English builders now offered a lively contest between Gothic and classical revivals. The grandeur of the old cathedrals, the vestigial splendor of stained glass, the ivied ruins of medieval abbeys in Britain, stirred the imagination to idealize the Middle Ages, and fell in with the developing Romantic reaction against classic couplets, cold columns, and oppressive pediments. Horace Walpole engaged a succession of second-rate architects to rebuild his “Strawberry Hill” at Twickenham in Gothic form and ornament (1748-73); he gave years of finical care to making his home the very palladium of the anti-Palladian style. Year after year he added rooms, until there were twenty-two; one, “the Gallery,” housing his art collections, was fifty-six feet long. Too often he used lath and plaster instead of stone; even a first glance reveals a fragility forgivable in interior decoration but unpardonable in external structure. Selwyn called Strawberry Hill “gingerbread Gothic,”7 and another wit reckoned that Walpole had outlived three sets of crenellated battlements,8 which had to be repeatedly restored.
Despite these experiments, Palladio and Vitruvius remained the tutelar deities of English architecture in the second as in the first half of the eighteenth century. The classic spirit was reinforced by the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, and it was spread by descriptions of classic ruins in Athens, Palmyra, and Baalbek. Sir William Chambers defended the Palladian view in his Treatise on Civil Architecture (1759), and added example to precept by rebuilding Somerset House (1776-86) with a vast façade of Renaissance windows and Corinthian porticoes.
A remarkable family of four brothers, John, Robert, James, and William Adam, came out of Scotland to dominate English architecture in this half century. Robert left the strongest impress upon his time. After studying in the University of Edinburgh he spent three years in Italy, where he met Piranesi and Winckelmann. Noting that the private palaces praised by Vitruvius had disappeared from the Roman scene, and learning that one remained relatively intact, the palace of Diocletian at Spalato (now Split in Yugoslavia), he made his way to that ancient Dalmatian capital, spent five weeks making measurements and drawings, was arrested as a spy, was freed, wrote a book about his researches, and came back to England resolved to use Roman styles in British building. In 1768 he and. his brothers leased for ninety-nine years a tract of sloping land between the Strand and the Thames, and erected on it the famous Adelphi Terrace—a district of fine streets and handsome houses on an embankment supported by massive Roman arches and vaults; here some dramatic notables lived, from Garrick to Bernard Shaw. Robert designed also some famous mansions, like Bute’s Luton Hoo (i.e., house at Luton, thirty miles north of London). “This,” said Johnson, “is one of the places I do not regret having come to see”;9 and he was hard to please.
By and large the classic orders won the battle against the Gothic revival. Many of the great palaces of this age, like Carlton House in London and Harewood House in Yorkshire, were in the neoclassic style. Walpole did not live to see Gothic return in triumph and splendor in the Houses of Parliament (1840-60).