In the 1820s, British architects attempted something that had never been done before: they built recreations of Ancient Greek temples. Previously, ‘classicism’ had largely meant the influence of Roman buildings and art. But a walk through London’s streets reveals, if we look closely, elements of the Athenian acropolis and a wide range of other monuments as well. These buildings tell the often forgotten story of how British architects rediscovered Greece.
The British Museum
The best place to begin is the largest and most imposing Greek building in London: the British Museum (nearest tube stations Tottenham Court Road, Russell Square, or Holborn).
Plans for the present building were drawn up in 1821. While construction would continue until 1852, and while the magnificent south front (main entrance) actually dates to the 1840s, the overall plan of the building is very much a creation of the 1820s. The most imposing feature is the colonnade of Ionic columns, based heavily on those found at the temple of Apollo at Priene.
The architect was Robert Smirke (1780–1867), followed by his younger brother Sydney after 1846. Smirke was trained by two leading neoclassical architects: George Dance the younger and Sir John Soane (although the latter, first as his teacher and later his rival, developed a personal feeling of animosity towards the young man). What set Smirke apart from his teachers, however, was that, whereas travel in Italy had been part of both Dance’s and Soane’s training, Smirke had succeeded in visiting Greece.
Before the 18th century, this could be said of very few Englishmen. And, of these, even fewer took a dedicated or professional interest in Greek antiquities. Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire, in whose territories travel could be difficult and dangerous for western Europeans. The Grand Tour stopped at Naples. This began to change in the 18th century. In 1751, the architects James Stuart and Nicholas Revett made it to Athens and began the first systematic study of the Parthenon, among other monuments. The results of their work were published in the truly seminal Antiquities of Athens, which eventually ran to four volumes appearing between 1762 and 1814. In 1764, the Society of Dilettanti (originally a dining club for gentlemen on the Grand Tour, but by this time a group with increasing aspirations to become a learned society) funded an expedition to Ionia and Athens. It was led by an Oxford-trained Classical scholar and epigraphist, Richard Chandler, and included Nicholas Revett, who used the opportunity to complete his study of the Parthenon.
In 1799, an important moment in the life of the British Museum occurred. Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was appointed ambassador to Constantinople. He lobbied the government to fund an expedition to Athens for the purpose of examining the ancient monuments. When this was refused, he carried on at his own expense. Smirke applied to join his expedition but was rejected. Undeterred, he embarked on the journey himself and, in 1802, he encountered Lord Elgin in Athens.
On the Acropolis, many of the figures recorded by Stuart and Revett were already missing. The prospect of future damage to the ancient monuments was considerable. In a bid to save these artworks, and under the authority of an official licence or ‘firman’ issued by the Sublime Porte, Lord Elgin had much of the Parthenon frieze, metopes and the sculptures of both pediments removed. In 1816, following an enquiry in Parliament that exonerated Elgin of any wrongdoing (in the face of criticism from, most famously, Lord Byron), the sculptures were purchased for the nation and remain in Smirke’s British Museum.
The arrival of the Elgin Marbles, alongside the publication of Athenian Antiquities, was a groundbreaking moment for the study of Ancient Greece. For the first time, some of the most important works of Greek art were freely available and accessible for all to see at eye level. And this had an important effect on contemporary architecture, as Smirke’s building itself (and the others on this tour) attest.
If you would like to learn more about the Greek revival design of the museum, including the interiors, a helpful guide is available here.
Incidentally, the home and collection of Sir John Soane (which contained a considerable number of Classical and Egyptian antiquities, used in Soane’s practice and teaching) can be viewed nearby in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It provides an excellent introduction to the world of Robert Smirke. You may wish to consider a detour.
St Pancras New Church
Leave the British Museum by the rear entrance on Montague Place. Turn right and then cross Russell Square gardens. Turn left on Woburn Place and continue until you reach Euston Road. There you will find the first of our Greek temples proper, and one of the earliest, a recreation of the Athenian Erechtheum. This is St Pancras New Church.
The Erechtheum was, after the Parthenon, one of the most significant, and unusual, temples on the Athenian Acropolis. It was erected as part of a grand state building project initiated by the Athenian statesman Pericles (c.495–429 BC) in the 440s BC. Inscriptions record a second round of building works in 409–407 BC aimed at completing the temple, which had been left unfinished. One of these is on display in the British Museum (Room G19, see here for more details on how this stone was removed by Richard Chandler in 1766). These accounts record the fluting of ionic columns that made up the west portico of the temple. One of the columns also made it to the British Museum as part of Lord Elgin’s collection: it is in the same room as the accounts.
As you face the west entrance of St Pancras Church, you can see the portico and row of six ionic columns, which echoes the eastern portico of the Erechtheum. To the north and south are projections (‘tribunes’) which recreate the iconic portico of the caryatids: statues of women acting as columns.
One of the original caryatids was removed by Elgin and can still be visited at the British Museum, in the same room as Chandler’s inscription and the column noted above. In the original temple, however, the caryatids only appear on the south side of the temple, while on the north the ground falls away and the temple could be entered on this side through another columned portico. The St Pancras caryatids also include the addition of torches, absent from the original design.
Note, finally, the church tower. Superficially it fits the standard pattern for London’s 18th-century neoclassical churches, as exemplified by St Martin in the Fields. However, the octagonal structure takes inspiration from another Athenian monument: the Tower of the Winds. This was a horologium – a building designed to measure time, erected in perhaps the 2nd century BC by the scientist Andronicus, who came from the city of Cyrrhus in modern Syria. Each side of the tower acted originally as a sundial and inside was housed a large water clock. On the roof (which survives intact) there was once a weather vane in the form of the god Triton. This also explains the beautiful sculptural representations of figures representing the winds on each side of the tower.
The St Pancras ‘Erechtheum’ was one of the early fruits of the 1818 Church Building Act. The rapid expansion of cities at the start of the 19th century had meant that urban areas had too few churches for the expanding population, while in the countryside there were too many. Lord Liverpool’s government (1812–27) provided £1million for the construction of new churches. It was fortuitous that this measure was enacted just two years after the state purchase of the Elgin Marbles. A new generation of Philhellene architects had the means to become temple builders – hence the (short-lived) popularity of the Greek Revival style over the following decade.
The architect of St Pancras New Church was William Inwood (1771/2–1843). Inwood beat Francis Bedford (1784–1858), another prominent Philhellene (of whom more later), to win the commission. He was indebted, however, to his son, Henry William Inwood, who was sent by his father to research Ancient Greek designs in Athens. Henry William made his own casts and also brought some fragments home for further study. His work in Greece eventually led to a significant scholarly volume on the Erechtheum, published in 1827, which expanded on the earlier study of Stuart and Revett.
The Doric Arch, Euston
With St Pancras Church to your back, turn left and cross the Euston Road to reach Euston Square Gardens. In the centre of the garden, nearest the road, are two neoclassical lodges. These were constructed in 1870 as part of the approach to Euston Station. They (and the later war memorial) are all that is left of the 19th century grand plan of the station, which included the imposing ‘Doric Arch’.
This was the work of Philip Hardwick (1792–1870), who was another child of the Greek Revival era. Like his contemporaries, his education had involved travels abroad to Italy. He never made it to Greece, unlike Smirke and Henry William Inwood, but during a tour in 1818–19 he did manage to visit the Greek city of Paestum, near Naples. On his return he exhibited a drawing of the famous temples at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1820.
The ‘Doric Arch’ was built in 1836–8 as the main entrance to Euston train station (the avenue and surviving lodges being a later addition). While it was popularly called an ‘arch’, recalling Roman triumphal arches, Hardwick’s model was in fact the Greek ‘propylaeum’, specifically the grand entrance to the Athenian Acropolis, which was also built in the Doric order. A matching station in the Ionic order was designed for the other end of the railway in Birmingham at Curzon Street (part of which escaped demolition and can still be seen today).
In an act of wanton architectural vandalism, the British Transport Commission, with the support of the London County Council, demolished this important monument in 1962. Many of the stones were dumped in the River Lea (from where they were raised in 2009 as part of a campaign to restore the arch). The decision was taken despite widespread public opposition, led in particular by Sir John Betjeman and the Victorian Society, through whose efforts the fabulous neo-gothic St Pancras Station nearby was in fact saved from a similar fate. In the cause of modernisation and efficiency, Londoners had lost one of the most significant Greek Revival buildings. In return, they received a new train station of incomparable ugliness: a dark, dingy and entirely depressing space.
All Saints Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Camden
Walk back towards St Pancras New Church and turn left up Eversholt Street. Walk until you nearly reach the end of the road, then turn right up Oakley Square. At the top of the square you reach Pancras road. Here you can take a detour to the right to visit St Pancras Old Church, which the Inwoods’ new church largely replaced. Its graveyard is notable for the tomb of Sir John Soane and his wife. This monument is significant especially for the influence it had on Giles Gilbert Scott’s design for the traditional red telephone box.
Retrace your steps and then continue up Camden Street until you reach All Saints Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Until the 19th century, Camden was a village outside London. The stations nearby would be built in open fields. The continued development of the area, however, meant that even the new St Pancras church, consecrated in 1822, was insufficient to meet the spiritual needs of a growing congregation to the north. As the old church was dilapidated (though the needs of the parish would eventually prompt its restoration in 1847), the Inwoods were again commissioned to produce another church, originally known as the ‘chapel’ and dedicated to St Stephen, here in Camden. This building was completed in 1824. Appropriately enough, following a decline in the Anglican congregation, the church is now the Greek Orthodox cathedral of All Saints. The design is much simpler, and less costly, than the tour de force that is St Pancras New Church. However, there are a number of significant features. This church is similarly designed in the Ionic order, but the entrance portico is semi-circular. The tower is especially notable for its resemblance to the choregic monument of Lysicrates which stands to this day in the ancient Street of the Tripods, now part of the Plaka district in Athens.
Like the Tower of the Winds, the Lysicrates monument was a useful model for Greek Revival church towers. The influence of both is evident in another London church, also consecrated in 1824, St Matthew’s Brixton (also well worth a visit): note the octagonal crown and floral finial at the top of the tower.
Lysicrates, as an inscription declares, was the chorēgos (i.e. funder) of a chorus in the boys’ choral competition at the Athenian Dionysia festival. This contest, which may have borne some resemblance to American high school ‘glee’ competitions, took place in the Theatre of Dionysus at Athens, the same location (and occasion) at which Greek tragedies and comedies were also performed. Lysicrates’ chorus, representing the Athenian tribe of Acamantis, won. A floral finial at the top would have held their prize: a tripod (the ancient equivalent of the modern cup). This and other victory monuments displayed nearby gave the ‘Street of the Tripods’ its name: the thoroughfare was selected as a location because it ran directly from the Athenian agorā (market place) to the theatre. The Lysicrates Monument, however, is the most distinctive and best preserved.
Additional Stops: the Athenaeum and St John’s Church, Waterloo
If you have time and energy, you may like to visit two other sights that are slightly farther afield. Retrace your steps to the top of Eversholt Street, then take the Northern Line from Mornington Crescent Station to Charing Cross. From there it is a short walk to 107 Pall Mall, at which is located the Athenaeum club.
The Athenaeum was founded in 1824 as a meeting place for artists, scientists and learned gentlemen that was strictly apolitical and non-partisan (in contrast to the nearby Reform Club and Carlton Club). Naturally the Greek Revival style was the obvious choice for the new ‘temple’ to Athena (patron goddess of the arts and sciences). Decimus Burton (1800–81), then only 24 years old, was engaged to produce the building. It opened in 1830. Burton, like the Inwoods, came from an architectural family and his father, James Burton, was a successful practitioner. Unlike many of his rivals, however, he did not visit Italy and Greece as part of his training. Burton learned his trade while working with his father and through attending lectures by Sir John Soane (another connection to Soane is that Decimus Burton was baptised in the old St Pancras Church). Nevertheless, as a rising star of the 1820s, he was a strong proponent of the Greek Revival style, of which the Athenaeum is a perfect example.
Above the entrance to the Athenaeum there is a golden statue of Athena holding a spear, reminiscent of the statue of Athena Promachos by Phidias that once stood on the Acropolis of Athens near the Parthenon. On the outside of the building there is also a recreation of the Parthenon frieze, using casts taken from the original reliefs held in the British Museum. The frieze is a representation of the procession that took place at the great festival of the Panthanaea. A cavalcade of horsemen, followed by officiants and victims of the sacrifice to Athena, are represented. This procession took place every four years and proceeded from the main gate of the city to the Acropolis and Athena’s temple, the Parthenon, itself.
The frieze, perhaps the most iconic element of the Elgin Marbles, had also appeared elsewhere in Burton’s work in the Hyde Park Screen, a grand ionic propylaeum erected in 1825 as an entrance to the park. Burton used the same sculptors for both friezes: John Henning and his son John Henning the younger. He also designed the Wellington Arch on the other side of the park, which was originally intended as a matching Roman triumphal arch modelled on the arch of Constantine in Rome.
St John’s Church, Waterloo
From Charing Cross, you can take an overground train one stop to Waterloo. On the way look out for the prominent landmark of St John’s Church on the left hand side. This was another publicly funded project completed, like All Saints’, in 1824.
Francis Bedford, the architect, had once again gained a detailed understanding of Greek architecture through his travels. From 1811 to 1813 he was part of the second expedition to Greece that was funded officially by the Society of Dilettanti (the first being that of Chandler and Revett in 1764–6). The party was again led by a scholar, the Cambridge Fellow William Gell, but involved draughtsmen and architects (including, in addition to Bedford, Joseph Gandy, a prolific collaborator of Soane’s, best known as the creator of studies of imaginary Classical architecture). Gell was already familiar with many of the sites in Greece through his travels in the Troad and the Ionian Islands. He was one of a number of English writers at the time to join the debate regarding the original site of the lost city of Troy (on which see here). As with earlier expeditions, this one also bore fruit in the form of significant academic publications: in 1817 The Unedited Antiquities of Attica and in 1821 and 1840 revised editions of Ionian Antiquities.
St John’s Church was one of four that Bedford later designed in the new Greek Revival style. The Doric order echoes the Parthenon and the Propylaeum of the Acropolis. There are also hints of another choregic victory monument (see above on the Lysicrates monument). The standard Doric frieze of triglyphs and metopes above the columns is replaced with wreaths. These are wreaths of victory modelled on those found on the memorial of the choregos Thrassylus, erected in 320/19 BC. Two grand doorways formed the entrance to a natural cave on the south slope of the Acropolis, above the theatre. There was also a statue surmounting the entrance. It was fortunate that the monument was studied in detail by Stuart and Revett, as it was later badly damaged in the Greek War of Independence (1821–32).
A Personal Coda
I hope the above shows the great impact that the antiquities of Athens had in the brief period from around 1820 to 1830 on the fabric of London. The enthusiasm of these 19th-century gentlemen for lost Hellas is strongly marked in their work. It is also, at the same time, true that London’s architects, and British scholars in general, contributed greatly to a renewed understanding of Ancient Greece.
This rediscovery of Greece was in many ways almost as significant an event as the rediscovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, if less dramatic owing to the fact that it took place over the course of three quarters of a century. It also had significant repercussions for the modern state of Greece itself. In 1821, the same year that Smirke produced his initial designs for the British Museum, the Greek War of Independence began. International intervention, led by Britain, was crucial in securing the existence of the fledgling independent Greek state. There were sound geopolitical reasons why Britain should not have intervened, however. As foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh recognised, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and consequent expansion of Russian power, was a potential threat to the stability of Europe (the Crimean War was later fought in 1853–6 to prevent precisely this outcome). And if Greece should be independent, why not Ireland? And yet, under Castlereagh’s successor Lord Canning, Britain contributed to the defeat of the Turkish fleet at Navarino in 1827 and the establishment of a free Greece.
This was only possible due to the prevailing Philhellenism of the day, the results of which can still be seen on London’s streets. Love for the classical past inspired a sincere affection for the modern Greek people. While some Philhellenes, most particularly Lord Byron, were critical of Lord Elgin’s actions, this movement cannot be entirely disassociated from Elgin (and his earnest desire to preserve the art of Greece, at almost ruinous cost to himself) or the subsequent impact of the Marbles on the imagination of the British public.
Do British people and politicians still care about Ancient Greece? In 1962, the Doric Arch at Euston was demolished because the authorities of the day simply did not sufficiently value Ancient Greek art or the Greek Revival it inspired. Today, the problem is not just that we do not care about the past: many now also believe that culture should only properly belong to the descendents of the original creators. Given the current prominence of the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’, it is no surprise that there are frequent and continuing calls for the Elgin Marbles to be transferred to the Acropolis Museum at Athens.
Many of the arguments concern whether Elgin had the proper legal authority to remove the works. Some of the more shrill commentators have even falsely claim that the sculptures were ‘stolen’ or ‘looted’. Others question whether more harm was done in the removal of the marbles, and the subsequent conservation by the British Museum, than would have been the case had they remained.
And yet, in reality, the debate is motivated by an emotional and nationalistic attachment to Ancient Greece. Many Greeks and modern Athenians no doubt feel (perhaps reasonably) that their city is incomplete without the rest of the Parthenon frieze. But it is rarely asked whether Londoners can and should feel a personal connection to the Parthenon sculptures. Speaking for myself as a Londoner, born and bred, I would say that the loss of these beautiful and important sculptures would indeed make our city a poorer and duller place. The antiquities of Athens have become part of the fabric of London. This is a sign that a particular culture does not necessarily belong to one people alone. If culture moves it is not just because it has been ‘looted’: it can be studied and recreated for its own sake by those motivated by a disinterested love of beauty and enlightenment. And such movement and interaction can be mutually beneficial for all parties, and indeed the world as a whole, as the story of the London Marbles suggests.
Edmund Stewart is Assistant Professor in Ancient Greek History at the University of Nottingham. He has written for Antigone on how to build a Greek temple, and his other essays can be found here, here, here, and here.
On the Society of Dilettanti’s expeditions to Greece, an excellent place to start is the volume The Romance of Ruins: The Search for Ancient Ionia, introduced by the late Ian Jenkins, curator of Greek and Roman antiquities at the British Museum. On the Elgin Marbles, the standard work (by a historian broadly critical of the British Museum) is William St Clair’s Lord Elgin and the Marbles (3rd ed., 1998). For an alternative perspective, see Tiffany Jenkins Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – And Why They Should Stay There. For walking tours of London, see the truly excellent series London’s Hidden Walks by Stephen Millar, and particularly the Bloomsbury and Camden walks.