Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Essex, James
ESSEX, JAMES (1722–1784), builder and architect, of Cambridge, was the son of a builder, or, as he is usually termed, a 'joyner,' of the same name. The father, a man of distinction in his trade, executed, among other works, the sash-windows and wainscot in the senate-house (1724-5), under the direction of the architect Gibbs; fitted up the Regent House, now the catalogue-room of the library, for Bishop Moore's books (1731-4), and transformed the hall of Queens' College (1732-4). In the course of his work at the library the elder Essex not only constructed but designed the bookcases, which are remarkably fine specimens of woodwork. He died in February 1749.
James Essex the younger was born in Cambridge in August 1722. He was 'put to schole for grammatical learning,' as his friend, the Rev. W. Cole, records, 'under Mr. Heath, fellow of King's College, master of the College Schole;' and it has been conjectured with probability that the constant sight of the noble chapel of that college may have given him the strong taste for Gothic architecture which animated him during his whole life. On leaving school 'he studied regular architecture, with great attention, under Sir James Burrough' (1691-1764) [q. v.], who employed him to draw certain plans and elevations.
On his father's death Essex at once took up his business, and in September 1749 built the wooden bridge at Queens' College. From that time until the close of his life he was actively engaged, partly as an original architect, partly on behalf of others. In 1751 he fitted up the 'dome room' at the library for manuscripts; in 1754 he rebuilt the Great Bridge; in 1757 he designed and built the Ramsden building at St. Catharine's College; in 1758 he repaired and altered Nevile's Court at Trinity College; in 1760 he designed and built the new west range at Queens' College, and built the doctors' gallery in Great St. Mary's Church (Burrough, architect); in 1764 he repaired and altered the hall at Emmanuel College; in 1766 he designed and built the stone bridge at Trinity College; in 1768 he completed the west end of the senate-house, left unfinished by Gibbs; in 1769 he ashlared the quadrangle of Christ's College, and completed the chapel at Clare College after the death of Burrough; in 1775 he rebuilt the combination-room of Trinity College, and designed and built the west front of Emmanuel College; in 1776 he designed and set up the altarpiece at King's College, with the wainscot round the sacrarium, and altered the south side of the first court of St. John's College; between 1778 and 1782 he made the bookcases for the library, and designed and built the chapel at Sidney Sussex College; and in 1784 he designed and built the Guildhall.
In the transformation of older structures which Essex was instructed to carry out, as well as in his original works (except the altarpiece at King's College), he adopted the debased Italian style of the day, which he had learnt from Burrough; but, in reality, he was an enthusiastic admirer of the then despised Gothic style, and has been characterised with truth as ‘the first professional architect whose works displayed a correct taste in imitations of ancient English architecture;’ though Pugin criticises them as ‘deficient in boldness and spirit of design, and the details are often meagre.’
Besides executing the aforesaid works in Cambridge, Essex was consulted by the dean and chapter of Ely in 1757. In the course of the following five years he restored the east front to the perpendicular, and repaired the roof of the eastern limb of the church, together with the woodwork of the lantern, which long neglect had brought into a dangerous condition. Finally, he removed the choir from its original position to the east end of the presbytery. This latter work, the wisdom of which may be questioned, was not completed until 1770. The repairs executed between 1757 and 1762 were carried out in a purely conservative spirit, every fragment of the old timber being, where possible, preserved; but, in strange contradiction to this feeling for old work, Essex recommended the destruction of the beautiful west porch, as ‘neither ornamental nor useful.’ In 1761 he accepted a similar commission at Lincoln Cathedral, where substantial repairs were much needed. Besides these he constructed an arch of excellent design under the west tower, repaved the entire church, repaired the choir screen, and designed an altarpiece and bishop's throne. These works still remain. Here, also, Essex tried to get the choir removed to the same position as at Ely, but happily without success. In 1775 he designed and put up the four spires and battlement which still crown the central tower, ‘an admirable finish to a magnificent design.’ For this and his other works the dean and chapter presented to him, in 1784, a silver salver, bearing a suitable inscription. Essex also restored the tower of Winchester College Chapel, altered Madingley Hall, Cambridge, built the steeple of the parish church at Debden, Essex, and the cross to commemorate Queen Catherine of Arragon erected at Ampthill, Bedfordshire, in 1773 by the Earl of Ossory. In building this cross Essex followed a rough sketch by Horace Walpole. He is also credited, but erroneously, with a survey of Canterbury Cathedral.
Essex married Elizabeth, daughter to Mr. Thurlbourne, bookseller, of Cambridge, by whom he had two children—James, who died an infant in 1757, and Millicent, who married, 10 May 1785, the Rev. John Hammond [q. v.] sometime fellow of Queens' College. She died in January 1787. Essex died at Cambridge, of a paralytic stroke, 14 Sept. 1784, in the sixty-third year of his age. He was buried in St. Botolph's churchyard, Cambridge, on the south side of the church, where a tomb commemorates him, his father, mother, wife, and children. He and his children are further commemorated by a tablet in the north aisle.
Essex was a man of unblemished reputation and varied accomplishments. He was the intimate friend of Tyson, Kerrich, Gough, Bentham, Cole (whose house at Milton, near Cambridge, he built. and who made him his executor), Horace Walpole, Burrough, and other well-known antiquaries. He was elected fellow of the Society of Antiquaries 23 Jan. 1772, through the instrumentality of Gough, and contributed several papers to the ‘Archæologia.’ These, if considered with reference to the time at which they were written, must be allowed to possess considerable merit, and show that Essex was the earliest architectural historian, in the modern sense of the word. As early as 1756 he issued proposals for engraving views, plans, and sections of King's College Chapel; in other words, he intended to publish a regular architectural history of the building. The scheme of this work, with several of the plates beautifully drawn by his own hand, is among the manuscripts which after his death passed into the hands of his friend, the Rev. T. Kerrich, fellow of Magdalene College, and were by him bequeathed to the British Museum. The same collection contains the manuscript and many of the illustrations for a history of Gothic, or rather of ecclesiastical, architecture, on which he was engaged for many years, and which his friends tried in vain to persuade him to complete and publish.In 1748, when Essex was a young man of twenty-six, he became involved in a controversy with the Rev. R. Masters, fellow and historian of Corpus Christi College, respecting the authorship of a plan for adding a new court to the college. In December 1747 Masters had employed Essex to measure the ground available for building, and to draw a plan, which he soon afterwards caused to be engraved and circulated as his own. Upon this Essex published proposals for engraving and printing by subscription his own design, and shortly afterwards (20 Feb. 1748-9) wrote a pamphlet, in which he criticised Masters's design, and his whole conduct towards himself, with unsparing severity. On the whole, the charge of plagiarism is proved, and trivial as the whole controversy now appears, we cannot but admire the courage and straightforwardness with which Essex asserted his own claims against a powerful opponent.
The works which Essex acknowledged are the following: 1. ‘Proposals for Engraving and Printing a Plan of an intended Addition to Corpus Christi College,Cambridge,’ 20 Sept. 1748. 2. Advertisement beginning ‘Whereas Mr. Masters,’ 4 Oct. 1748. 3. ‘Mr. James Essex's Letter to his Subscribers to the Plan,’ &c., 20 Feb. 1748-9. 4. ‘Proposals for Engraving Views, Plans, and Sections of King's College Chapel,’ 1 Oct. 1756 (Gough, Brit. Top. i. 237). 5. ‘Letter to Dr. Ducarel, containing observations on Canterbury Cathedral,’ 1 Feb. 1768 (Nichols, Bibl. Top. Brit. i. 470). 6. ‘Plan of the original Cathedral Church of Ely, with an account of the several Alterations and Additions’ (Bentham, Ely, 1812, addenda, pp. 1-8). 7. ‘Account of the Old Conventual Church at Ely’ (ib. pp. 9, 10). 8. ‘Remarks on the Antiquity and the different Modes of Brick and Stone Buildings in England’ (Archæologia, iv. 73). 9. ‘Observations on Lincoln Cathedral’ (ib. iv. 149). 10. ‘Observations on the Origin and Antiquity of Round Churches, and of the Round Church at Cambridge in particular’(ib. vi. 163). 11. ‘Observations on Croyland Abbey and Bridge’ (Nichols, Bibl. Top. Brit. No. xxii.) 12. ‘Description and Plan of the Ancient Timber Bridge at Rochester’ (Archæologia, vii. 395). 13. ‘Description and Plan of Denny Abbey, Cambs.’ (Lysons, Cambridgeshire, pp. 272-4). Besides these, his description of the old chapel of Sidney Sussex College, and his ‘Journal of a Tour through part of Flanders and France in August 1773,’ have been printed since his death in the ‘Architectural History of the University and Colleges of Cambridge,’ by the Rev. R. Willis and J. W. Clark, and the Cambr. Antiq. Soc. Octavo Publ. No. xxiv. respectively.
The name of Essex is also connected with six engraved designs: 1. A birdseye view of the quadrangle of King's College, Cambridge, to explain a scheme for laying out the court and gardens, on the supposition that the three buildings designed by Gibbs were completed. It is lettered: ‘This east prospect of King's College in Cambridge, as intended to be finish'd, is humbly inscrib'd to the worshipful Andrew Snape, D.D., Provost . . .by ... Jam. Essex, junr, Jams Gibbs, Arch. Jams Essex junr Delin., 1741. P. Fourdrinier Sculp.’ 2. A view of Burrough's design for a new court at Trinity Hall, lettered: ‘Aulæ Sanctæ Trinitatis Cantab: ab Occidente. The West Front of Trinity Hall in Cambridge. Jac. Burrough Arch. 1743. Jac. Essex, junr, delineavit, W. H. Toms Sculp.’ 3. ‘The Plan and Elevation of an intended Addition to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. Designed by James Essex, junior. Jacs Essex, junr Delineavit, 1748. W.H.Toms Sculp.’ 4. ‘A Design for the Publick Library at Cambridge, made by the late Sr James Burrough in the Year 1752.’ 5. ‘Elevation of the New Front design'd for Emanuel College, Cambridge. Jac. Essex desigt et del. P. S. Lamborn sculp.’ 6. ‘The West Prospect of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Jacs Essex desigt et delt 1773. Major sculpt.’
[Life of Essex in Introduction to his Journal of a Tour through part of Flanders and France in August 1773 (Cambr. Antiq. Soc. Octavo Publ. No. xxiv.); R. Willis and J. W. Clark's Architectural History of the University and Colleges of Cambridge, iii. 540-6; Cooper's Annals of Cambridge, iv. 413; Addit. MSS. Brit. Mus. 6761-73, 6776; MSS. Cole, Addit. MSS. 5842, 5845, 5868; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 687, vi. 625, viii. 578, 607; Nichols's Illustr. vi. 284-310; Archæologia, xvi. 306; Gough's Camden, ed. 1789, i. 329; E. J. Willson's Remarks on Modern Gothic Architecture, prefixed to Pugin's Specimens, pp. xvi, xvii; Bentham's Ely, ed. 1812, p. 284; Rev. D. J. Stewart's Architectural Hist. of Ely Cathedral, pp. 74, 125-7; Rev. E. Venables's Architectural Hist. of Lincoln Cathedral, Archæol. Journ. xl. 159-92, 377-418.]