Interior Decoration

As Britain emerged from the fashion for rococo and Chinoiserie in the mid 18th century, so the demand for pure neo-classical interiors, designed down to the last detail in the antique manner, emerged. The Adam brothers were the specialists at this, and furniture makers - the ‘big three' were Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite - were quick to respond. So were the manufacturers of decorative accessories, notably Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton.

Vases and urns formed the focal point of the décor of the grand country houses, now springing up in every county. Josiah described it as ‘a universal passion' and ‘vase madness', and his ornamental wares were designed specifically to fulfill the customers' demands. Boulton, manufacturer of decorative metalwork, made vases too. Both were determined to complement the designs of Robert Adam and other neo-classical architects with their products.

Interior decorative motifs ranged from niches, columns, styled according to the classical orders, to pediments and friezes; surfaces were embellished with stucco swags and garlands, and plaques and cameos. The chimney-piece, often with a gilt-framed mirror over the mantel, was the most important feature of a room and Robert Adam specialized in their design, using polished steel grates, columns and all manner of neo-classical features. Walls, ceilings and other features were painted in strong Roman colours, or the paler tints used by Wedgwood in his jasper bodies. Designs copied directly from the wall paintings of Pompeii and Herculaneum were popular.

The inset architectural plaque or cameo was an important feature of the neo-classical interior, emulating classical friezes, albeit on a smaller scale. Wedgwood produced a large range of these, designed by his principle modellers, William Hackwood, Henry Webber and John Flaxman. They were frequently adapted to suit wares such as vases and useful items - teapots, jugs or coffee pots.

The finer neo-classical houses would incorporate a library, intended to reflect the owner's education and culture, and house their books on the classical world. They might display sculpture, vases and other classical features in shell-shaped niches. They would certainly be lined with fine bookcases, complete with pilasters and pediments - broken or otherwise - and be topped with portrait busts. These might be original Roman marbles of gods, orators or philosophers; or contemporary versions, such as those made in black basalt in large numbers by Wedgwood, of historical heroes or ‘modern' statesmen or writers.

The most aspiring collectors included a sculpture gallery in their neo-classical mansions to display the pieces brought back either from a Grand Tour or purchased subsequently from specialist a dealer. Robert Adam included one for William Weddell when he designed Newby Hall in Yorkshire; the Duke of Bedford had one constructed at Woburn Abbey, with a special temple set aside for Canova's Three Graces. The Duke of Richmond opened his display of plaster casts of classical sculptures to students in his London home in Whitehall. Perhaps the most celebrated, and the most visited, was the gallery at the house in Park Street, London, of Charles Townley, one of the most acquisitive and discerning collectors of the neo-classical era.



White jasper architectural plaque or tablet with five figures from the Muses, Terpsicore, Melpomene, Calliope, Thalia and Urania, attributed to John Flaxman Jr, c.1778

White jasper architectural plaque or tablet with five figures from the Muses, Terpsicore, Melpomene, Calliope, Thalia and Urania, attributed to John Flaxman Jr, c.1778