Ancient Egyptian marvels. As a result, a craving for Egyptian aesthetics invaded the homes of the European elites.

London was no exception. Many artists and architects started incorporating the classical ideals when practising their crafts. Soon enough, London’s buildings were built in neoclassical style and existing buildings underwent neoclassical facelifts.

The classical aesthetics came in direct opposition with baroque ideals. This opposition took place in every form of art, from literature to architecture. In France for example, the baroque literary style was mostly used in poetry and plays. Its main characteristic was literary flourishment and ornaments, as opposed to classic linear style, much more suited for novel writing and pure poetry. In architecture, baroque and rococo style was always over the top, responding to grand taste. Neoclassical architecture set off a revolutionary style, adapting ancient and Renaissance sources to modern use. Discreet ornaments were cast in large and symmetrical rooms. While many of these structures had tall columns to echo the Greek style, the corners were sharp and privileged straight lines rather than heavy decorations.

London possesses two distinctive forms of neoclassical architecture. The first one is based on the temple style, attempting to replicate the allure of religious buildings of the Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. In London, buildings such as University College London or the British Museum are remarkable examples of temple style monuments, adorned with continuous lines of columns on the facades, a feature known as peristyle.

On the other hand, Palladian architecture aims to recreate Renaissance architecture, with a particular emphasis on villas designed by Andrea Palladio. Such structures within London are usually found on Pall Mall, examples include the Oxford and Cambridge Club, number 12 Belgrave Square or houses on the roads surrounding Regent’s Park. The main features from the outside are grand columned entries with balconies just above on the first floor. One can spot the similar traits these features share with almost all West London terraced houses built during the Regency. Larger structures derived from this school can also be found outside London, like the facade of Kedleston Hall and its triumphal arch designed by Robert Adam.

Nonetheless, the appeal of ancient structures expanded far beyond those Rome and Greece. With the help of scholars, British elites started travelling to Egypt and quickly developed what is now known as Egyptomania. Egyptian elements started being incorporated on furniture and hardware in London houses, as well as in the streets of London. While most Egyptian decorations in houses were replicas, Egyptian monuments in London are mostly genuine. A grand example of this Egyptomania is Cleopatra’s needle, overlooking the River Thames. The obelisk was erected in Egypt more than 15 centuries BC. It was transported to London in 1877 by sea and remains one of the finest examples of British homage to the Middle East.

If Londoners were very fond of Egyptian culture, it is in part because it reflected the high esteem in which such artefacts were held.  Indeed, while 19th century Britons did not bring many Roman treasures to London, they certainly brought back all their Egyptian discoveries to the English capital. The sense of fraternity that existed between ancient European cultures and Britain pushed English elites to discover and learn about Rome through the Grand Tour for instance and replicate what was worth replicating in their London homes. This sense of fraternity that probably did not exist between England and Egypt.

© Oliver Maughan. All Right Reserved. Copyright notice.
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