This is another monumental (and heavy!) book by Yale but its subject matter amply deserves such a sumptuous celebration.
James Wyatt had a fascinating career: his early triumphs were overshadowed by a reputation for delay and a maddening inability to finish even the most pressing commissions.He had a geographically wide-ranging set of clients and appears to have been unable to refuse any of them. Dissatisfied clients by the score was the result when Wyatt was unable, and it appears to me, sometimes unwilling to finish work on his commissions. But when Wyatt did turn up on site he appears to have been universally loved and well liked. His extravagant personal life, allied with a tendency to drunkenness meant that his reputation became sullied. His papers were burnt or lost. Many of his commissions have now been demolished, and some of those that did survive have been vilified (his restoration work on some of our great cathedrals Westminster Abbey, Salisbury and Litchfield for example ) His death in 1813 in a carriage accident was, in a way, fortuitous, for it prevented him and his family having to suffer the disgrace of him being dismissed from the office of Surveyor -General and Comptroller of the Office of Works, where he had succeeded Sir William Chambers in the post. From the evidence of this book he seems to have been a man of sudden enthusiasms, unsuited to the steady, plodding work of a journeyman architect/committee member necessary for the sometimes no doubt mundane and regular work overseeing of the Office of Works. His neglect of his business and financial affairs eventually left his and his family’s finances in a precarious position.
John Martin Robinson’s book attempts to re-establish him as one of the most important architects of the late Georgian era. His reputation was first secured by his early triumph of the design for the Pantheon in London’s Oxford Street –the Winter Ranelagh ( above). Built in 1772 the building is examined in wonderful detail in this book- with floor plans enough to satisfy even me.And of course, in a different guise it had an association with Jane Austen for Henry Austen, her brother who loved living the high life, had a box there. Sadly this building no longer exists, and the prints which illustrate it in this book make one sigh in distress at no longer being able to visit it. Mundane note: a branch of Marks and Spencer now occupies its site.
Wyatt’s Gothick “ruined abbey” at Fonthill (above) designed for the eccentric William Beckford, the country houses he designed or embellished here in the UK or in Ireland, his wonderful buildings at Oxford, including the Ratcliffe Observatory and the exquisite Library at Brasenose College are all covered extensively in the text and are superbly illustrated.
Wyatt’s ingenious turn of mind is shown in the small silver articles his designed for Matthew Boulton( whom he drove almost to distraction when working on his Birmingham home, Soho House). The Adam brothers, architects supreme of the last quarter of the 18th century, haughtily declined to design such small items, but Wyatt produced wonderful designs for Boulton, see the example below:
New research by the author of this book has made one very interesting discovery: that the Hepplewhite designs for furniture, famous for two centuries and thought to be illustrative of George Hepplewhite’s designs, and which were posthumously published as The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide in 1788, 2 years after his death in 1786, were most probably not designed by any person called Hepplewhite but were Wyatt’s own work. As with any Yale production, this book is sumptuously produced, and I have enjoyed pouring over its pages over the Christmas holiday. The illustrations show an aspect of Late Georgian/Regency life -the works of James Wyatt-that have almost disappeared from view, and reading this wonderfully illustrated book restores Wyatt’s exquisite work to our notice.