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Biography of Sir William Chambers, Architect

Biography of the famous architect Sir William Chambers with architectural plates and pictures.

1726 - 1796

Of the English architects and furniture designers of the later Georgian period, the two greatest were undoubtedly Robert Adam, who popularized a revival of Classic forms, the neoclassical style, and Sir William Chambers, who typified the ultra trendy taste of his time. In many respects Chambers's life and personality are more interesting than his work, though he exercised, by reason of his talents and social position, a strong influence on the styles of that day.

Sir William Chambers
Portrait of Sir William Chambers.

Early Life

William Chambers was born in Stockholm, where his father worked, in 1726. The family returned to England in 1728 and settled in Ripon, in Yorkshire, where William received his school education. At the age of sixteen the boy, who had a taste for travel and adventure, shipped as super cargo in a ship of the Swedish East India Company, and made at least one trip to China. He had a natural interest in design and some skill in drawing even at this age, and while at Canton he made numerous sketches of Chinese buildings, gardens, costumes, etc. It is probable that he made one other voyage to the Orient, and in some way he acquired a working knowledge of architecture.

William's brother, John, also went to sea and subsequently acquired a large fortune in the East India trade, but William decided against a commercial career. At the age of eighteen he quitted the sea to devote his attention to the study of architecture. Two or three years later he went to Italy, where he made a study of Roman ruins and also the work of Palladio and other Italian architects of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, making a large number of measured drawings. From Italy he went to Paris, where he studied French architecture under Clerisseau, from whom he gained also great skill with the pencil.

Career As Architect

Chambers returned to England in 1755, in the company of Cipriani and Joseph Wilton, the sculptor, whose beautiful daughter he soon after married. He started his career as a practising architect in Russell Street, London, near Covent Garden, later taking a house in Poland Street, He possessed only a small fortune, but the merit of his work, his ability in making influential acquaintances, and the good luck which attended him through life, secured for him the patronage of Lord Bute and John Carr of York, who introduced him to the royal family and secured for him the position of drawing master to the heir to the throne.

Chambers Design for a Church
Chambers Design for a Church, early 1770s.

"Designs for Chinese Buildings"

Chamber's first work of importance was a villa for Lord Bessborough at Roehampton in Surrey, the portico of which was particularly admired. In 1757 he published his first book. It consisted of engravings made from the sketches he had executed in Canton, and was called "Designs for Chinese Buildings". His taste for Chinese design was looked down upon at the time, but the book at least served to bring him into greater prominence.

Kew Gardens

The designs apparently appealed to the Princess Dowager Augusta of Wales, because she engaged him as architect for the gardens of her new villa or palace at Kew. The work at Kew Gardens occupied him from 1757 to 1762, and made his reputation as the most fashionable architect of his time.

"Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture"

Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture
Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture

In 1759 he published his "Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture", which was enthusiastically received and which, in many respects, was his most notable work. It contains an appreciation of Greek architecture which has become a classic, and the book, which has been republished many times, is still one of the standards. Though the job at Kew Gardens had brought him into prominence, it was this book, the most useful volume on the art of architecture which had appeared up to that time, that firmly established his reputation both as an author and as an architect of judgment, scholarship, and taste.

Achievements of Chambers

In 1761 he became a member of the Society of Artists and began to exhibit with them at Spring Gardens.

The work at Kew Gardens so pleased the royal family that in 1763 Chambers published a book containing his designs and descriptions of them. This aroused considerable controversy among the critics. The complete title of the work was "Plans, Elevations, Sections, and Perspective Views of the Gardens and Buildings at Kew in Surrey, the Seat of Her Royal Highness, the Princess Dowager of Wales".

In 1768 Chambers was largely instrumental in founding the Royal Academy of Arts. Sir Joshua Reynolds became its first president and Chambers its first treasurer.

In 1771 Chambers sent a set of finished drawings of his Kew designs to the King of Sweden, who made him a Knight of the Pole Star. George III of England, who had been the architect's pupil when Prince of Wales, and who undoubtedly had become much attached to his tutor, allowed him to assume the title of knight in England, and he became Sir William. The king also appointed Chambers chief architect. Under Rurke's regime he was also appointed Comptroller of His Majesty's Works, and later, Surveyor-General.

"A Dissertation on Oriental Gardening"

In 1772 he published "A Dissertation on Oriental Gardening" and as before, when he ventured into the realm of Chinese design, he aroused a lot of criticism. He may have gone too far for contemporary tastes, with some of his statements being fairly absurd, but his official position saved him from serious loss of reputation.

Later Life

In 1774 Chambers revisited Paris and in 1775 he was appointed architect of Somerset House, his greatest monument, at a salary of £2,000 a year. The present structure is his design, the Strand front being an enlarged and improved copy of an old palace built by Inigo Jones.

Chambers lived for many years in Poland Street and then built himself a house in Berners Street. Later he moved to Norton Street, where he died. He also had an official residence at Hampton Court Palace and a country house near Hounslow called Whitton Place.

He gradually retired from active life and business and spent his latter years in the enjoyment of his many friendships. He was a sufferer from asthma, and after a long and severe illness he died on March 8, 1796, in the seventy-first year of his age. He was buried in the Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. He left a considerable fortune to one son and four daughters.

Chambers' Legacy

Chambers was a man of marked social gifts, which helped to make his career successful. He was a man of taste and culture, and he exerted a considerable influence on cabinet-making and interior decoration as well as architecture. He had a host of distinguished friends, including Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, Reynolds, Burney, and Garrick, and spent much of his leisure time at the Architects' Society, which met at Thatched House Tavern.

Famous Architect

Chambers's fame as an architect rests chiefly on his work at Somerset House and the summer houses in Kew Gardens. These latter, following the doubtful taste of the Princess, included both classic and oriental designs, Roman temples and Chinese and Turkish treatments. The most important of them was the famous pagoda which is still standing, a tall structure not without grace of line and detail. These buildings have been so widely criticized, both favourably and unfavourably, that his really able and clever work in landscaping at Kew has been often lost sight of.

At Somerset House, which Chambers reconstructed, he worked in a more serious and permanent style. There were some incongruities in it, and he felt it necessary to remove the famous facade of Inigo Jones at the water front, for which he was much criticised. Nevertheless, it was a great work in which he kept alive the classical tradition.

Robert Adam, whose life and work will be discussed in the next chapter, was a more popular architect than Chambers, but the latter managed to secure a goodly portion of the fashionable work of the day. He built a number of town and country houses of distinction for men of wealth and title. Among these was the villa of the Earl of Bessborough at Roehampton, the Earl of Pembroke's seat at Wilton, and the Duke of Bedford's house at Bloomsbury. He designed and built mansions for Earl Gower at Whitehall, for Lord Milbourne in Piccadilly, for Lord Abercorn and Viscount Midleton. He was also employed by the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim. He built Duddingston House near Edinburgh, and in Ireland a fine casino for Lord Gharlemont at Marino, near Dublin. He also designed the market house at Worcester.

Among his recognized masterpieces were the staircases in the houses of Lord Bessborough and Lord Gower and at the Royal Antiquarian Society. The terrace behind Somerset House was a bold and successful composition.

Interiors & Furniture

In his interior work Chambers introduced more graceful lines and less formal ornament, and in this field doubtless deserves greater credit than has been generally accorded him. It was Chambers who introduced the often misused marble mantel. He also designed furniture in Chinese and other styles. His most elaborate piece was a combined bureau, dressing case, jewel cabinet, and chamber organ, made for Charles IV of Spain in 1793. He also designed the state coach for George III of England, which is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Chambers's name has inevitably been associated most often with the whimsical vogue of Chinese design, particularly the craze for chinoiserie in the eighteenth century, and there was much debate as to whether Chambers or Thomas Chippendale was mainly responsible for this. Probably neither of them was but both merely sought to satisfy an insistent demand. The fondness in England for things Chinese dates back well into the previous century, when Oriental importations became common in the London and Liverpool markets. English imitations of Oriental lacquer were popular in Queen Anne's time, and intermittently up to 1780. The fashion was merely revived by Chambers when his book appeared in 1757.

Edwards and Darley, Thomas Johnson, William Halfpenny, and others had made furniture in the so called Chinese style before either Chippendale or Chambers published his book. Halfpenny also published an architectural volume, "New Designs for Chinese Temples" in 1750. Chippendale's work marked rather the culmination of the Chinese style in furniture, and Chambers's in architecture. The aim of the latter was to correct popular misapprehensions, though in this he did not greatly succeed. The Chinese in vogue consisted largely of poor copies of the decorations on Oriental paper hangings and porcelain and slipshod adaptations of Chinese styles in furniture. Chambers had measured drawings to help him, though he never came very close to the true spirit of the Chinese.

William Chambers Designs for Chinese Furniture
William Chambers Designs for Chinese Furniture

But though Chambers was undoubtedly fascinated by the Chinese style, he nevertheless gained a place among those masters who perpetuated the classical traditions, in the form of the neoclassical style of the late Georgian era. In this the work of Robert Adam overshadowed his, but in his more chaste and conventional work he adhered to the manner of Jones and Wren. His exteriors were bold, uniting the grandeur and luxuriance of the Roman, Florentine, and Genoese schools with the severe correctness of the Venetian. He exhibited no startling mannerisms, his style ranging somewhere between the ponderous, imposing style of Vanbrugh and the lighter, more chaste style of Adam. His only known work in the Gothic style is to be found in the additions and alterations at Milton Abbey in Dorset.

At a time when good design was the rule, Chambers stood with Adam in the first rank, in spite of his mistakes and extravagances. Though not an artist of great originality or imagination, he was, except for his Chinese vagaries, a conservator of the best traditions, a thorough student of the art of architecture, a careful designer, and a clever adapter.

William Chambers was always just a little in advance of the fashions of the day.

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