Address given at a wreathlaying marking the bicentenary of the death of the architect James Wyatt
5 September 2013 at 18:00 pm
Dr John Martin Robinson, Maltravers Herald of Arms Extraordinary
James Wyatt (1746-1813)
James Wyatt, 'Architect of this church and Surveyor General of His Majesty's Works … His professional ability was the combined result of superior genius, science and energy'; I quote from the epitaph behind me.
James Wyatt died 200 years ago in September 1813 in a road accident on Marlborough Downs. He was travelling back to London from Dodington in Gloucestershire, his last major classical house, in the carriage of his client there, Sir Christopher Codrington. They were travelling at the huge speed of 12 miles an hour. As they came to a narrow stretch of road, a wagon was parked on the other side with a man on horseback overtaking and coming towards them. Codrington's carriage hit the horse and overturned. Wyatt, who had taken his hat off to read a newspaper, hit his head against the roof of the carriage and was killed instantly. (It is interesting to note that the roads were good enough in 1813 to read a paper when travelling at speed.)
Wyatt was buried here in the South transept of Westminster Abbey, close to his predecessor Sir William Chambers and his old rival Robert Adam. The government of Lord Liverpool gave him an official funeral appropriate to his role as principal architect to King George III.
The obituaries at the time were unanimous in their assessment of his genius. To continue from his epitaph: he was 'transcendently distinguished in his profession'. James Elmes in 1823 (10 years after Wyatt's death) wrote, 'Wyatt revived a correct style [classical] and introduced one still purer than any of his predecessors [gothic] … The first instance of a regularly bred and genuine architect was the classical and scientific Wyatt … Wyatt was richer and more learned in his art than either Jones, Wren or Vanbrugh. Equally inventive with as fine a taste as Jones, less scientific than Wren, more admirable in his details than any preceding architect; his is at the head of our best school, from which has emanated all the finest works of the present day.'
And yet, Wyatt’s posthumous reputation has been overshadowed. To the Victorians, led by Pugin, he was 'Wyatt the Destructive', and to the Modernist 20th century he was a man of no artistic principles – too various and too prolific.
Even in his own time he was an ambivalent figure. Lord Liverpool (whose government paid for his funeral and granted his widow a pension of £100 p.a.) said of him: 'A man of the most considerable talents as an architect, he was certainly one of the worst public servants I recollect in any office, not I am persuaded from dishonesty or lack of zeal, but from carelessness and from always choosing to engage in a great deal more business than he was capable of performing.' Complaints from clients about his neglect and lack of punctuality were legion. George III's present of a gold watch, I always think, must have been a tactful royal hint!
But we are not here today to dwell on the dark side, but to celebrate Wyatt's undoubted genius as an architect, one of the greatest of the 18th century. Master of an original neo-classical manner which developed into the prototype of the Regency Style. And the first serious English Gothic Revival architect. His vault over the crossing here has gone – bombed in the war – but his external refacing of Henry VII's Chapel, with Thomas Gayfere the mason, is a milestone in the serious historical restoration of a Gothic building.
Wyatt was a lucky man. Lucky in the end in that he died before the government investigation into his neglect at the Office of Works was completed – it would have led to his dismissal if still alive – and before his bankruptcy (he was always hopeless with money) became apparent. After his death everything had to be sold: house, drawings, office archive, making things difficult for his biographer. Lucky at the beginning in that as a boy of 16 he was taken into an embassy to study in Venice. He lodged there with Consul Smith and studied under Antonio Visentini, professor of perspective at the Venetian Academy. Then he spent 4 years in Rome recording the classical and renaissance monuments and became a protégé of Gian Battista Piranesi, great apostle of Roman neo-classicism. In Italy he met Richard Dalton, the Royal Librarian who was there to buy Consul Smith's Collection for George III (which is why all those magnificent Canalettos are now at Windsor). Dalton introduced Wyatt to the King and life-long royal patronage beginning with the arrangements and royal box for the Handel Centenary, here in 1786.
Dalton was also responsible for Wyatt's first great commission on his return from Italy aged 22 in 1768, the Pantheon (a winter assembly room) in Oxford Street. Alas, this neo-classical masterpiece was burnt after only 20 years, but it made Wyatt's reputation. The mere rumour that he might go to Russia to work for Catherine the Great was enough to encourage a group of English dukes to club together and each pay him a retainer of £50 p.a. The most important of these was the Duke of Richmond who made him Surveyor to the Ordnance with a range of large-scale public commissions to follow.
Wyatt immediately superseded Robert Adam as the fashionable architect, and embarked on a dazzling series of houses with beautiful interiors for which he designed the furniture himself: Heaton Hall, Heveningham and Bowden Park in England, Wynnstay in Wales, Curraghmore, Mount Kennedy and Castle Coole in Ireland.
Wyatt's Irish practice is a story in itself. It was conducted by post (so efficient was the Royal Mail in the late-18th century) through an executant, the Quaker Thomas Penrose in Dublin. He only went to Ireland once in 1783 to supervise work at Slane Castle for his most important Irish client, Burton Conyngham. There he was enthused by Conyngham's enthusiasm for Batalha, the gothic church in Portugal of which Conyngham had commissioned measured drawings. This was Wyatt's conversion to Gothic. On his return to England he put this new enthusiasm into effect in his 1780s designs for Lee Priory (Kent), a Batalha-inspired house for a friend of Horace Walpole's. Lee was the forerunner of the gigantic gothic house at Fonthill Abbey which Wyatt created for the megalomaniac millionaire recluse William Beckford, and the most astonishing private house in Europe. (It collapsed in1825). The seriousness of Wyatt's gothic was underpinned by his work on old buildings such as the restoration at Oxford, notably New College Chapel and on five cathedrals. The latter however were controversial and stirred up antiquarian rage and opposition, the basis of his reputation as 'the Destroyer'.
Nevertheless in the last decades of his life, he was omni-competent. Work poured from his drawing board: magnificent public buildings at Woolwich Arsenal, Brompton Barracks, Liverpool Town Hall, the Oxford Observatory; and houses like domed Stoke Park or porticoed Dodington; not to mention vast gothic projects such as the restoration of Windsor Castle and the large new palace at Kew for George III; or Ashridge, an enormous gothic house – with a frontage of 1000 feet – in Hertfordshire, on which he was working at the time of his death.
But perhaps it is most apt on this occasion to recall his mausoleums – 'houses of the dead', a neo-classical ideal. Those at Cobham in Kent (for Lord Darnley), a William Chambers inspired temple bearing aloft the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, or Brocklesby in Lincolnshire (for Sophia Aufrère, a young wife) inspired by the tomb of Cecilia Metella and the Temple of Vesta, are the finest buildings of their type and date in Europe, and Wyatt's masterpieces. They are his true memorial: Si Monumentum Requiris … go to Kent, go to Lincolnshire. But he is buried here in the transept at Westminster Abbey. And now we will lay a wreath on his tomb.