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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Ancient and Modern Columns: Rummaging through the archives of Thomas Harrison

Just before Christmas I visited the archives of the architect Thomas Harrison (1744-1829) at Cheshire Record Office in Chester. I wanted to check what inspiration Harrison had taken from books published on Athens and Ionia (western Turkey) by the Society of Dilettanti for his neoclassical buildings in the late 18thC and 1800s. I've written a (very long) a chapter for a book published by the research group Milesian Tales at the University of Liverpool that references Harrison and the building of the Portico Library at the end. I needed some evidence for my instincts - namely that he had referenced two buildings in Athens and one in Priene. I also had to go before the archives and local studies centre closes temporarily in Spring 2024 for a major development project funded by the Lottery Fund (see Cheshire's Archives: a story shared). The archivists and librarians had helpfully got everything ready and there were a lot of very large boxes waiting on the map table.


Designs by Harrison were chosen by the founding members of Manchester's Portico Library in 1802. There are no known records in the library about the building before 1806 so it was pretty exciting to see this sketch half way through the first box of Harrison's designs. This sketch shows the four-column portico, based on the Temple of Ilissus in Athens as depicted in James Stuart and Nicholas Revett's The Antiquities of Athens and Attica: Vol I (1762) in Ch II, Plate III - a book also in the Portico Library's collection. The sketch also has a more substantial temple style building behind it.


Drawing of a neoclassical building.
Thomas Harrison Archive of Drawings, ZCR 73/56, Cheshire Archives and Local Studies.

Harrison copied Stuart and Revett’s drawings from their large folios, which suggests that he did not have the volumes himself: interestingly there were more in the archive of the Erechtheion (the one with the caryatids or sculpted maidens) on the Acropolis, which is also in ionic order, than the more famous Parthenon, which is in Doric.


Harrison ZCR 73/8 f.2 Cheshire Archives and Local Studies

In the forthcoming chapter, I argue that it is likely that Harrison also drew on inspiration for the fuller building, rather than just the portico at the front, from the Ionic Temple of Minerva Polias at Priene as depicted in Ionian Antiquities (Chandler et al. 1769) as well as the Erechtheion in Athens. The few drawings he copied from Ionian Antiquities are of Priene and detail the Ionic capitals from Chapter II, Plates II and IV on one page with exact measurements and notes. It was a very useful rummage in the archives!


Choosing the Ionic order for the Portico Library, one of the first Greek revival civic buildings in England and arguably the first in Manchester, contributed to a precedent for its use in museums, libraries, and clubs over the next three decades. (I'll leave the fuller cultural analysis for the academic chapter). It was then interesting to wander around the city - particularly after looking in the archive - and see just how much Harrison influenced Chester's skyline by the castle, with a replica of the Propylaea (entrance) from the Acropolis in Athens, as well as his architectural engineering on the walls and rivers of the ancient city.



Admittedly, I was missing the bright blue sky sunshine that I had had when visiting Athens in March earlier this year. Below is a portrait of Thomas Harrison himself by H. Wyatt with the Propylaea in Chester behind him on the walls of the Grosvenor Museum.



With thanks to staff at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies.


Records held by Cheshire Archives and Local Studies Service are reproduced with the permission of Cheshire Shared Services and the owner /depositer to whom copyright is reserved.

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