Important British Classical architect. Son of a Scottish merchant, he was born at Göteborg, Sweden, educated in Yorks., and travelled in India and China with the Swedish East India Company (1740–9). In 1749 he enrolled in J. -F. Blondel's École des Arts in Paris and in 1750 he travelled to Italy, where he spent five years and was taught drawing skills by Clérisseau and others, as well as studying Antique and contemporary buildings. During his European sojourns he absorbed many of the ideas that were to lead to Neo-Classicism in the second half of C18.
He set up in practice in London in 1755, and in 1756 became architectural tutor to the Prince of Wales (later King George III (1760–1820) ). In 1757 he was commissioned to lay out the grounds of the Dowager Princess of Wales's house at Kew, and ornamented the gardens with an exotic array of temples and garden-buildings, including the Chinese Pagoda (1761–2). He published Designs of Chinese Buildings… (1757—which was regarded as a source for pictures of Chinese architecture even though by then the fashion for Chinoiserie had almost ended), and Treatise on Civil Architecture (1759) which became an important and standard work dealing with the Orders and their uses, going into further editions in 1768 and 1791 (when it became A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture, much expanded and amended). By 1760 he was established in his practice and became one of the two architects (the other was Robert Adam) appointed by the Crown in the Office of Works. Plans, Elevations, Sections, and Perspective Views of the Garden Buildings at Kew in Surrey came out in 1763, tactfully dedicated to his Royal patroness; he succeeded Flitcroft as Comptroller of the Works in 1769; and in 1782 was appointed Surveyor-General and Comptroller, in which position he rapidly showed himself to be a first-rate administrator as well as a great official architect.
Chambers's architecture combined English Palladianism and French Neo-Classicism, as can be seen at the Casino, Marino, near Dublin (1758–76), built on a Greek-cross plan, and at his masterpiece, Somerset House, London (1776–96), arguably the grandest official building ever erected in the capital: John Webb's Queen's Gallery, Somerset House (1662), which had an arched rusticated ground-floor and a Giant Order rising through the first and second floors, was quoted in the new building by Chambers. Duddingston House, Midlothian, a country-house by Chambers near Edinburgh (1763–8), is not unlike Campbell's Stourhead, Wilts., but has no rusticated basement and the Corinthian portico sits on a platform only four steps high. Chambers also designed in 1775 the Theatre (built 1777–86) and Chapel (built 1787–c.1800) at Trinity College, Dublin, two of the most distinguished buildings of the College. However, Chambers, it seems, had a blind spot concerning Greek architecture, referring to ‘Attic Deformity’, but he designed Milton Abbey House, Dorset (1771–6), in the Gothic style, and indeed seems to have planned a treatise on Gothic for publication. At Kew Gardens he had no stylistic inhibitions, building an Alhambra, Moorish mosque, and buildings in the Chinese style, as well as more conventional Classical structures: he seems to have intended to provide the Gardens with a sort of encyclopedia of architectural styles. It should be remembered that he was the only architect in England at the time who had ever seen real Chinese buildings. In 1772 he published his Dissertation on Oriental Gardening, which was in reality an attack on the manner of landscape-design promoted by ‘Capability’ Brown, but was misinterpreted as an apology for the Chinese garden as an exemplar, and earned him opprobrium. He may have been responsible for the layout of the model village at Milton Abbas (c. 1774–80). His pupils included Gandon, and his influence was important and widespread.