WALL PANELLING DESIGNS ROBERT ADAM TO THE REGENCY
THE course of architecture from the accession of George iii, in 1760, to the death of George iv, in 1830, provides us with a perplexing story, for the original impetus of the Renaissance had spent itself and there was no consistent purpose to keep the practice of design to one aim. The eminent architects mentioned in the preceding chapter had pursued architecture for its own sake, even to the extent of divorcing it from the practical necessities of life, and the artificiality had penetrated to the humbler buildings, where we have seen a Georgian front tacked on to an older house, wall panelling was fitted merely for the sake of fashion and respectability. The desire to produce a magnificent architectural monument, or to promote an ancient house to a more up-to-date rank, is in itself a by no means reprehensible ambition, but if it leads to too great a divorce from practical needs it cannot continue indefinitely. The time, then was ripe for change, but the change, in default of a new inspiration of sufficient strength, was rather in the direction of disintegration than in the building up of a new style.
It is curious that the increasing failure of purpose in architecture should come just before the period of industrial expansion and scientific invention, which by drawing men's chief powers in other
THE BROTHERS ADAM DESIGN OF WALL PANELLING
directions, sapped the very foundations of art. Whatever the cause, architecture was now to become the sport of the revivalists, and the servant of the capitalist who found in the development of residential districts for the rapidly increasing population, an excellent means of getting a return for his money. But in so far as the revivalist was in earnest-and the Gothic revivalist at least was nothing if not a fanatic-and as long as the exploiter of suburbs, was meeting an actual need, the whole process had its merits in bringing wall panelling architecture down to earth and affording means for it to wrestle with living problems.
We have seen that the ordinary Georgian house showed an early tendency to escape from the bondage which the well built but inelastic framework of the Queen Anne house had imposed. The latter had been undoubtedly a finished work of art, but now the normal citizen preferred to lower his ideal in order to plan his accommodation with less trouble. The requirements of the building in this way began to dictate its general shape, and the problem of the architect was no longer to design a shape to which the needs of the building had to be accommodated. It will be evident that here was a chance to work out a new version of classical architecture founded on living conditions. The virtue of the Regency period is that it exhibits architects busy on this very problem, the solution of which was only delayed by the obscurity that fell upon it in the Victorian age, when the atmosphere of science, successful commerce, and romanticism proved asphyxiating to the architectural sense.
It was fortunate that the xviiith century at no time wholly abandoned its wall panelling classical conception of building. In its concluding years it merely loosened the constraint of the academic precepts. And in this it found a helpful ally in the resourcefulness of the brothers Adam. There is little doubt that these far-seeing men, sensed the requirements of the time. Their business success made many envious of them, and even now the decoration that goes by their name is often depreciated. But they saw that when one gives up the Palladian scheme and expands one's building to an easier and less architecturally purposeful form, there is a need for some compensation, some consideration, too, for the still lively classical tastes, and they found both in a form of decoration which was light and varied enough to suit any situation. In a word, they made it possible to take liberties with one's building, and yet to retain the wall panelling classical flavor by a scheme of ornament sufficiently low in scale and relief to avoid over-weighting the structure, yet sufficiently marked in character to invest it with beauty.
NEW MODE OF DECORATION
This should explain the otherwise amazingly wide popularity of the new mode of wall panelling decoration and furnishing, which was by no means the monopoly of the brothers Adam, but was as skillfully produced by Wyatt and by many less known men. Throughout the whole country it spread in surprising fashion and it is to be found, with all its intricacy of detail, in even the small houses
and shops of our country towns. It could be applied equally to the early Georgian house interior, or to the later expanded plans, in which rooms with curved ends, alcoves and elbowed windows were beginning to appear. It made use of the old forms, altered in scale and lightened in weight, and it preserved and maintained the simple Georgian scheme until the opening of the xixth century.
The Greek and the Gothic revivals referred to in the last chapter were in danger of being taken up too seriously by their exponents and the literary battle between them ultimately reached the point of absurdity. But as far as the wall panelling design Gothicises were concerned their aspirations were at first merely based on a old romanticism and it was not until the Tract Arians of 1840 identified
the revival of Gothic wall panelling architecture with their religious reforms that the advocacy of a style became a vital doctrine. The Greek revival had a somewhat different character. Although the literal resurrection of ancient forms was never adopted in England with the fanaticism of revolutionary Paris, the acceptation of Hellenistic principles of design did become a serious doctrine of art with many. Sir Joshua Reynolds saw to it a return to first principles, and indeed, it had in it great possibilities if there had been any general movement towards its development. But it stood for too severe a restriction in design, at a moment when rules were being relaxed, and it could scarcely be expanded to meet modern
WALL PANELLING DESIGNS SIR JOHN SOANE AND OTHERS
conditions. wall panelling with Greek ornament was however of the same genre as that brought by Adam and others from Spalato and Herculaneum. Apart, therefore, from the essays of certain architects its influence merged in the general current of decoration, and gave to that movement many purely Creek motifs. It also assisted in the break up of the Palladian composition of buildings, favouring severity in line and lowness in relief.
The Hellenistic doctrine may be recognised in the work of Sir John Soane (1753-1837), the architect of the Bank of England (see Figs. 133 and 139) ; H. W. In wood (1794-1843), who built S. Pancras Church, London, as a replica of the Erechtheum ; John Nash (1752-1835), the author of the old Regent Street (1813), and the Marble Arch (1825) ; William Wilkins (17781839), who designed University College and the National Gallery ; Sir Roger Smirker (1780-1845) of the British Museum ; Decimus Burton (1880-1881) of the screen at Hyde Park Corner and the Athenaeum Club ; and less explicitly in H. L. Elmes (1815-1847), whose St. George's Hall, Liverpool, is acclaimed the most successful modern adaptation of an ancient building-the trepidation of the Thermae of Caracals.