James Wyatt – Architect to George III

book review for Building Design

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 16.04.29James Wyatt: Architect to George III

By John Martin Robinson
Yale University Press
400pp; £48



A detailed and fascinating narrative of Wyatt’s extraordinary life

Two hundred years have elapsed since the death of James Wyatt. This is an appropriate time for a reassessment, which John Martin Robinson has undertaken in this detailed and fascinating narrative of Wyatt’s extraordinary life.

Wyatt led a charmed life. From relatively humble beginnings in Staffordshire, he made his way aided by family and local nobility through two years in Venice and four years in Rome: studying, drawing and observing. Contacts and powerful supporters gained in Rome led to a commission to design the Pantheon in Oxford Street, a speculative entertainment building that was to make his reputation. He barely looked back for the next 30 years.

Robinson enthuses over Wyatt’s talents and his creative development in thematic chapters covering his working methods, developing neoclassical and gothic styles of architecture; designing and furnishing country houses; collaborations with industrial giants Matthew Boulton and Wedgwood and furniture for Gillow and Hepplewhite. The result was an architectural practice and appointments that, by the late 18th century, were unchallenged in England, Wales and Ireland.

Works “of improvement” to a number of cathedrals led to Wyatt being described as “The Destroyer” for his insensitivity to the historic aspects of existing buildings. Almost nothing remains of his changes. His best “public” work at Oxford University (the Radcliffe Observatory and Oriel College Library) remain. But, for such an extensive public output, which included Woolwich Arsenal and Chatham, there is little that is unaltered if not demolished.

By the end of the 18th century Wyatt had succeeded Sir William Chambers as architect to George III. But his reputation and output has suffered since. Drawings have been lost and his chaotic working methods have taken their toll. The Pantheon was burnt down in 1792.

Wyatt was essentially an eclectic aesthete, with excellent taste, who, after the six years’ study in Italy, turned his hand to different styles with facility and sensitivity. The illustrations and detailed descriptions by Robinson are an education.

His life ended in a single tragic accident but decline was well on the way. While he was exceptionally well served by craftsmen, builders and clerks of works, he had nobody honestly handling the daily grind of practice management, keeping records and indeed claiming fees. Clients lost patience in spite of the assured way he dealt with their demands. He died in a coach accident, bankrupt.

The debate over the role of “traditional” architecture and copying is as old as the hills and Wyatt’s contribution, as a supreme interpreter of many styles, remains a rich source of reference and a great story.