Embrace of Classicism

The Eighteenth-Century Church in Britain

by Terry Friedman
2011 Paul Mellon Center, 617 pages

This formidable book is both beautifully illustrated and exhaustively researched, and for what it lacks in historical synthesis, it makes up for in sheer quantity of detail. It covers a period that began with the completion of Sir Christopher Wren’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral, representing the eighteenth-century Baroque tradition, and it ends at a time when church design was largely inspired by Neoclassicism based on an archaeological revival of the antique past.

The book is a lengthy 617 pages, with 739 illustrations, a great number of which are in full color. Freidman is an architectural historian and art curator who has dedicated his career to a detailed study of archival material, both drawings and written documents that explain the conditions and methods of English church building. He has divided the book into four parts, each with a distinct theme: churchgoing, church building, the medieval traditions, and the classical traditions. These topics aptly suggest that the book is not just about architecture, but about the whole social and economic context of religious architecture.

This is especially evident in Part I, which includes topics such as accommodating the congregation, the vicar’s life, fund-raising, and the range of activities connected with church-going–from cradle to grave–worship, musical concerts, weddings, baptisms, catechisms, and funerals. The distinctions between British churches and those on the continent are also explained. Since most churches of the seventeenth century had been built for Anglican congregations, they were therefore characterized by a repudiation of the doctrine of the Catholic Church, notably transubstantiation and devotion to the Virgin and saints. Most notably they allowed for involvement in the communion service, requiring, for instance, the removal of pre-Reformation chancel screens and bringing the pulpit and reading desks into the nave. The emphasis was now on preaching and receiving the Word rather than the reception of the sacraments.

By 1800 London had 315 churches, 103 parish churches and over 100 chapels. There were also country house chapels, which were either within a main house or an independent building within estate grounds. During the course of the eighteenth century there appeared a number of new religious building types, including nonconformist chapels, characterized by architectural modesty together and an absence of steeples, marking a strong contrast to the Baroque tradition. They were practical and carried the expediency of anonymity, built mostly by Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, or Quakers.

Saint Paul, Depford, London by Thomas Archer, 1712. Photo: Steve Cadman

Part IV of the book would be of most interest to those concerned with Classical architecture. During the period 1700 to 1730, most churches were designed in the Classical style, though as the author points out, there was anything but stylistic hegemony as traditionally portrayed in architectural histories. Instead they ranged from full-blown Continental Baroque and English modifications of the Baroque as practiced by Wren, James Gibbs, Thomas Archer, and Nicholas Hawksmoor, to essays in Early Christian architecture and a resurrection of antique temple forms. By the 1730s, Palladian patterns were embraced, influenced by the publication of several English editions of I quattro libri d’architettura, plus a renewed interest in the work of Inigo Jones. Even during this time there was a core group of architects who practiced in the Medieval and Gothic Revival traditions.

At the end of the century there was a change from an emphasis on the Baroque or Palladian to a reinvention of the antique in a succession of radical experiments. Friedman suggests that the Church of Sainte-Genevieve (the Pantheon) in Paris, with its exclusive use of colossal Corinthian columns, was the most important influence on British architecture in the second half of the eighteenth century. Neoclassicism differed from the preceding Palladian Classicism in terms of grandeur and the more prominent use of columns. This shift in attitude to embrace classical antiquity was further supported by the founding of the Society of Dilettanti, which sponsored the Greek excursions of James Gibbs and Nicholas and Revett in the 1750s and produced the first detailed drawings of Greek antiquities. Others followed in their study of classical architecture, including George Dance, Robert Adam, William Chambers, and James Paine, all of whom made significant contributions to British church architecture.

The author relies heavily on extensive quotes from diaries, books, journals, articles, and correspondence, some of which could be edited out or paraphrased to make the book more readable. It is, however, an encyclopedic work that immeasurably enriches our understanding of eighteenth-century British architecture.

John Stamper Ph.D is an architect and architectural historian in the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture and the author of several books including The Architecture of Roman Temples: The Republic to the Middle Empire and Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue: Planning and Development 1900-1930.