Neo-classicism in the 18th century

In the mid 18th century British society was changing, providing fertile ground for neo-classical innovations: the ‘middling' classes were growing, with new aspirations; consumer spending was expanding and manufacturers were using new technology to develop a wide range of exciting new products. Communications were improving too, allowing for the better dissemination of knowledge and inspiration.

The 18th century saw an energetic growth in a sense of the past which stimulated a fresh interest in history and archaeology. This was given impetus and vigour by new archaeological discoveries in Italy, particularly the exploration and excavation of the buried Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, begun in 1738 and 1748 respectively. The return to classicism had taken hold firmly by 1750.

For the first time it was clear that the ‘antique manner' could be incorporated into every element of design, from buildings, through interior decoration and furnishings, to domestic ornaments and tableware. The publication of illustrated books, etchings and treatises on architecture helped this movement, inspiring new ideas while offering source material for new designs. A fashionable family could display its style credentials through its entire domestic environment.

As the prime source for classical inspiration, Rome became the artistic capital of the world. Painters and sculptors spent long periods in Italy, absorbing classical influences, and ideas from fellow European artists. Their studios were frequented by visitors and their works purchased as mementoes by tourists or as additions to serious collections.

The Grand Tour became an essential venture for the wealthy. British travellers visited the classical world - notably Italy but also Greece, Turkey and the Levant - as a key part of a complete education. The well-to-do arrived home with souvenirs, and a desire to emulate the art of the ancients in their houses. Manufacturers at home, such as Josiah Wedgwood, satisfied the consumer market with wares in the new neo-classical style.

By the end of the 18th century pure neo-classicism was becoming overlaid with designs inspired by other parts of the ancient and oriental world. The fashion for a more eclectic style in architecture and the decorative arts began to take hold.




An illustration from Robert Adam's 'Works in Architecture' (1773) showing classical columns to be

An illustration from Robert Adam's 'Works in Architecture' (1773) showing classical columns to be