The National Monument, 1819-1829.

The National Monument was designed as a memorial to those Scots who died at Waterloo. It was to have been a reconstruction of the Parthenon at Athens, but by 1829, only twelve columns had been erected on the Calton Hill in Edinburgh. The laying of the foundation stone by the Earl of Elgin was arranged to coincide with the visit to Scotland by King George IV in August 1822. The history of the monument has not been fully told, in spite of the fact that there is quite a lot of material, some of it in unexpected places such as the Minutes of Highland Society of Scotland[1] who initiated the project. The Edinburgh public library has some published material including a pamphlet by George Cleghorn of Weems that gives a short summary of events up to 1824.[2] More recently Ian Gow has looked at the set of presentation drawings made by Cockerell and now in the Royal Scottish Academy[3] and David Watkin included a concise history in his biography of C. R. Cockerell [1788-1863].[4]

The surviving manuscripts are mostly letters to C. R. Cockerell, the designer of the monument, and relate to the argument over the appointment of a resident Scottish architect to oversee the day-to-day work; a problem finally resolved in October 1824 with the appointment of Williams’s friend W. H. Playfair. The few surviving Minutes of groups entrusted with the construction of the monument confirm that Hugh Williams was a Director of the Royal Association of Contributors to the National Monument of Scotland, a member of the Committee of Management and a member of the Sub-Committee appointed to encourage subscriptions.[5] Their first published letter, dated 24th January 1822[6] is signed by him and the other members of the Sub-Committee. Further manuscript material includes the Journal kept by C. R. Cockerell recording his visit to Edinburgh in 1822,[7] during the visit of the King. It shows that, as a friend of Cockerell, the Earls of Elgin and Aberdeen [1784-1860], Lord Jeffrey, Lord Cockburn, and W. H. Playfair, it was Hugh Williams who played a powerful role as artistic adviser.

Through his exhibitions in 1822 and 1826, and his work for the National Monument in Edinburgh, Williams had considerable influence on the architecture of Edinburgh and by extension, on the Greek revival movement in Britain as a whole. There is documentary evidence, already considered, for his friendship with the architect George Basevi who was his pupil in Italy in 1816 and 1818 and with C. R. Cockerell, whom Williams may have first met there.[8] Both of these men played an important part in the Greek revival movement; Cockerell maintaining his own distinctive and intelligent style, Basevi having his contribution cut short by a fall from scaffolding at Ely Cathedral in 1845. There is also evidence that Williams had an important influence on the architecture of the Edinburgh based architects Thomas Hamilton [1784-1858] and of W. H. Playfair [1790-1857]. C. R. Cockerell was particularly interested in the use, noted by David Watkin, of appropriately monumental stone for the construction of Greek revival buildings.[9] Indeed, some of the largest stones ever cut from the Craigleith quarry near Edinburgh in 1823, form part of the architrave of the National Monument in Edinburgh, which he designed.[10] However, the evidence suggests that it was Hugh Williams who encouraged this aspect of the revival by his insistence on correct scale and detail on the National Monument.

In 1820 Williams published his own design for the National Monument [although he did not enter the competition to design it], as a frontispiece to the second volume of his Travels in Italy, Greece and the Ionian Islands [1820]. The engraving reproduced there, Design for a Cemetery is a capriccio, and draws inspiration from Piranesi and stage designs, but from its apparent scale and style, it was obviously meant to inspire others and provoke comment rather than be considered a serious proposal.[11]

The whole project encouraged quite exceptional nationalistic rhetoric and a remarkable debate about a national style, of which the article in Blackwoods Magazine in July 1819 is typical. The unknown writer compared Scotland to the small republics and City-States in the ancient world and the proposed monument to Westminster Abbey and St. Croce in Florence.[12] He came down firmly in favour of the Parthenon as the only suitable model and in doing so, opened a Pandora’s Box of all sorts of anti-classical sentiment. If the reasons for the monument were national, the argument ran, then surely, the building should be national by a national architect![13] In a further article in August 1819, only a year after his return, Williams’ drawings of Greece were cited as part of the argument for the monument to be situated on the Calton Hill:

The striking similarity of this hill to the Acropolis has been observed by every traveller, and may be perceived in the clearest manner from the beautiful drawings which Mr. Williams has brought home of Grecian Scenery.[14]

Williams was placed under further pressure when, in the same article it was suggested that the public should be provided with a drawing of the Parthenon so that they might judge its suitability for themselves:

In order that full justice might be done to the subject, such a drawing ought to be executed by the hand of a master; and we feel confident that in such a cause Mr. Hugh Williams would cheerfully lend his powerful assistance. This gentleman, to the command of matchless skill in execution, and the most refined taste and observation, adds the advantage of having studied the original at Athens.[15]

In 1822, Cockerell recorded that he worked closely with Williams on the drawings for the monument but that he ‘felt the necessity of setting forth the Parthenon as a free translation of the original’.[16] His notes make it clear that he was preparing a paper on a reduced version of the Parthenon[17] and when he showed this to Williams he ‘did not think much of it’.[18] The Earl of Aberdeen in his An Inquiry into the Principles of Beauty in Grecian Architecture; with an Historical View of the Rise and Progress of the Art in Greece London [1822] was also of the opinion that a reduced version would be more appropriate - an opinion leapt upon by the Edinburgh Review, citing a drawing by Williams as evidence that the monument should be a full restoration:

Mr. Williams’s beautiful drawing, in which the Parthenon, without its sculpture, forms so remarkable a feature, proves, that even without that addition, it would be an unrivalled addition to the architectural riches of the empire.[19]

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century and indeed, Cockerell’s own excavations at Aegina and Phigalaia, the volumes of The Antiquities of Athens [1762-1794] by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett were considered to be the most accurate representation of any ancient monuments, in this case in Athens. Cockerell’s paper on the Parthenon, mentioned above, cast serious doubt on the accuracy of Stuart and Revett’s drawings of the Parthenon - particularly of the interior arrangements, and thereby hung the most serious problem. Both Cockerell and Williams, under enormous pressure to match nationalistic enthusiasm, began to realise that they knew what the building looked like, being part of a very small group of individuals in the country who had seen the original, but that they did not have the necessary information to create a facsimile. Cockerell while being realistic about the difficulties appears to have hoped that if he did not produce the drawings the problem would go away. Williams however, either as a result of the weight of local publicity, or from conviction, was simply not able contemplate a reduced version and at one stage he even wrote to Cockerell chiding him for his tardiness in sending drawings and going on to suggest that he would offer a prize for a model or a drawing of a metope.[20] In the event only twelve columns of the National Monument were constructed, under the supervision of W. H. Playfair and it is pertinent that the decision not to carry on with the project for lack of funds was made in 1829, the same year in which Hugh Williams died.

Williams’ feelings about the importance of scale, found expression in an exhibition watercolour, Ruins in the Acropolis of Athens [PC] which was first shown in his one-man exhibition in Edinburgh in 1822 (No. 13). It shows the Propylaea at Athens, before excavations had fully revealed the Doric columns that formed the inner portico of the entrance to the Athenian Acropolis. The capitals and upper shaft of four columns appear, emerging from the overgrown rubble, with a massive lintel resting on one of them and with the Parthenon beyond. This watercolour [private collection, Athens. Signed and dated 1819, 85.0 x 120.0 cms. (seen)] is an extraordinarily powerful image, with the space between the columns and the missing lintels conveying a very tangible sense of scale. The figures are dwarfed beside what are in fact, only the visible parts of the ancient structure. The watercolour, or one of at least three known large versions, was exhibited again in 1826 (No.74) and received further exposure as an engraving entitled Interior of the Acropolis of Athens, from the Propylaea, by John Horsburgh, published in Part II of the Select Views in Greece, just before July 1824.[21]

Williams painted other large watercolours of buildings on the Acropolis of Athens to hang in the exhibitions of his work in 1822 and 1826. He also published engravings of the Parthenon restored, from drawings by C. R. Cockerell, in his Select Views in Greece[22] all of which should be seen as part of his promotion of the National Monument scheme. A "View of the Parthenon"[23] hung "in the most prominent part of the room"[24] in 1822 and that exhibition, held in the Calton convening rooms, within sight of the monument site itself, was opened for an additional day [8th April 1822] to raise funds for the project.

The influence Williams had on other Scottish architects is more difficult to trace but the most important fact to realise is that not one of the nineteenth century, Greek revival architects in Scotland had ever been to Greece or Italy and thus his knowledge and enthusiasm had an enormous impact.[25] He had not only seen the original buildings, but also drawn them and exhibited his work publicly. In the work of W. H. Playfair, an attempt at the monumental became rather confused, with details such as consoles and scroll buttresses out of proportion to the size of the building. This is particularly noticeable on the Surgeon’s Hall [1829-32], on St. Stephen’s Church [1827-8] and to some extent in the decorative frieze on the Royal Institution building, now the Royal Scottish Academy [1822-6; extended, 1831-6], all in Edinburgh. Nowhere is the influence more obvious than in the housing Playfair designed for London Road [Hillside Crescent] in Edinburgh. The corner with Leith Walk [Elm Row], designed in 1820 has a giant Roman order - Doric at one end of the block, Ionic at the other. The result is grand but somehow soul-less. The first seven houses into London Road [Hillside Crescent] are quite different. They were designed in 1823, after the laying of the first stone of the National Monument and Williams’ exhibition. Here the architectural emphasis is on the ground floor where a remarkable colonnade of Greek Doric entrances, each door-case composed of baseless, fluted monoliths, carries the eye along the crescent. The scale is domestic but the use of stone is extravagant and is inspired, without any doubt, by the proposals for the National Monument and the architect’s friendship with Hugh Williams. Perhaps the most interesting influence Williams had on Playfair was on the colour of stone used in public buildings. This is most noticeable in Princes Street where the Academy building, of Craigleith stone is a pale silvery grey while the National Gallery, twenty years later in date, is made of the warm reddish Binney stone, very close in colour to some of the large Williams watercolours of scenes in Greece. There is no good reason why both should not have been constructed from the same stone.

In 1819, Williams provided a reference[26] for Thomas Hamilton, whose Royal High School building is the high point of the Greek revival movement in Scotland.[27] Hamilton’s first important commission was for the Burns Monument at Alloway, the drawings for which Williams had seen when he gave Hamilton the reference in 1819. The Monument is based on the Stuart and Revett [1762-1794] engravings of the Lysicrates Monument in Athens. There are no drawings of the Lysicrates Monument by Williams which would suggest that any specific connection between Williams and Hamilton began with the Royal High School project. The High School was designed in 1824, and the plan is based directly on the plan of the Propylaea at Athens as given by Stuart and Revett. In Athens the visitor entered the Acropolis through the Propylaea - between two rows of Doric columns and under a hexastyle portico composed of columns of the same order but one third as high again. In his design for the High School, Hamilton swung the flanking columns into line with the portico and moved them back, to provide a covered loggia. There is no doubt that the High School was to be seen as a Propylaea to the Parthenon - the National Monument - standing above it on the Calton Hill, although there was never any physical connection between the buildings and none was intended. The individual blocks of stone, which make up this well proportioned and graceful building, are massive and again, Williams’ influence cannot be doubted. Williams’ drawing, Academic Grove, Athens, published in the Select Views in Greece just before April 1826,[28] shows, ostensibly, the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, but the detail is adjusted in subtle ways to suggest the Royal High School in Edinburgh with its two flanking pavilions.

Further research may yet reveal that the ‘astounding grandeur’[29] of St. Bernard’s Crescent [1824], in Edinburgh [architect unknown] with its monumental Doric order, was inspired, not as Grant suggests, by David Wilkie[30] but, as is more likely, by Hugh Williams.

During his lifetime, Williams' work was able to stop architects in their tracks, as happened to Karl Fredreich Schinkel [1781-1841] on seeing Athens from the East, in Benjamin Gott’s collection in Leeds in 1826.[31] Long after his death, he was still having an effect. Ten of his watercolours were exhibited in the Royal Scottish Academy ‘Deceased and Living Artists’ exhibition in 1880, at which the Edinburgh architect John Lessels [1809-1864] exhibited The Parthenon and Parthenon with Modern Houses near [almost certainly Ruins in the Acropolis of Athens, or a version of it, discussed above] from his collection.

[1] Highland Society of Scotland, Ingleston: Minutes of the Meetings of the Society Anniversary General Meeting, 19th January 1816 where Michael Linning WS proposed ‘a Pillar, Triumphal Arch or some such architectural monument   in honour of the splendid victory of Waterloo’

[2] Cleghorn, George of Weems[?]: Remarks on the Intended Restoration of the Parthenon of Athens as the National Monument of Scotland Edinburgh [1824] Edinburgh Public Library YDA 2324 N27 [5910] The collection, all YDA 2324 N27 also includes an early list of subscribers [44299], which confirms Williams as a contributor of £25 ‘on condition that the Parthenon of Athens is restored’; A Report of the Proceedings of a   Meeting   with a View to the Erection of a National Monument Edinburgh [1819] [42286 2]; Royal Association of Contributors National Monument of Scotland Edinburgh [1822] [B34325], which lists Williams as a member of the Committee of Directors

[3] Journal of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland [previously The Scottish Georgian Society] GOW, Ian: ‘C R Cockerell’s Designs for the Northern Athenian Parthenon’ Edinburgh [1989], No 16, p 20-25 Gow also refers to an unpublished manuscript history by John Gifford

[4] Op Cit Watkin, P 151-3                       

[5] NLS MSS 638, f 71r

[6] NLS MSS 638, f 9r-10v

[7] BAL Coc/9/3 Vol. 2 (1822) On loan from the collection of Mrs Crighton

[8] See Watkin, David: The Life and Work of C R Cockerell London [1974] Cockerell wrote to his father from Venice on the 5th October 1816, ending with the comment - "I have the advantage of an attached Friend’s society, & in all probability we shall continue our journey to Rome together" (P 31 ) There is no evidence to suggest that Williams and Douglas visited Venice but this may refer to them It is interesting that Cockerell and Basevi at critical moments in their training, should have met Williams in Italy and then experienced doubts about architecture as a career Both men in letters to their respective fathers, suggested that a career as an artist might be more suited to their temperaments Both were firmly dissuaded (p 20-1 and 23-4 )

[9] Op Cit Watkin [1974] Chapter VIII, p 105ff and p 110-12

[10] Bunyan, I T and others: Building Stones of Edinburgh, Edinburgh [1987], p 103 From my own measurements, the columns are 19ft 5¾” in circumference at the base, centred at 14ft 1½in, the drums vary from 2ft 4in to 2ft 8in high The two corner blocks of the frieze are the largest stones, as they go beyond the centres of the end columns These are approx 14’ 7” long The largest blocks in the stylobate measure 14ft 1½in x 2ft 6in x 1ft 9¾” high There is no evidence of variation in the height of the stylobate across the end of the structure, as at the Parthenon, but the columns do have entasis The claims in the press at the time suggesting that these were the largest stones ever taken from the Craigleith Quarry, were not quite accurate Again, from my own measurement, the four columns outside the Old College of the University measure 10ft 1in. in circumference at the base and are approx 22ft 6in high

[11] Williams may have been the source of the suggestion that the sub-structure of the Monument should incorporate catacombs, which could be sold as burial places for the rich and famous This would accord well with his good commercial judgement that such a Monument, on the scale that he foresaw, would require more than just the planned reliance on subscriptions

[12] Anonymous: ‘On the Proposed National Monument at Edinburgh’ in Blackwoods Magazine Vol. V, No XXVIII July 1819, pp 377-87

[13] Aikman, James: The Cenotaph (A poem with an introduction) [1821] ‘My predilections are for a monument SCOTTISH - wholly SCOTTISH; and nothing but SCOTTISH’(p xx) EPL YDA 2324 N27 [43563]

[14] ‘R’ (Anonymous): ‘Restoration of the Parthenon as the National Monument’ in Blackwoods Magazine Vol. V, No XXIX August 1819, pp 137-44

[15] Op Cit ‘R’ (anon) [1819] p 510fn

[16] Ibid p 65 Same entry

[17] NLS MSS 639 This paper may be the one in question It begins with a discussion of the placing of classical temples on an eminence, goes on to refer to the size of stones (p 9), to the colouring of classical temples, to sculpture (p 10) and to the inaccuracies of Stuart and Revett in their plan of the Parthenon in the Antiquities of Athens (p 16).

[18] Ibid p 65

[19] Edinburgh Review, Vol. LXXV, February 1823, p 143

[20] NLS MSS 638, f 21v Letter from Hugh Williams to C R Cockerell dated 29th December 1822

[21] LLG Saturday 17th July 1824, p 460 Review

[22] Parthenon of Athens in its Present State and Parthenon of Athens Restored, engraved by William Miller, the latter from Cockerell’s drawing, appeared in Part I (October 1823) Part of the Temple of Minerva, in the Acropolis of Athens, engraved by William Miller appeared in Part V (April 1826) and as a last effort to try and raise interest, Restoration of the Front of the Parthenon of Athens, engraved by John Horsburgh, again, from a drawing by C R Cockerell appeared in Part X (before February 1828) 

[23] Probably No 7 The Remains of the Parthenon or Temple of Minerva, at Athens. Williams wrote in the catalogue that this was the edifice proposed to be erected on the Calton Hill in Edinburgh, as the National Monument of Scotland.

[24] Letter of Warren Hastings Anderson to John Stewart of Murthley Castle Dated, St Germains, 21st or 22nd Feb 1822 NAS, GD121/Box 100/ Vol. XIX/99

[25] W H Playfair went for a short trip to France in 1816 and in 1842 he visited Florence. for his health where he found ‘little to admire and a great deal to shudder at’ See Colvin, Howard: A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 London [1978], p 646

[26] Hamilton, Thomas: Attestations referred to in a Letter to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, from Thomas Hamilton, junior, Relative to his qualifications for fulfilling the Office of Superintendent of Public Works of the City of Edinburgh, Edinburgh [1819] p 12 Letter from H W Williams to Thomas Hamilton dated 25th February 1819

[27] See Rock, Joe: Thomas Hamilton, Architect 1784-1858, Edinburgh [1984] Williams is said to have decorated the interior of Falcon Hall, a house enlarged by Hamilton in 1823-5 for Alexander Falconer

[28] LLG, 1st April 1826, p 204 Review

[29] Gifford J, McWilliam C and Walker D, Edinburgh (The Buildings of Scotland) Harmondsworth [1984] p 406

[30] Grant, James: Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh, Edinburgh [?1889], Vol. III, p 71 He also states that it was constructed by Sir Henry Raeburn

[31] Schinkell, K F: Aus Schinkell’s Nachlose, ed. A von Wolzogen, Berlin [1862-3] Four Volumes Vol. III, pp 86-89