The Ancients, Neoclassicism, and the Age of Enlightenment in 18th Century Great Britain

It is evident that throughout history fashion trends seem to come and go with the ever changing world—and yet, many of these fads also make their way back into everyday life. For the past few years now, for example, I have noticed that all things “vintage”—that is, fashion trends from the 1950s in particular have been recycled and reintroduced into our culture today. There have been countless times when I have come across the bold red lipstick, the winged jet black eyeliner, the greaser hair, and polka dot dresses. Many people of this era seem to dig all things retro.

This phenomenon of fashion recycling can also be said for individuals living in the period of the Enlightenment which occurred in the late 17th century as well as the 18th century in Great Britain. During the Enlightenment (also termed as the Age of Reason), many people began to embrace modernity and it was a period of huge advancements in science of which also included art. It was around this time that Neoclassicism as a visual art began to flourish which was inspired from the fashion trends of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

Certainly, neoclassical architecture can be seen both in London and in Edinburgh. For example, in London this style can be seen on buildings such as The Bank of England, The Royal Exchange, The British Museum, and Somerset House. Similarly, this architectural fashion can also be seen in Edinburgh—predominately in the New Town. Much of the buildings in New Town, including the Scottish National Gallery, The Dome, The Royal Scottish Academy, The City Chambers (which included the former Royal Exchange) and The National Monument on Calton Hill which gained Edinburgh the nickname, “The Athens of the North”. All of these buildings were constructed around the time of the Enlightenment.

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Buildings in London in the Neoclassical style. Photos from Google images.

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Buildings in Edinburgh in the Neoclassical Style. Photos from Google images.

The neoclassical style seemed to be a constant theme not only in class, but also during many of our trips both around London and Edinburgh. For example, when we visited Soane’s House in London he had a whole room dedicated to Greco-Roman sculptures and as an architect he seemed to be very much inspired by their architecture as well (Soane is known for his design of The Bank of England). Also, while in his home I noticed that he had a picture hanging up of the Roman colosseum.

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It is easy to see how her hair, accessories, and clothing resemble that of Ancient Greek fashion. Photo from janeaustensworld.wordpress.com.

Moreover, while at the Georgian House in Edinburgh’s New Town, it was interesting to learn that not only were individuals obsessed with the architectural design of the ancient Greeks and Romans—they were also invested in Greco-Roman inspired dress, hair, and accessories near the end of the Enlightenment era. Women wore loose and flowing dresses and men began wearing much simpler style of clothing. Both men and women’s hairstyles resembled that of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Why was Great Britain so obsessed with Ancient Greece and Rome as well as all things neoclassical? I believe that there is more than one definite answer to this question. First of all—let’s start with Ancient Greece. This particular country has always been regarded as the haven and the center of philosophical knowledge with famous figures such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Of course, those who studied Philosophy had to go back and draw from these figures as a foundation for their studies before they could move on to newer ideas. Also, when thinking about Socrates in particular, many could certainly think of him as being self-governed, skeptical, and well…enlightened. Thus, it can be argued that much of what Socrates did could be reminiscent of the Age of Reason. While reading Sir Richard Steele’s accounts of an 18th century coffeehouse, he talks a lot about the ancient Grecian named Eubulus. In this reading, Steele stated:

Eubulus presides over the middle Hours of the Day, when this Assembly of Men meet together… His Wisdom and Knowledge are serviceable to all that think fit to make use of them; and he does the office of a Council, a Judge, an Executor, and a Friend to all his Acquaintance, not only without the Profits which attend such Offices, but also without the Deference and Homage which are usually paid to them. The giving of Thanks is displeasing to him. The greatest Gratitude you can shew him is to let him see you are the better Man for his Services; and that you are as ready to oblige others, as he is to oblige you.

I felt like this description of Eubulus sounded a lot like how Socrates spread wisdom and knowledge to all of those who would listen to become free and self-governed thinkers.

In terms of Ancient Rome, things can get a bit more complicated. Ancient Rome was a part of The Roman Empire back in 27 BC and from roughly 43—410 AD, Great Britain was ruled by this empire. But—as many of us already know, eventually The Roman Empire collapsed. So why would 18th century Great Britain be so inspired by a civilization that eventually crumbled away? I believe that part of this is because they perhaps did not think that they were the next Romans, but that they descended from the Romans and that they were essentially better than the Romans. After all, Ancient Rome did not have the luxury of having the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason on their side. Great Britain during the 18th century not only wanted to become the next center of the world just as Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece were—they wanted to draw inspiration from them, but at the same time they wanted to be better than the “greats”.

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Many Neoclassical buildings in Great Britain resemble that of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. The most common feature that perhaps is most noticeable are the columns. Photo from Google images.

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18th century Great Britain was also influenced by Ancient Roman architecture. Architect Sir John Soane in particular really loved the Colosseum in Rome. Photo from Google images.

Furthermore, during the Enlightenment which was certainly a time of momentous change and a time to become more modern, oddly enough the recycling of classical architecture into the style of “neoclassical” could be seen as more modern. In particular, I remember comparing Edinburgh’s Old Town and its New Town. The Old Town certainly appeared much more archaic and medieval than that of the New Town. While the Old Town looked more so randomly put together and a mish mash of different styled buildings, the New Town has structure, order, and symmetry. The National Monument definitely has these qualities and can be seen as Scotland trying to legitimize and compete with England—a message to say that the Scottish are just as intelligent and are just as much enlightened as the English.

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Edinburgh’s Old Town. Photo from Google images.

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Edinburgh’s New Town. Photo from Google images.

Another issue that comes into play in terms of London is the discussion of the Great Fire in 1666 which quickly destroyed many homes since much of them were built of wood with straw roofs. It is easy to imagine just how fast the fire spread from one building to another. This fire saw the opportunity to make London a new and much more modern looking city. Certainly, if the Enlightenment saw a new way of thinking about the world, the neoclassical architecture of London was sure to match this. New ways of thinking should be accompanied with new styles of buildings as well as new fashions (of which, as mentioned before really was not completely new, but instead merely a recycled version of old fashions).

In short, it seemed that Great Britain at the time of the Enlightenment had a love-hate relationship with things that were archaic. This takes me back to our very first reading in class which was Thomas Sprat’s “The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (1667).” In this reading, Sprat discusses this love-hate relationship with the ancients and recognizes that they cannot be controlled and dependent upon the ancients, but there should be a level of respect present. He argued against individuals who thought that they should follow in the footsteps of the ancients:

What kind of behavior do they exact from us in this case? That we should reverence the footsteps of antiquity? That we should subscribe to their sense before our own? We are willing in probabilities, but we cannot in matters of fact; for in them we follow the most ancient author of all others, even nature itself. Would they have us make our eyes behold things at no farther distance than they saw? That is impossible, seeing we have the advantage of standing upon their shoulders…We approach the ancients, as we behold their tombs, with veneration—but we would not therefore be confined to live in them altogether, nor would (I believe) any of those who profess to be most addicted to their memories (148).

In this quote, Sprat made more than one important point. First, he acknowledged that we are all confined to our period of time—we cannot go back to the past nor can we travel to the future—we are confined by our present. And second, he recognized the argument that the ancients would want them to submit to their past accomplishments is false because the ancients themselves were progressing as much as they could—therefore, Sprat believed that they should also progress instead of looking back to the ancients for all of the answers.

Although I absolutely loved the whole study abroad trip—my most favorite days going to West Bay in Dorset, England as well as the Hairy Coo Tour while in Scotland—I will definitely say that I enjoyed observing all of the beautiful architecture that both London and Edinburgh offered and it really connected me to our readings in class and I began to really understand the history and significance behind the different architectural styles. Now that I have observed all of the neoclassical architecture in these two cities, I can also make the connection that many of the buildings in Washington DC have these similar styles. I just find it so fascinating how we seem to constantly recycle fashions and styles of the past, but that we still somehow make them our own just as those in the 18th century did, using Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome as inspiration.

Chelsea Ray-Dye 

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