Building Grand Houses: Notes on The Architect in Georgian Britain

Georgian architecture respected the scale of both the individual and the community.

Stephen Gardiner

The remit of the architect in the 18th century became all-encompassing. It was during this period that the role flourished in such a way that had been unrealised in preceding centuries. Indeed, considering the great names in architecture of the era, one would associate a certain fame (William Kent, Colen Campbell, Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork): these men were not merely builders, but gentlemen of the arts whose employment was sought after as a matter of taste among the gentility.

Portrait of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753).

Prior to this century, we can note the distinct absence of the professional architect – building, as a trade, perhaps did not so much garner the respectability that it did henceforth. At the same time, during the 18th century, any manner of gentleman might call himself an ‘architect’ by our definition – be they members of the gentry, amateurs, surveyors or tradesmen[1]. When we approach the country house, we are examining buildings that are both public and private. Mostly, it was public works that garnered high-profile planning and commissions – for example, in the building of churches.

Thomas Malton’s Oxford (late 18th century).

From the dawn of the Elizabethan prodigy house, there was a rise in the creation of great houses built by and for great men. These inspired new manners of building, according to taste and here I would introduce the concept of the ‘individual’ architect who could craft a building according to contemporary fashion.

The House of Thomas Archer Esq in Covent Garden: 18th century.

The Georgian period is unique in that we see variations of the architect attached to the activity of building: firstly, one might note those with a passion for architecture who inevitably took it up, for example, John Vanbrugh (1664 – 1726) and the “Architect Earl”[2] Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694 – 1753). Craftsmen, too, by training could gain distinction – becoming distinguished ‘architects’ in their own right. It might be prudent to identify the mid-18th century as the point at which we see ‘architecture’ emerge as a profession, with the ‘architect’ being a recognisable figure in the landscape of building. Those with tenure set the mode and had a firm grasp of architecture not merely as a decorative occupation, but also as a science – having been studied and mastered for the wider market.

Title page, Vitruvius Britannicus; or, The British architect, containing the plans, elevations, and sections of the regular buildings, both publick and private in Great Britain, with variety of new designs, written by Colen Campbell.

It’s no wonder, then, that in 1791, The Architects Club was founded, being a select body of 19 delegates who discussed professional matters, conduct and charges[3]. The exclusivity of this dining club highlights how, in society, there was a growing sense of the architect’s professionalism and esteem. To be eligible, a member had to be either a Royal Academician, holder of the Academy’s Gold Medal or a member of a distinguished foreign institution. The club was established by George Dance, James Wyatt, Henry Holland and S. P. Cockerell and its alma matta included Chambers and Adam. Even then, in writing on the architect, one must weigh this role against that of surveyor and master-builder. Towards the end of the 18th century, attempts were made to distinguish between the designer and traditional, more manual (or ‘layman’) roles – as had been known since the sixteenth century. The Surveyors’ Club pitched itself against the Architects Club in 1792[4], further raising the question of qualifications, professional measures and national Acts relating to building. At the same time though, Dr Johnson lists the “surveyor” and “architect” in his 1755 dictionary as considerably interchangeable terms.

Realised designs for the south front (top) and north front of House of Dun, Angus.

Those such as William Adam (1689 – 1748) determined their worth and took the deliberate step to advertise themselves as architect, something that one might connect with a sense of ambition and self-determination. The ‘career’ of the architect had taken off, with, in the case of the Adam name, family tradition defining a particular set of expertise. This also demonstrates how, in building, both the architectural and interior styling were of equal importance. As with other centuries, in Georgian England, style was dictated from the top of the social order, filtering downwards into the emerging middle-classes. Developers and builders had to be ever-more sensitive to fashion, style and taste – especially given that much private architecture of the century was built on a speculative basis[5]. Both financial and social ruin were attached to architectural failure. Whether synonymous with other roles or a distinct entity in its own right, there is ambiguity and variation surrounding the term ‘architect’ and it is therefore more practical, perhaps, to consider the body of decorative works as they were undertaken by different parties in the 18th century.

The comb as a love token in Medieval and Renaissance Europe here…
Luxury shopping in 18th-century Paris here…
Tea & temperance in Victorian England here…

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!


Sources Used: 

[1] J. Mordaunt Crook, ‘The Pre-Victorian Architect: Professionalism and Patronage’, Architectural History, Vol.

[2] T. Barnard and Jane Clark, Lord Burlington: Art, Architecture and Life (A&C Black, 1995), P.  304

[3] G. Millerson, The Qualifying Associations (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), 58.

[4] S. Kotsof, The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession (University of California Press), p. 192. 5 R. Woodley, Professionals: Early Episodes among Architects and Engineers, Construction History, Vol. 15, 1999, p.15.

[5] R. Russell Lawrence and Teresa Chris, The Period House: Style, Detail & Decoration 1774 to 1914 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson London, 1996), p. 8.

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