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James Wyatt

(1746—1813) architect


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(1746–1813).

English architect, one of the most outstanding, prolific, and successful of his time. He spent six years in Italy from 1762 before returning to England where he worked for the family firm, mostly with his brother Samuel. He evolved an elegant Neo-Classicism, possibly derived not only from his time in Italy, but from studies of the work of Adam at Kedleston, Derbys. Indeed his first architecturally significant house was Heaton Hall, Lancs. (c. 1772–8), loosely based on a simplified and refined version of Paine's designs for Kedleston, complete with a central bow. He made his name, however, with The Pantheon, Oxford Street, London (1769–72—with Samuel), a Neo-Classical domed assembly-room given the imprimatur of that arbiter of taste, Horace Walpole, who declared it the ‘most beautiful edifice in England’.

At 26 Wyatt had arrived. He became Surveyor to Westminster Abbey (1776), Architect to the Board of Ordnance (1782), and Surveyor-General and Comptroller of the Office of Works (1796), designed or altered several Royal residences, and carried out many other commissions, including well over 100 country-houses. However, his interventions with medieval buildings were not universally admired, and he made drastic, even irresponsible, and certainly controversial alterations to five cathedrals (his work at Salisbury, Wilts. (1789–92), and Hereford (1786–96) earned him the nickname ‘The Destroyer’, as his approach to medieval fabric was cavalier, speculative, and unarchaeological), and at Durham Cathedral his proposals to demolish the Galilee and commit other acts of vandalism roused ferocious opposition led by John Carter.

His Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford (1776–94), drew on the Tower of the Winds in Athens (c.50 bc) for its inspiration, and he completed the interior of Sir Robert Taylor's Heveningham Hall, Suffolk (c. 1780–4), in an elegant Neo-Classical style (damaged in the 1980s). His finest houses are Heaton Hall (mentioned above), Castle Coole, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland (1790–7—with an elliptical saloon expressed as a bow on one of the fronts), and the severe Dodington Park, Glos. (1798–1813). Two of his best designs were for mausolea: that for the 4th Earl of Darnley at Cobham, Kent (c. 1783–4—in ruins), was a noble and severe Neo-Classical work, while that for the 1st Earl of Yarborough at Brocklesby Park, Lincs. (1786–94), is a refined interpretation of the Antique Roman Temples of Vesta at Tivoli and Rome, a work of rare beauty that unquestionably is his masterpiece.

As a Gothic architect Wyatt was fashionably successful, his most Sublime house in that style being Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (1796–1812—destroyed), which was much admired when new. Ashridge Park, Herts. (1802–13), and the additions to Wilton House, Wiltshire, including the cloister (1801–11), were also Gothic. One room for his Gothic Lee Priory, Ickham, Kent (c. 1785–90—demolished), survives in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. He provided plans for the Earl-Bishop of Derry's great house, Downhill, Co. Londonderry, Northern Ireland (built c. 1776–9 under Shanahan's direction— now —in ruins), and remodelled Belvoir Castle, Leics. (1801–13) in a castellated Gothic style.

His output was enormous and embraced many building-types, although there is evidence that he accepted more commissions than he was capable of carrying out, and he persistently neglected his official duties to the point of incompetence. Nevertheless, he began to eclipse the Adam brothers quite early in his career, and some of his interiors are as delicate as anything they achieved. Particularly felicitous are those of Heaton Hall, near Manchester, and the enchanting Brocklesby Mausoleum, Lincs.

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Subjects: Architecture.


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