Smirke, Robert (1781-1867) (DNB00)

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SMIRKE, Sir ROBERT (1781–1867), architect, second son of Robert Smirke [q. v.] and brother of Sir Edward Smirke [q. v.] and of Sydney Smirke [q. v.], was born in London on 1 Oct. 1781. He was educated at Apsley school, Bedfordshire. In 1796 he entered the schools of the Royal Academy, and was articled to Sir John Soane [q. v.], with whom he remained but a few months. In that year he received a medal from the Society of Arts, and in 1799 gained the academy gold medal with a design for a national gallery. From 1801 to 1805 he was abroad studying the architecture of Italy, Sicily, and Greece, and in 1806 he published a folio work, ‘Specimens of Continental Architecture.’ Smirke's earliest buildings, of which Lowther and Eastnor Castles are fine examples, were in the mediæval style, which he also occasionally used later; but the great majority of his works, both public and private, were classical, massive in construction, heavy and sombre in treatment, the Doric or Ionic order being always employed. In 1807 Smirke was appointed architect to the board of trade, and erected the greater portion of the present mint on Tower Hill (1809–11). In 1809 he rebuilt Covent Garden Theatre at a cost of 150,000l. Smirke's theatre was burned on 5 March 1856. In 1817 he gained the first prize for the ‘navy memorial’ in the national monuments competitions. In 1823 he commenced his two finest and best known works, the General Post Office in St. Martin's-le-Grand and the British Museum, both of which are in the pure Ionic style; the façade of the latter building, which is the most imposing in the metropolis, was completed in 1847. From 1814 to 1828 Smirke was surveyor to the Inner Temple, where he erected the library and dining hall, and carried out extensive reconstructions. He was employed upon the restoration of York minster after the fire of 1829. His other important commissions include the east wing of Somerset House (1828–31), the London Custom-house (central portion), the College of Physicians in Trafalgar Square (1825), the Carlton Club, 1835 (afterwards rebuilt), the Union Club, United Service Club (now the Junior United Service), and many noblemen's mansions both in London and in the country. The Oxford and Cambridge Club (1856–7) was the joint work of himself and his brother Sydney.

Smirke was elected A.R.A. in 1808 and R.A. in 1811, and was treasurer of the Academy from 1820 to 1850. In 1832, on the abolition of the board of works, of which he had been one of the three official architects since 1813, Smirke was knighted. In 1834 he was an unsuccessful competitor for the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament. He was a fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, and an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the gold medal of which was awarded to him in 1853. He retired from practice in 1845, when Sir Robert Peel placed him on the commission for London improvements; at the same time he was presented by his old pupils and assistants, who included Charles Robert Cockerell [q. v.] and Lewis Vulliamy [q. v.], with his bust, modelled by Thomas Campbell (1790–1858) [q. v.] In 1859 he resigned his academy diploma and retired from his residence in Berners Street to Cheltenham, where he died on 18 April 1867.

A portrait of Smirke, drawn by G. Dance in 1809, was engraved by W. Daniell.

[Memoir by his brother, Sir Edward, read before the Royal Institute of British Architects on 17 June 1867; Dict. of Architecture; Builder, 1867; Art Journal, 1867; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Wheatley and Cunningham's London.]

F. M. O'D.