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Vase, Derby Porcelain factory, 1773-1774, Museum no. 414:437-1885

Vase, Derby Porcelain factory, 1773-1774, Museum no. 414:437-1885

Neo-classicism was a style that emerged in Britain and France in the 1750s. Artists and architects sought to create an eternally valid 'true style' that could be expressed across all areas of the visual arts. The style was based on the designs of Classical Greece and Rome. A major source of inspiration came from archaeological discoveries such as those made at Herculaneum and Pompeii which brought the ancient world to life.



Vases were the ultimate symbol of the ancient world and there was an enormous craze for them in the second half of the 18th century. The vase shape was also used for a wide range of practical objects and as a design motif.

Swags and festoons

Many Neo-classical objects are decorated with swags and festoons. These hanging garlands of fabric, ribbons, flowers and bud-like motifs known as husks, were based on Classical Roman decoration.

Classical figures

Human figures shown in Classical Greek and Roman art provided 18th-century artists and designers with sources of both subject matter and style. The cameo format, where the figure is shown in profile, was particularly popular.

Real and fantastic creatures

A wide range of both real and imaginary animals appear on Neo-classical objects. Dolphins, lions, sphinxes, griffins and satyrs often form the bases or handles of objects.


Lines of small bead shapes adorn many Neo-classical objects. Beading is a feature of Classical architecture, but in the 18th century it was also used to decorate small scale objects.


Robert Adam (1728 - 1792)

Robert Adam was one of the most eminent architects of the second half of the 18th century. He played a major role in introducing Neo-classicism to Britain, having studied ancient and Renaissance art while in Italy on the Grand Tour. Adam developed a distinctive and highly individual style which was applied to all elements of interior decoration, from ceilings, walls and floors to furniture, silver and ceramics. The 'Adam Style' was enormously popular and had a lasting influence on British architecture and interior design.

James Stuart (1713 - 1788)

James Stuart was an architect and archaeologist. He found fame as the author, with Nicholas Revett, of The Antiquities of Athens, published in 1762. This pioneering work was the first accurate survey of Classical Greek remains. It became a major source of forms and motifs for Neo-classical designers. On his return to Britain from Greece, James 'Athenian' Stuart, as he had become known, found steady employment from those wishing to have houses and park buildings created in the latest and most authentic Classical style. He also designed Neo-classical silver and furniture.

Josiah Wedgwood (1730 - 1795)

Josiah Wedgwood, the famous Staffordshire potter, was a leading producer of Neo-classical ceramics. He was introduced to the style by a number of collectors and architects who allowed him to copy designs from their books and antiquities. Wedgwood did much to broaden the appeal of Neo-classicism by introducing new materials and new types of pottery goods. One of his most celebrated works was the copy of the Portland Vase. At the time the original glass vase, in the British Museum's collection, was the most famous object to have survived from ancient Rome.

Buildings and Interiors

Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire

Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, built for Sir Nathaniel Curzon, later Lord Scarsdale, is one of the earliest and greatest Neo-classical houses in Britain. It demonstrates the fascination that ancient Greece and Rome held for its owner, and for its designer Robert Adam. Adam worked on the house over a 20-year period from 1760. The grandeur of Kedleston's exterior is matched by the grand Marble Hall on the inside. This features 20 enormous Corinthian columns and wall decorations of Classical figures, swags and festoons, and fantastic creatures.

Somerset House

Somerset House on the Strand in London was built to house various civil service departments and learned societies. It was designed by one of the major Neo-classical architects, William Chambers, who received the commission in 1775. Chambers had studied in Rome in the 1750s. His first-hand knowledge of grand Classical architecture was reflected in his bold design for Somerset House which was the first, and largest, government building in the Neo-classical style. It was constructed around a grand courtyard, with a terrace overlooking the Thames.

Edinburgh New Town

Edinburgh New Town is one of the largest and most unified example of 18th- and early 19th-century Classical town planning in Europe. The proposal for the development, north of the existing city, was put forward in 1752. The area was constructed in seven stages with various architects, including Robert Adam, contributing to the scheme. The grand terraces of houses, built in spacious squares and crescents, contrasted greatly with the Medieval Old Town. The Neo-classical style buildings of the New Town led Edinburgh to be dubbed 'the Athens of the North'

Related Style

Renaissance 1500 - 1600

Renaissance design was one of the sources of the Neo-Classical style. In the 16th century, engraved books of motifs had provided inspiration for British artists and designers, but in the 18th century they were able to visit Italy and see the ancient monuments for themselves. New archaeological discoveries also provided important sources for the style.

Read more about Renaissance style

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Sneakers - The Complete Limited Editions Guide (Hardback)

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Shoes: Pleasure and Pain

13 June 2015 – 31 January 2016. An exhibition looking at the extremes of footwear from around the globe. From a sandal decorated in pure gold leaf originating from ancient Egypt to the most elaborate designs by contemporary makers.

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Event - The Classical World and Classical Revivals 2015

Tue 01 December 2015–Tue 15 December 2015

10 WEEK SHORT COURSE: Explore the key elements of Classicism, and their subsequent re-interpretation and revival in later times. The course examines the cultural highlights of the Classical world, including Homeric myths and their representation in sculpture and vase-painting, the architecture of Athens and Rome, and the rich decoration and furnishings revealed at Herculaneum and Pompeii.

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