Crotchet Castles

Peter Campbell

  • William Kent by Michael Wilson
    Routledge, 276 pp, £30.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 7100 9983 5
  • James Gibbs by Terry Friedman
    Yale, 362 pp, £40.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 300 03172 6
  • Sir John Soane, Architect by Dorothy Stroud
    Faber, 300 pp, £32.00, May 1984, ISBN 0 571 13050 X
  • The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable by Graham Reynolds
    Yale, 880 pp, £140.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 300 03151 3

The almost universal extra-professional unpopularity of architects (what other Royal Institution could the Prince of Wales put the boot into with such sure expectation of applause?) is no new phenomenon. Distrust of the man who knows what you want better than you know it yourself goes back at least as far as the 17th century. Roger North, an amateur architect whose only substantial extant work is the gateway to the Middle Temple, wrote a treatise on building in the mid-169Os. It trenchantly affirms amateur virtues: ‘where a man builds for his owne use, none can contrive well but himself. I exclude not councell ... but the owner must pronounce.’ He complains of the inability of ‘surveyors’ to keep control over work in progress and observes that they will ‘practice their owne whims, at your cost. They having viewed many fabricks, in life, and in draught, with the ornaments of the antique and moderne invention, have a world of crotchetts of their owne ... all which they have an itch to put in execution, and it is miraculous if they doe it not the first opportunity of building they are employed in. And lett a man arme himself what he can, they will argue and perswade him beyond his intentions.’ North conceded that great undertakings were not to be left to amateurs, but his belief that a gentleman with a little enthusiasm and education could build as well as a professional makes architecture seem complicated, but not mysterious.

When the profession became better established the need to be original, to advance the art of building by exercising imagination, became important to the architect’s self-esteem and reputation. Those who followed Roger North’s over-eager proto-professionals began to assume that their genius should mark the smallest details of the work they undertook and the erosion of the independence of the worker in stone, plaster, brick or wood accelerated. The drawing-men took over from the making-men. Conception and execution became separate provinces. Thinking, not building, became the architect’s highest achievement. Finally, some time around the third quarter of the 18th century, architecture became a proper profession. The self-taught amateurs and self-improved craftsmen who had filled posts of responsibility in the office of works, or (very frequently through that connection) been responsible for major buildings, were succeeded by a generation who had been pupils and assistants in the offices of their seniors, had attended lectures at the Royal Academy, and belonged to professional bodies. Their offices became more substantial and their relations with their clients more formal. William Kent, Lord Burlington’s house-guest for most of his life, stands on the pre-professional side of the divide: Sir John Soane, architect of the Bank of England, professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, on the post-professional side. The careers Dorothy Stroud and Michael Wilson describe in their new biographies of Soane and Kent illustrate the division.

James Gibbs had a more complete architectural education – in Rome – than any of his British contemporaries. He was a Catholic, and his career suffered because of it, but through his buildings at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and the churches of St Martin-in-the-Fields and St Mary-le-Strand, he has probably had as great an effect on popular ideas of what a Classical building should look like as any of his contemporaries. This influence was compounded by his Book of Architecture, which was so widely used as a source by country and colonial builders that Terry Friedman’s monograph concludes with a chapter on Gibbs-inspired designs. His account shows Gibbs as an altogether more thorough steward of his clients’ interests than Kent, a careful supervisor of workmen, business-like in his scale of fees (5 per cent on major works, five to ten guineas for small sets of drawings), and as a skilled professional – competent, for example, to adjudicate in architectural disputes. But in his catalogue Friedman regularly lists the craftsmen who worked on Gibbs’s buildings, showing that while he was composer and leader of the band he was working with soloists who might invent their own cadenzas. Soane was a conductor who expected his players to keep to the notes as written.

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