Sir William Chambers

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Chambers, Sir William (1723–96). Important British Classical architect. Son of a Scottish merchant, he was born at Göteborg, Sweden, educated in Yorks., and travelled in India and China with the Swedish East India Company (1740–9). In 1749 he enrolled in J. -F. Blondel's École des Arts in Paris and in 1750 he travelled to Italy, where he spent five years and was taught drawing skills by Clérisseau and others, as well as studying Antique and contemporary buildings. During his European sojourns he absorbed many of the ideas that were to lead to Neo-Classicism in the second half of C18.

He set up in practice in London in 1755, and in 1756 became architectural tutor to the Prince of Wales (later King George III (1760–1820) ). In 1757 he was commissioned to lay out the grounds of the Dowager Princess of Wales's house at Kew, and ornamented the gardens with an exotic array of temples and garden-buildings, including the Chinese Pagoda (1761–2). He published Designs of Chinese Buildings… (1757—which was regarded as a source for pictures of Chinese architecture even though by then the fashion for Chinoiserie had almost ended), and Treatise on Civil Architecture (1759) which became an important and standard work dealing with the Orders and their uses, going into further editions in 1768 and 1791 (when it became A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture, much expanded and amended). By 1760 he was established in his practice and became one of the two architects (the other was Robert Adam) appointed by the Crown in the Office of Works. Plans, Elevations, Sections, and Perspective Views of the Garden Buildings at Kew in Surrey came out in 1763, tactfully dedicated to his Royal patroness; he succeeded Flitcroft as Comptroller of the Works in 1769; and in 1782 was appointed Surveyor-General and Comptroller, in which position he rapidly showed himself to be a first-rate administrator as well as a great official architect.

Chambers's architecture combined English Palladianism and French Neo-Classicism, as can be seen at the Casino, Marino, near Dublin (1758–76), built on a Greek-cross plan, and at his masterpiece, Somerset House, London (1776–96), arguably the grandest official building ever erected in the capital: John Webb's Queen's Gallery, Somerset House (1662), which had an arched rusticated ground-floor and a Giant Order rising through the first and second floors, was quoted in the new building by Chambers. Duddingston House, Midlothian, a country-house by Chambers near Edinburgh (1763–8), is not unlike Campbell's Stourhead, Wilts., but has no rusticated basement and the Corinthian portico sits on a platform only four steps high. Chambers also designed in 1775 the Theatre (built 1777–86) and Chapel (built 1787–c.1800) at Trinity College, Dublin, two of the most distinguished buildings of the College. However, Chambers, it seems, had a blind spot concerning Greek architecture, referring to ‘Attic Deformity’, but he designed Milton Abbey House, Dorset (1771–6), in the Gothic style, and indeed seems to have planned a treatise on Gothic for publication. At Kew Gardens he had no stylistic inhibitions, building an Alhambra, Moorish mosque, and buildings in the Chinese style, as well as more conventional Classical structures: he seems to have intended to provide the Gardens with a sort of encyclopedia of architectural styles. It should be remembered that he was the only architect in England at the time who had ever seen real Chinese buildings. In 1772 he published his Dissertation on Oriental Gardening, which was in reality an attack on the manner of landscape-design promoted by ‘Capability’ Brown, but was misinterpreted as an apology for the Chinese garden as an exemplar, and earned him opprobrium. He may have been responsible for the layout of the model village at Milton Abbas (c.1774–80). His pupils included Gandon, and his influence was important and widespread.


W. Chambers (1759, 1968, 1969, 1972);
Colvin (1995);
J. Harris (1970);
J. Harris & Snodin (eds.) (1996);
M. McCarthy (1987);
Placzek (ed.) (1982);
D. Watkin (2004)

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Sir William Chambers, 1723–96, English architect, b. Gothenburg, Sweden. He traveled extensively in the East Indies and in China making drawings of gardens and buildings, many of which were later published. He studied architecture in France and Italy and established (1755) his practice in England where he designed decorative architecture for Kew Gardens. From the founding (1768) of the Royal Academy to the end of his life, Chambers was a dominant figure in its councils. His Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture (1759) became a standard and influential work on classic design. The foremost official architect of his day in England, he continued the neo-Palladian tradition, which he adapted to the prevailing classical taste. His chief work, Somerset House, is an extensive block of government offices, begun in 1776. He also had charge of various alterations at Trinity College, Dublin, and designed additions to Blenheim Palace, the observatory in Richmond Park, and casinos in many parks of the nobility. He became private architect to King George III and was made (1782) surveyor general. Chambers was buried in Westminster Abbey.

See study by J. Harris (1971).

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Chambers, Sir William (1723–96). Architect. Born in Sweden, the son of Scottish parents, Chambers was educated in England, and travelled to the Far East, France, and Italy. On his return, he became architecture tutor to the prince of Wales, later George III, who advanced his career, and for whom he designed a coronation coach still used by the royal family. In 1757 he published Designs of Chinese Buildings, and his Treatise of Civil Architecture (1759) was long regarded as a standard work. As treasurer of the Royal Academy, his influence led to the development of the architectural profession. The pagoda and orangery at Kew are fine examples of his work, which led to a general interest in Britain in eastern architecture. He was extremely fastidious and correct, even dull, and his designs for Somerset House in London (1775) were criticized for lacking drama. From 1770 he was permitted to use his Swedish knighthood.

June Cochrane