James Wyatt was born on August 3, 1746, in Burton Constable Staffordshire England. He died on September 4, 1813, near Marlborough, Wiltshire. Wyatt was an English architect chiefly remembered for his romantic country houses, especially the extraordinary Gothic Revival Fonthill Abbey. He was considered one of the most outstanding, prolific, and successful architects of his time. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1785 and was its president from 1805 to 1806.
In 1762 Wyatt went to Italy, where he remained for six years. Upon his return, he worked for the family firm, mostly with his brother Samuel. On his return to England, he designed the London Pantheon (opened in 1772; later demolished), a Neoclassical building inspired by Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It was situated on Oxford Street in London (1769–72) it was a domed assembly room given the imprimatur of that arbiter of taste, Horace Walpole, who declared it “the most beautiful edifice in England. The Pantheon made Wyatt one of the most fashionable architects in England.
He evolved an elegant Neo-Classicism, derived not only from his time in Italy but from studies of the work of Adam at Kedleston, Derbys. His first architecturally significant house was Heaton Hall, Lancs (1772–78). This was loosely based on a simplified and refined version of Paine’s designs for Kedleston, complete with a central bow.
At 26, Wyatt 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 archaeological. Also, at Durham Cathedral his proposals to demolish 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’ Everingham Hall, Suffolk, (c. 1789–4), in an elegant Neo-Classical style (damaged in the 1980s). His finest houses are Heaton Hall, Castle Coole, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland (1790–7), and the severe Dodington Park, Glos. (1798–1813).
As a Gothic architect, Wyatt was fashionably successful. His most sublime house in that style was Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (1796–1912-destroyed), which was much admired when new. Fonthill Abbey was a country house with a tower 270 feet high. Nothing could more clearly illustrate both the impracticality of usage and the romantic associations with medieval life. One room for his Gothic Lee Priory, Ickham, Kent (c. 1785–90-demolished), survives in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Between 1805 and 1808 Wyatt remodeled West Dean House in West Dean, West Sussex. Wyatt’s work was remarkable because it is built entirely of flint, even to the door and window openings, which would normally be lined with stone.
Wyatt’s output was enormous, and he embraced many building types, although there is evidence that he accepted more commissions than he was capable of carrying out. He persistently neglected his official duties to the point of incompetence.
When Wyatt suddenly found himself to be the principal architect of the day, he also found that he was taking on more commissions than he could fulfill. His widespread practice and the duties of his official posts left him with little time to give proper attention to the individual needs of his clients. As early as 1790, when he was invited to submit designs for rebuilding St. Chad’s Church at Shrewsbury, he broke his engagements with such frequency that the committee “became at length offended and addressed themselves to Mr. George Stewart.” In 1804, Jeffrey Wyatt told Farington that his uncle had lost “many great commissions” by such neglect. When approached by a new client, he would at first take the keenest interest in the commission, but when the work was about to begin he would lose interest in it and “employ himself upon trifling professional matters which others could do.” His conduct of official business was no better than his treatment of his private clients and there can be no doubt that it was Wyatt’s irresponsible habits that led to the reorganization of the Board of Works after his death. As a result of this, the Surveyor’s office was placed in the hands of a political chief assisted by three “attached architects.”
Wyatt died on the 4th of September 1813 as a result of an accident in the carriage in which he was traveling over the Marlborough Downs with his friend and employer, Christopher Bethell-Codrington of Dodington Park. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. He left a widow and four sons, of whom the eldest, Benjamin Dean, and the youngest, Philip, were notable architects. Matthew Cotes (1777–1862), the second son, became a well-known sculptor, whose best work is a bronze statue of George III on Cockspur Street off Trafalgar Square. Charles, the third son was for a time in the service of the East India Company at Calcutta but returned to England in 1801; nothing is known of his later career.
James Wyatt had an illustrious career with many peaks and valleys. He was a great talent who may not have been able to handle all of the responsibilities put upon him. Nevertheless, he left a legacy that will live on. We at Scarano Architect, PLLC, enjoy learning about those architects that helped shape and build the world we live in. Please visit our website to see our award-winning designs. We would love to help you create the vision you have been dreaming of. Remember, we are only a phone call away!