Monday, May 16, 2011

Herculaneum and Pompeii in London

Earlier today, in the List  called Classics-L, Ralph Hancock posted something really interesting to me.  I am not one of those who merely search for things that I am already aware of; I read this List daily.  He said:

An interesting feature of the Ara Pacis site is pictures of an attempt
to show the structure's original colours by projecting a digital image
on to it:

Curiously, the effect resembles the Art Nouveau polychrome tiling that
was fashionable, especially in Britain, in the early 1900s. I don't
think that its creators had any intention at all of recalling a
classical original; such classical forms as it has are routine
Edwardian stuff.

See, for example, the Warrington Hotel, in the Maida Vale area of London

The most famous example of this style is the Harrods Meat and Fish Hall (1906):

Seeing that the wonderful image of the Warrington Hotel porch is Mr. Hancock's own, I renew his own link here (together with his message), since the old Classics-L does not accept any images.
For Warrington Hotel image, try this link, too.

But the message needs some help.
The creators of the wonderful work in London had EVERY intention and excellent knowledge of how to revive ancient decorative polychromy, especially in the floral and geometric elements, though nothing here (despite the dates in the first decade of our twentieth century) is Art Nouveau.  It is much too pure for that, and there is plenty of evidence for the coloring of the architectural elements of the Ara Pacis itself, not to assert, of course, that every hue can be vouched for.
I shall have to use some of my oldest teaching materials, made 20 years ago from 35mm slides that already were about 30 years old and those taken from old books or else taken with a pre-digital camera in very ill-lit spaces.  In those years, just to show students that such things existed, I'd take a slide several stops underexposed, for example.
First consider the vermilion and relief in gold leaf represented in this famous painting from Boscoreale, which is Augustan:
Detail from the Boscoreale cubiculum now in the Metropolitan Museum 
But actual columns of Augustan date exist, too.  One was exhibited in the Michelangelo cloister added to the Terme when the Terme (of Diocletian) was the Museo Nazionale Romano:

Rome, MNR (Terme, cloister).  Stuccoed, decorated column.  Knowing the painted columns in the cubiculum at Boscoreale, and the Casa Farnesina, and the Ara Pacis Augustae itself, one can hardly doubt that this column is Augustan, or that it was colored and, perhaps, gilded (like the columns in the Boscoreale cubiculum).

The Fourth Style, just before the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, especially in mosaic fountains but also in columns very unclassically decorated in color, shows us Julio-Claudian taste.  All this kind of work was being published in folios, besides being visible to artists and architects on a Grand Tour, by the end of the nineteenth century.

The blatantly theatrical (complete with curtain) painting once in the Basilica of Herculaneum is extreme and probably would have been too over the top for Harrods.  The fountain mosaic (a new one, well done, is in the Getty Villa) is, of course, open-air and only the brighter for being made to be wet, but the colum exhibited alone (and unlabeled when I saw it) up in the palatial but dark Naples Museum is an example of taste that would be quite liberating to a Late Victorian English designer (for, of course, 1900 and 1906 are not quite Edwardian); its colors, when you actually see it, are nearly as bright as the mosaic fountain niche.
In sum, the Warrington's porch and the Harrods Meat and Fish Hall are the essence of well informed archaeological inspiration, and their creators knew exactly what they were doing and doubtless felt themselves liberated from all White Grecian Urn stuff of their fathers' generation.
Unless Rome and Herculaneum had lots more that is forever lost, I am inclined to admire the English work more highly than the ancient.  Wonderful stuff.  The designer of the Warrington Hotel porch seems in fact to have used the very column in Naples that my sad snapshot records.  The Harrods, only six years later, is much freer but not nearly so wild as the theatrical picture from Herculaneum.

Note: the painted stucco used as a headpiece on this post is early Flavian (i.e., 69-79, when Vesuvius erupted) at Pompeii, but I have not ascertained whether it is from the Stabian or the Forum Baths.


  1. There are some photos of the interior on the Warrington's own site, here (in between photos of food):


  2. Thank you! Indoors art nouveau is indeed gracefully mixed with the Augustan Zeitwende and Julio-Claudian. The glass, in particular, is art nouveau. All is beautifully maintained, I notice, and the place looks delightful (and by no means inexpensive).