A Scots RC, he turned to architecture in 1704 while training for the priesthood in Rome, and became a pupil of Carlo Fontana. He returned to Britain in 1709, having acquired a thorough knowledge of Roman Baroque. Partly through the good offices of Wren, he became one of the two Surveyors to the Commissioners for Building Fifty New Churches in London in 1713, and designed the masterly St Mary-le-Strand (1714–24), with its powerfully Roman side elevations and modelling recalling works by Cortona and Borromini, which made his reputation. With Queen Anne's death in 1714 and the new regime of King George I (1714–27) and Whiggery, Gibbs, who, as a Tory, Scot, and Papist, was suspect, was dismissed. He was then patronized by Burlington, but shortly afterwards superseded by Campbell as architect of Burlington House. Campbell's machinations also led to the omission of any mention of Gibbs from Vitruvius Britannicus. Through John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll (1680–1743), he was employed to design Sudbrooke House, Petersham, Surrey (c. 1717–20), and in 1720 designed St Martin-in-the-Fields, London (1722–6), with its Roman temple-front, steeple derived from the works of Wren, and galleried rectangular body with two rows of windows, which became the prototype for urban Anglican churches for the next century, being widely copied even across the Atlantic. He also designed Derby Cathedral (1723–5), the mausoleum at Kirkleatham Church, Yorks. (1740), and St Nicholas Church West, Aberdeen (1741–55).
His secular buildings were many, and his training in Italy gave him an advantage over his rivals, compensating for his difficulties of birth and religion. He designed the Senate House, Cambridge (1722–30), Fellows' Building, King's College, Cambridge (1724–49), and the Radcliffe Library, Oxford (1737–8). The last owes much to earlier designs by Hawksmoor, but as completed shows an Italian influence unthinkable in Hawksmoor.
Among other works are the cupolas at Houghton Hall, Norfolk (1725–8), various fabriques at Stowe, Bucks., including the Gothic Temple of Liberty (1741–4), Temple of Friendship (1739), and Belvedere (1726–8—demolished). He also designed numerous monuments, including several in Westminster Abbey (e.g. Dryden, 1720). Gibbs advertised his work in A Book of Architecture (1728—2nd edn. 1739), which spread his influence far and wide, and was probably the most widely used architectural book of C18. He also published Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture (1732—with further editions of 1736, 1738, and 1753).
Colvin (1995);Friedman (1984); Gibbs (1728, 1732, 1747);E. Harris (1990);Little (1955);Summerson (ed.) (1993)