Chambers, William (1726-1796) (DNB00)

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CHAMBERS, Sir WILLIAM (1726–1796), architect, who is said to have been descended from a Scotch family of Chalmers, who were barons of Tartas in France, was born at Stockholm in 1726. His grandfather, a rich merchant, had supplied the armies of Charles XII with stores and money, and had suffered by receiving the base coin issued by that monarch. His father, who resided many years in Sweden to prosecute his claims, returned to England in 1728, bringing with him the future Sir William, at that time about two years old, and settled at Ripon, where he had an estate. It was here that William was educated. At the age of sixteen he began life as a supercargo to the Swedish East India Company, and in that capacity made one (perhaps more than one) voyage to China. At Canton he took some sketches of architecture and costume, which were some time afterwards engraved by Grignion, Rooker, and other accomplished engravers, and published in 1757 in a work called ‘Designs for Chinese Buildings,’ &c. When eighteen he quitted the sea to devote himself to architecture, for which purpose he made a prolonged stay in Italy, studying the buildings and writings of Palladio and Vignola, and other Italian architects, from Michael Angelo to Bernini, upon which he formed his style. At Rome he resided with Clérisseau and Joseph Wilton, the sculptor. He also studied under Clérisseau in Paris. He returned to England in 1755, in company with Cipriani and Wilton.

Not long afterwards he married. He took a house in Poland Street, and soon obtained employment. His first work of importance is said to have been a villa for Lord Bessborough at Roehampton, but through Lord Bute, to whom he was recommended by John Carr, the architect of York [q. v.], he was introduced to Augusta, princess dowager of Wales, who was seeking a young architect to adorn the gardens of her ‘villa,’ or palace, at Kew. This gave him the opportunity for indulging his taste for both classical and Chinese architecture, and between 1757 and 1762 he erected, in what are now known as Kew Gardens, several neat semi-Roman temples, together with other buildings, which were derided as ‘unmeaning falballas of Turkish and Chinese chequerwork.’ The most important of the oriental buildings was the well-known pagoda. His works at Kew were celebrated in a volume, to which he furnished the architectural designs, Cipriani the figures, and Kirby, T. Sandby, and Marlow the ‘views.’ The drawings were engraved by Woollett, Paul Sandby, Major, Grignion, and others, and published (1763) in a folio volume called ‘Plans, Elevations, &c., of the Gardens and Buildings at Kew.’

His standing in the profession was now assured. He had been employed to teach architectural drawing to the Prince of Wales (George III); his works at Kew had established him in royal favour, and he had also gained professional distinction by the publication in 1759 of his ‘Treatise of Civil Architecture,’ which, in spite of its ignorant depreciation of Greek architecture, was a work of considerable merit, and for a long time remained a text-book for architectural students. A second edition was called for in 1768, a third in 1791, and it has since been more than once republished.

Chambers commenced to exhibit with the Society of Artists (in Spring Gardens) in 1761, and was one of the first members and the first treasurer of the Royal Academy when established in 1768. In 1771, in return for some highly finished drawings of Kew Gardens, he was created by the king of Sweden a knight of the Polar Star, and was allowed by George III to assume the title and style of a knight. In the following year (1772) he made an unfortunate literary venture by publishing his ‘Dissertation on oriental Gardening,’ in which he endeavoured to prove the superiority of the Chinese system of landscape gardening over that practised in Europe. His preface is said to have been animated with irritation against ‘Capability’ Brown, whose design for Lord Clive's villa at Claremont had been preferred to his; but the ‘Dissertation’ itself, with its absurd depreciation of nature, its bombastic style, and its ridiculous descriptions (mainly borrowed from other works) of the gardens of the emperor of China, was sufficient to account for the satires which it called into life. The most important of these was ‘An Heroic Epistle to Sir W. C.,’ followed by ‘An Heroic Postscript’ to this epistle, in both of which the satire was keen and the verses pointed. These lively pieces were published anonymously, and their authorship was for some time a matter for conjecture. There is now no doubt that they were by William Mason, the poet [q. v.], the first book of whose ‘English Garden’ was published in 1772. According to Warton, the ‘Heroic Epistle’ was ‘cut out by Walpole, but buckramed by Mason.’

At this time Chambers was architect to the king and queen, and comptroller of his majesty's works (an office afterwards changed to that of surveyor-general), and his fame and prosperity knew no serious check. He moved from Poland Street to Berners Street, and thence to Norton (now Bolsover) Street, where he died. He had also an official residence at Hampton Court, and a country house called Whitton Place, near Hounslow. In 1774 he revisited Paris, and in 1775 he was appointed architect of Somerset House at a salary of 2,000l. a year. The present structure was designed by Chambers for the accommodation of government offices, the Royal Society, and the Royal Academy. The late Mr. Fergusson [q. v.] calls Chambers ‘the most successful architect of the latter half of the eighteenth century,’ and Somerset House ‘the greatest architectural work of the reign of George III.’ The best part of the design, according to this authority, ‘is the north, or Strand, front, an enlarged and improved copy of a part of the old palace built by Inigo Jones, and pulled down to make way for the new buildings.’ ‘The south portion of this front is also extremely pleasing,’ but after a severe criticism of the river front he adds: ‘It was evident, however, that the imagination of Chambers could rise no higher than the conception of a square and unpoetic mass.’

Although not so much employed as Robert Adam [q. v.] in building great country houses for the nobility and gentry, he designed town mansions for Earl Gower at Whitehall and Lord Melbourne in Piccadilly, Charlemont House, Dublin, and Duddingston House, near Edinburgh. He was the architect of the Albany in Piccadilly, and of the Market House at Worcester. He was employed by Earl Pembroke at Wilton, by the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim, by Lord Claremont at Marino in Ireland, and by the Duke of Bedford in Bloomsbury. He also made some additions and alterations (Gothic) to Milton Abbey, near Dorchester. As he grew old Chambers retired somewhat from public business, and enjoyed more freely the society of his friends, among whom were such celebrated men as Johnson, Goldsmith, Reynolds, Burney, and Garrick. He was a member of the Architects' Club, which met at the Thatched House, St. James's. In his later years he suffered much from asthma, and after a long and severe illness he died at his house in Norton Street, Marylebone, 8 March 1796, and was buried in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. Chambers had five children, four daughters and one son, who married a daughter of Lord Rodney. He left a considerable fortune.

[Gent. Mag. 1796; European Mag. 1796; Hardwick's Memoir of the Life of Sir William Chambers; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Cunningham's Lives of British Artists, 1831; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Graves's Dict. of Artists; Boswell's Life of Johnson; Fergusson's Hist. of Modern Architecture; Edwards's Anecdotes.]

C. M.