Liverpool, Classical Architecture and Colonialism

SPQL

In this blog post I discuss how Classical Reception influenced the Architecture of Liverpool. I’d like to thank Hardeep Dhinda for his help and advice on the topic, as it is one I wasn’t familiar with.

One of the reasons I became interested in the ancient world was due to how it still affects the modern world, and this drawn to my attention when I studied Greek architecture at A-Level, all around us the ancient world was still influencing our world. Many of the words we use in modern politics have a precedent in the ancient world: democracy, constitution, imperialism. Additionally, the concept of ‘Western Civilisation’ continually pops up in our political discourse, and how we should be looking at the ideals of the ancient western world. bHowever, it was only recently that I began to think about what this means. The Neo-Classical style was implemented as it links to ideas of permanence, importance and religious awe (Schaps (2011) 364), and that it provides “grandeur and nobility of a great civilisation” (Foyle (2010) 1.05). But it is also its association with Imperialism that it is so used in Liverpool, the styled second city of the British Empire. They adopted an ‘Imperial’ style of Architecture that drew inspiration from Greece and Rome. But how can architecture operate in a political sphere? Edward Said in his book Orientalism says that:

“it will not take a modern Victorian specialist long to admit that liberal cultural heroes like John Stuart Mill, Arnold, Carlyle, Newman, Macaulay, Ruskin, George Eliot, and even Dickens had definite views on race and imperialism, which are quite easily to be found at work in their writing. So even a specialist must deal with the knowledge that Mill, for example, made it clear in On Liberty and Representative Government that his views there could not be applied to India (he was an India Office functionary for a good deal of his life; after all) because the Indians were civilizationally, if not racially, inferior.” Orientalism, 22.

He goes on to say that that:

“to believe that politics in the form of imperialism bears upon the production of literature, scholarship, social theory, and history writing is by no means equivalent to saying that culture is therefore a demeaned or denigrated thing. Quite the contrary: my whole point is to say that we can better understand the persistence and the durability of saturating hegemonic systems like culture when we realize that their internal constraints upon writers and thinkers were productive, not unilaterally inhibiting.” Orientalism, 22.

The same can be said of Architecture, and how it reflects a cultures biases and prejudices. To show this I am going to examine one building, St George’s Hall, and look at the implications construction and choice of motifs, particularly Liverpool’s role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade and how the building seeks to both justify the colonial mindset and fails to confront the city’s involvement with slavery. I am also going to discuss options that the city can take for the building to take into account the cities role in the slave trade.

KODAK Digital Still Camera
Saint George’s Hall (centre) 

St George’s Hall was built between 1841 and 1854. The entablature of the southern portico is emblazoned with the phrase: “ARTIBVS LEGIBVS CONSILSIS…” (For Arts, Law and Counsel). The purpose of the building was twofold, as Liverpool needed both a new concert hall and a new assize court, and Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, the architect, thought combing the two would mean that the new building exceed other public works in terms of style, scale and symbolism. Liverpool in this period was attempting to prove its worth as a city of culture, not just commercial ventures, and this building that was inspired by Classical precedent and celebrated the ‘arts, law and counsel’ was one way of doing this. However, it must be remembered that Liverpool gained its wealth from trade, particularly the Atlantic Slave Trade, and it was this wealth that allowed the expansion of greater architectural expression (Bremmer (2016) 133), but whilst earlier building glorified the slave trade (click here to view the frieze of Liverpool town hall, built 1754), St. George’s Hall used the architectural language of colonialism (i.e the neo-Classical style) to show its debt to slavery whilst not seeking to draw attention this. The neo-Classical style was heavily used in slave owning societies to create a comparative with the slave owning societies of the Greeks and Romans (Birshirs (2005)

"Liverpool collects produce and exports the manufactures of the country""Liverpool imports cattle and wool for food and clothing"Liverpool, by it's imports supplies the country with food and corn"

In a 2010 documentary, architectural historian Jonathon Foyle says Liverpool sought to “show itself in a new light” (Foyle (2010) 30.30) after the collapse of slavery in the British Empire. St. George’s Hall was one of the ways that the city did this. However, it wanted to cover up its history of slavery. The relief sculptures on the eastern side of the building are indicative of this mindset. The reliefs were created by artists Thomas Stirling Lee, C.J. Allen and Conrad Dressler between 1882 and 1901 and they show the story of Liverpool in a neo-Classical Style. The reliefs don’t include any aspect of the slave trade. The ‘fanciness’ of the building and of the reliefs seeks to deflect the truth, they celebrate ‘commerce’ but ignore the reality of Liverpool becoming the second city of empire through the slave trade.

Classicist Krishnan Ram-Prasad says that classics in a subject that “fails to challenge its white supremacist foundations” (July 2019) and this is particularly clear in the art of the Victorian period, where classical allusions and reception are rife. The fact that the classical style is so clearly linked to the colonialism of the British is why Classics needs to be confronted about the legacy it has created, and why monuments such as St. George’s Hall need to be discussed in this way.

Liverpool has attempted to confront its history of slavery. The international Slavery Museum opened in 2007, in Liverpool’s Albert Dock. As well as telling the story of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the museum also includes exhibits on west-African culture and contemporary racism and other legacies of slavery; this is part of Liverpool’s atonement for the slave trade (Rodwell (2008) 91). But this could go further. There is space on St. George’s Hall for more relief sculpture, and in finally completing the true story of Liverpool it would go some way to confronting Liverpool’s history of slavery.

St. George’s Hall is a product of its time, but that doesn’t excuse the colonial narrative and the lauding of western civilisation that the building presents. I hope that this short blog post opens up a discussion about how buildings from the colonial era should be received in the modern day. Perhaps in the spirit of the original competition that decided the shape and form of St. George’s Hall, a competition should be held by the City to complete the story of Liverpool, open to black artists across the country and firmly saying that the original narrative of the building needs to be changed, and brought into the 21st century.

Bibliography

Bishirs, C.W. 2005. North Carolina Architecture. Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press.

Bremmer, G.A. 2016. ‘Metropolis: Imperial Buildings and Landscapes in Britain’ in Architecture and Urbanism in the British Empire. Ed. Bremmer, G.A. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 125-158.

Ram-Prasad, K. ‘Reclaiming the Ancient World’ Eidolon, July 2019. https://eidolon.pub/reclaiming-the-ancient-world-c481fc19c0e3

Rodwell, D. 2008. Urban Regeneration and the Management of Change. Journal of Architectural Conservation, 14:2, 83-106.

Said, E. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Schaps, D.M. 2011. Handbook for Classical Research. London: Routledge.

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‘People’s Palaces: The Golden Age of Civic Architecture’ Directed by Cocker, J. Performance by Foyle, J. BBC Scotland, 2010. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgKpw-vAL88

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Figure 1: Close up of the Emblem of one of the doors in St. George’s Hall, by Rod Crosby (CC BY 3.0) from Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 2: St George’s Hall, authors own photo.

Figure 3-6: Artistic Reliefs on St. George’s Hall, authors own photo.

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