Study by archaeology experts at Newcastle University reveal that the influence of the ancient Greeks here in Great Britain is much stronger than many people might imagine – and it often crops up in the most unlikely places.
Although, unlike the Romans, the ancient Greeks never came to Britain, their influence can be found around almost every corner, the experts have found.
Trademark towering Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns and pediments, decorative scrolls and acanthus leaves adorn everything from grand buildings like the Theatre Royal, which stands on Newcastle upon Tyne’s famous Grey Street – one of the finest examples of the style known as ‘Tyneside classical’ – to pubs, shopping arcades, banks and post offices.
‘I have been absolutely stunned by both the quality and quantity of the classically-inspired architecture as well as the amazing Greek details that decorate the most unlikely buildings when you really start to look for them’, says Lindsay Allason-Jones, Director of Archaeological Museums at Newcastle University who, along with Education Officer Andrew Parkin and Architecture student Giles Shorter, explored 52 towns and cities in the North East of England for examples of the classical Greek influence.
‘For example, Stockton-on-Tees has some of the finest examples of classical Greek-inspired architecture I have seen anywhere’.
Among Lindsay’s favourite buildings is the Wallsend People’s Centre, tucked away behind the High Street in Wallsend, on the outskirts of Newcastle city centre.
‘I came upon this building quite by accident’, says Lindsay, ‘but it is without doubt one of the most stunning examples in the North East. The proportions are perfect, and the building’s facade is adorned with finely-detailed Ionic and Doric attached columns, fluted Ionic pilasters (flat-fronted columns) and superb split pediments. It really is a wonderful building.’
Together, Lindsay, Andrew and Giles have photographed and recorded hundreds of buildings, and these will soon be made available as an internet-based teaching resource for Key Stage 2 pupils providing illustrated walking tours around the architectural highlights of each of the towns included in the study.
The idea for the study came about when the Joint Association of Classical Teachers approached the staff of the University’s Shefton Museum to ask for ideas that would help make the compulsory Greek Civilization element of the schools’ National Curriculum at Key Stage 2 more popular.
‘The problem was not one of resources, but of teachers and children feeling that the Ancient Greeks weren’t very relevant to today’s society’, says Andrew Parkin. ‘So we decided to put the Greek collections in the Shefton Museum into context by showing how Greek styles of architecture have influenced the appearance of the towns we live in’.
The classical Greek influence became popular during the 18th century, when wealthy families sent their sons on the Grand Tour. They became interested in classical culture, and brought their ideas home. ‘The examples we found are in what’s called neo-classical style’, says Lindsay. ‘It would first have appeared on stately homes, and then been copied by the wealthy middle classes, who saw it is indicative of well-educated good taste. Later, town halls and civic buildings adopted the classical style, because it was seen as a symbol of civic pride’.
Lindsay Allason-Jones is keen to see the project rolled out across the whole of the UK, pointing to other cities well-known for their neo-classical architecture, such as Bath, Cheltenham and Glasgow. ‘This is something everyone can get involved in’, she said. ‘All you need to do is take a few minutes to look more closely at the buildings down your local high street’.
Dr Peter Jones, Director of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers’ Greek project, said: ‘Lindsay and her team have done a superb job in helping primary school children to look carefully at the magnificent architecture of so many of the buildings surrounding us and so to appreciate something of what the Ancient Greeks have done for us.’