Nicholas Revett and Georgian Neoclassicism

Nicholas RevettNicholas Revett (1721-1804) was one of the fortunate few to be born to wealth during the eighteenth century.  His father, John Revett was part of the Suffolk gentry, the heir to Brandeston Manor, which the family had owned since 1548.  His mother, Elizabeth Fauconberge was the heir to her family’s fortune as well.  As the second son of a wealthy family, Revett could have expected a comfortable upbringing, but he would not inherit the largest share of his family’s fortunes.  So, upon finishing his primary education, Nicholas, like so many other younger sons of the gentry, found himself searching for a profession.  He chose painting.  And, in 1742 he headed off to Italy to study with Marco Benefial.  He worked hard as a student, side-by-side with Anton Raphael Mengs.  From the beginning of his career, Revett was at the heart of the artistic Enlightenment — in Rome studying under one of Italy’s finest baroque painters and next to one of the masters of neoclassicism.

Revett would never be remembered for his painterly genius.  Like so many other eighteenth-century British and Irish artists who arrived in Italy, he was unprepared and lacked the skill of his continental brethren.  However, Revett’s work would transform the art world, and his influence became widely felt.  The crucial moment came in 1748 when he led Gavin Hamilton, Matthew Brettingham, and James Stuart in designing an expedition to Athens.  There, they would study the architectural remains of the classical world.  Only Stuart would join Revett in Athens, but the two eventually published a work that modern scholars widely hail — with certain exaggeration — as the book that ushered in the Greek Revival in architecture, Antiquities of Athens (1763).

Unfortunately, Revett’s role in the history of the Greek Revival specifically, and neoclassicism, more generally has disappeared from the historical record.  While the biographer Alexander Chalmers could write in 1816 that Revett was an eminent architect who had taught James Stuart the science of architecture, scholars have increasingly written Revett out of the history of art, architecture, and archaeology.   In the recent retrospective on James “Athenian” Stuart by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Bard Graduate Center in 2007, Revett was virtually ignored.  And, in an otherwise fantastic 700-page catalogue published by Yale University Press, Revett hardly made an appearance.

Thomas Daniell, Music Temple at West Wycombe, ca. 1781Revett’s marginalization from the historical record is not entirely surprising.  By all accounts, Revett was amiable but prone to privacy.  Perceiving himself as a gentleman, he lacked Stuart’s urgency to gain celebrity status.  Likewise, his financial situation did not necessitate that he practice on the scale of other architects, and only a few of his buildings survive.  With no children, most of his correspondence and drawings have disappeared.  Historical forces have played a role as well.  Romantic philhellenism has prioritized the world of Athens, the place with which Stuart had become nearly synonymous.  Revett’s work in Athens, while essential to Stuart’s success, has been forgotten.  And, archaeologists seem to be the only ones who recognize the vast quantity of important work that Revett did at other Greek sites.

Nicholas Revett and Georgian Neoclassicism will reveal the importance of Nicholas Revett and his work for our understanding of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century art and architecture.  Not only were his studies of classical remains in the eastern Mediterranean essential to the development of the Greek Revival, but his writings on architecture helped spur the Greek-Roman debate of the 1750s.  And, his interest in ancient architectural mathematics and design continued throughout his studies.  His meticulous site studies — sometimes mistaken as the work of James Stuart — reveal an architect-archaeologist intent on revealing the nature of Greek architecture.  He and Stuart were the first Europeans to describe the existence of ancient Greek polychromy, decades before Quatremère de Quincy.  Interestingly, Revett reproduced the polychromy that he discovered in the Athenian Propylaeum in his work for Sir Francis Dashwood at West Wycombe.  Likewise, the two Athenian travelers explained for the first time the ancient use of paradeigmata, and Revett’s work consistently reflects an attempt to understand Greek methods of temple construction.  The book will offer more than simply an analysis of Revett’s architectural work and its legacy.  Like my work on the Society of Dilettanti, I intend to center my subject in a larger social and cultural context.  Thus, chapters examine the world of the artist in Rome and the world of gentlemen and architects in London.  In all, this project will provide a missing piece to our understanding of eighteenth-century British art and architecture that has become even more noticeable given the recent attention that scholars have paid to Revett’s contemporaries.

 

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