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An Extraordinary Order: The Little Temple at Temple Newsam

Article Index

  1. An Extraordinary Order: The Little Temple at Temple Newsam
  2. Background
  3. Description
  4. Commentary: Context
  5. Commentary: Precedents from Architectural History
  6. Commentary: Purity of Style
  7. Commentary: Non-Architectural Models
  8. Designer: Possible Designers
  9. Designer: Other Hypotheses
  10. Designer: The Model Used
  11. Condition
  12. Conclusions
  13. Appendix 1
  14. Appendix 2
  15. References
  16. Illustrations
  17. All Pages


The Little Temple forms a small (just 5.6m x 4.2m) open fronted shelter and outlook point facing west over the new lake and towards Temple Newsam House some half a mile (750m) away, and it would have been a pleasant and sunny spot for an afternoon picnic in the summer. Now only partly visible, being enveloped by fully mature woodland, in the 1760s-90s it would have been much more prominent seen from the main house amongst the young planting. [2]

A prostyle tetrastyle portico (four columns standing at the front of the building) faces west with four sandstone columns supporting a wooden entablature and pediment, and with another attached stone column on both the north and south returns. [3]  The rear and side walls are blind, in plain rendered brick, and all rest on stone and brick footings. The red brick appears to be the typical local Leeds clay, possibly dug and fired on the estate, and the stone was probably also locally sourced. Any stone flags remaining on the floor have been screeded over in 20th century concrete. [4, 5]

The roof covering is stone slates with clay ridge tiles, the latter probably 20th century. The very plain entablature around all four sides and the two pediments are formed in timber, and would originally have been painted to resemble stone. A few flakes of buff/brown paint remain on the rear pediment mouldings, and some 18th century paint might survive under 19th and 20th century recoatings. Two rectangular slots in the front timber tympanum, and one in the rear, appear to be 20th century actions to assist through ventilation rather than original design features. [6, 7]

At first glance, then, a quite conventional small ornamental classical temple in the parkland of an 18th century English country house.

However, the tall and widely spaced carved stone columns are not in the form of any of the familiar eight Orders (ie Greek or Roman Doric, Ionic or Corinthian, or Roman Tuscan or Composite), but rather are a most curious combination of disparate details. [8]

The shafts are each comprised of four stones, carved in the form of eight clustered colonnettes, with eight convex fat lobes rather than the (usually 24) delicate concave flutings of shafts in the Classical orders, and they have no entasis (the slightly tapered swelling giving an optical correction to prevent the appearance of spindliness). They have only thin and meanly elaborated bases on the plain stone plinth, a plain collar roll beneath the capital, and appear much more typically mediaeval Gothic than Classical. [9]

The capitals are only a distant relation of typical Corinthian forms, with eight upsprouting acanthus leaves continuing the lines of the eight shaftlets below, and these are single long acanthus leaves, rather than the triple curled set usual in a Corinthian capital. [10] Indeed, in this form they almost resemble Romaine (Cos) lettuces more than true acanthus, or even perhaps that precursor of Greek Corinthian, the Egyptian “palmiform” capital. [11]  Under the entablature as an abacus in stone there is a rather coarse projecting egg-and-dart moulding with a leaf detail at each corner.

Acanthus leaf patterns are found in Ancient Greek ornament from c 420 BC on, and were widely used in Greek and Roman Corinthian capitals thereafter. The earlier examples relate perhaps more to Acanthus Spinosa, later ones more to the fleshier Acanthus Mollis.  The Austrian art historian Alois Riegl claimed in “Stilfragen” (“Problems of Style: Foundations for a History of Ornament”, 1893) that acanthus ornament originated in sculptural versions of palmette (as found in some Greek acroteria, and before that in Egyptian columns), and only later came to resemble Acanthus Spinosa. Simplified or stylized versions of acanthus and other foliage continue after the collapse of Rome in the 5th century in Byzantine and Mediaeval Gothic ornament, with the Classical models being more precisely followed once again during and since the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century.

The columns of the Little Temple are extremely slender and widely spaced, their proportions at first glance closer to the elegant and decorative Corinthian with the “slenderness of a maiden” than to the “manly strength and beauty” of the Doric or even the “womanly proportions of the Ionic” (Vitruvius IV.I.7/8).

However, the shafts here are even narrower than normal Corinthian (the thinnest of the classical types), and the entablature is very low. Comparative ratios are:

Little Temple: Ratio of shaft height to diameter is c 10:1, vs typical Corinthian of c 8.3:1

Little Temple: Entablature height is only 1.2 diameter, vs typical Corinthian of c 2.5 diameters.

The intercolumniation - the setting out and spacing of the columns – is also extreme. [12] They are set Araeostyle, “farther apart than they ought to be…..In araeostyles we cannot employ stone or marble for the architraves, but must have a series of wooden beams laid upon the columns. And moreover, in appearance these temples are clumsy-roofed, low, broad…” (Vitruvius III.III.5.)  Comparative ratios are:

Little Temple intercolumniation is:  D  3.6d  D  4.5d  D  3.6d  D,  in diameters (D)

Typical Corinthian would be:  D  3.3d  D  3.3d  D  3.3d  D.

The central spacing here is wider than the two side spacings, following some Renaissance (rather than Antique) examples.

The timber entablature and pediment are very modest (even mean), in detail and projection, for the type and proportions of the stone columns below. There are also none of the enrichments of detail that usually accompany the Corinthian Order (modillions, dentils etc.) The frieze has a slender cornice but lacks an architrave, and the tympanum is simply boarded. [13, cf 7, 8 and 10]

While no original drawing or photograph of the Little Temple before 1900 has been seen, there is no evidence that it has been altered significantly since its construction in the 1760s.