The life of James Wyatt, architect of collapsed masterpieces, is fairly recounted in new book writes Joseph Rykwert
In popular memory, Wyatt is the first British architect to die in a traffic accident. Besides that, he is remembered for the legendary burning of his first major building, the Oxford Street Pantheon, only 20 years after its very successful completion, as well as the collapse of another masterpiece, the wild Gothic folly, William Beckford’s Fonthill ‘Abbey’ a few years after his death.
In deconstructing the myth, John Martin Robinson has attempted to reinstate James Wyatt not only as the architect to George III − which the subtitle of the book proclaims him − and the King’s cosseted favourite, even friend, but also as the great architect of the generation between the Chambers/Adam and the Nash/Soane one. The Wyatts were respectable, upper-yeoman Staffordshire, though James moved easily into noble company as a teenager and was taken to Italy where he spent six years − first in Venice, in Consul Smith’s neo-Palladian circle, then in Rome where he fell under the spell of Piranesi. The older man seems to have been charmed by the affable, talented − already accomplished − Englishman. To that personal charm of his and to his generosity there are many witnesses (including the King) on whom Robinson can draw.
That combination of personal attraction and precocious ability allowed him a triumphant return to Britain to an instant, fabulous commission, the design of that Oxford Street Pantheon, which − as long as it stood − was London’s most fashionable assembly, the winter surrogate (it opened in January, 1772) for Vauxhall and Ranelagh. The project was instantly celebrated and the drawings exhibited at the Royal Academy before the building opened and Wyatt was elected an ARA. That success even prompted the Empress Catherine, always agog with the latest fashions, to invite him to St Petersburg: however, a number of notables (including three Dukes), worried in case Catherine did not allow him back, offered him an annuity to refuse the invitation while at the same time surfeiting him with prestigious commissions.
This led to an inevitable conflict, since the architects who dominated fashionable London at the time were the Adam brothers. James’s elder brother Samuel − builder, engineer, contractor − who may have been the go-between in getting his brother the Pantheon commission, had earlier been employed by the Adam brothers, notably at Kedleston. He insinuated his younger sibling into the work, and to inveigle some of the craftsmen whom the Adams had assembled and trained to work for him on the Pantheon. Moreover, by his election to the Academy, Wyatt took his place in Sir William Chambers’ camp against the Adams whom Chambers had always managed to keep out of that institution. The Adams reciprocated.
In the publication of their Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam, they accused an anonymous contemporary of plagiarism in the process of refuting a similar slur on themselves. And it is here, I think, that Robinson’s partisanship leads him a little astray in maintaining his hero’s superiority to those rivals. They came into direct contrast and even conflict in Portman Square, where Wyatt, who was doing a number of houses nearby, was commissioned to do a substantial one for Lady Home while the Pantheon was being finished. She was, by all accounts, a disagreeable enough lady; Wyatt may have reacted by an early display of the characteristics that were to be the bane of his career: he was unreliable, unpunctual, dilatory. Miffed, Lady Home went back to the Adams, who (perhaps stimulated, as Robinson suggests, by the rivalry) produced one of the most splendid interiors of their career, an arrangement of a subtlety and ingenuity which Wyatt would never rival. And indeed, the garden facade of the house, which Robinson − rightly, I think − attributes to Wyatt, seems (to me, at any rate) flabby, diffused and quite unworthy of the interiors.
The Home House fiasco first shows the disadvantages under which Wyatt laboured all his life: he was not only disorganised but had a short attention span. Although a fanatically hard worker − he even had a desk installed in his coach so that he could go on working while travelling (though that was not the coach in which he was killed, as I had once fondly imagined) − he would start enthusiastically on a project and then lose interest. He kept clients waiting − even the King on some occasions. He was a hopeless manager of his business, so that although he died bankrupt (and a subscription had to be raised at once to tide his wife over the worst), he was in fact owed £20,000 in disputed and unpaid accounts. Several of these were institutional. By the time he died, Wyatt had accumulated a vast number of official appointments. He was Surveyor-General of the Office of Works, to Somerset House and Westminster Abbey, Deputy Surveyor to Woods and Forests, Architect to the Ordnance − which produced perhaps the most buildings: Sandhurst, Woolwich Barracks and Military Academy − and much else; very briefly and quite disastrously, he was President of the Royal Academy.
All these activities would not fit easily into any narrative. The author has treated them half-thematically, half-chronologically: origins and the Italian stay, the Pantheon, rivalry with the Adams (which gets a whole chapter of its own), Wyatt’s establishment and working methods, the Early English houses, the Irish practice (by correspondence), industry and design (the most original chapter − particularly in its detailed working of the connection with Matthew Boulton and Mrs Coade of the artificial stone), furniture, mausoleums and churches, Oxford, Classic (which Wyatt himself called Grecian − Classic had not yet assumed its ‘modern’ meaning), and Gothic; then, separately, Gothic country houses and cathedrals, Royal and public works, the Regency style and the − sad − end. The structure does not really help Robinson to tell his tale fluently − and occasionally prompts him into redundancy.
In Oxford, where so many academics held informed architectural views and opinions, Wyatt built his most ‘Grecian’ work, the Radcliffe Observatory, an emulation of the recently published Tower of the Winds in Athens, arguably his most refined and antiquarian project. And it was in Oxford, too, that work on the chapel of New College introduced him to the problem of restoring Gothic buildings and this led to further activity on castles and on cathedrals − Windsor and Salisbury most prominently − which earned him much (and some of it quite undeserved) opprobrium in the generations which followed. But it also introduced him to designing in the Gothic manner or style, in which he quickly became an expert, and in which he was abetted by the prime ‘Goth’, Horace Walpole, who had long been an admirer. He built a number of Gothic houses: Wycombe Abbey, Lee Priory, Norris Castle on the Isle of Wight, and others.
A little disappointingly Fonthill and William Beckford, its patron, are treated as a Gothic byway. Beckford was a brilliant, polyglot collector and man of letters, the heir to a vast fortune built on Carribean sugar and the slave trade. Wyatt had worked for William’s father on his opulent Georgian mansion, which (against his advice) William had pulled down to replace it with a 330-foot cruciform Gothic pile dominated by a central octagonal lantern, 130 feet high (which collapsed for a first time during construction − ‘the crash and the loss sound magnificent in the Newspaper’, Beckford wrote: ‘I neither heard the one nor feel the other’), but his fortune did decline in the wars and with the fall in the price of sugar.
He sold the old house and the gems of his collection and in 1822 had to sell Fonthill. The defective foundations of the tower collapsed finally three years later (the carelessly supervised builder confessed on his deathbed − just before the event) and Fonthill has been a ruin ever since. But by then Wyatt had been dead for some years and his end had been, as I suggested earlier, brutal. Returning from a site visit with a satisfied client, their carriage overturned in a traffic jam. Wyatt’s head struck the roof and he was killed instantly.
His many merits and his varied achievements outweigh his many faults and Robinson seems determined to be just about both− which is just as well, since his Wyatt will certainly be the Wyatt for his generation and some following ones as well − and he is an eloquent advocate. Perhaps it is a good friend of Wyatt’s who should have the last word: Samuel Pepys Cockerell said of him that ‘he possessed infinite taste and ingenuity − but he did not think’.
James Wyatt, 1746-1813; Architect to George III
Author: John Martin Robinson
Publisher: Yale University Press, £50