The ennobler of human life

James Yorke on “James Wyatt: Architect to the Crown and Designer of Complete Interiors” at Sybil Colerfax & John Fowler, London (until 6th December)


James Wyatt and Jeffry Wyatville, The Yellow Room, 1821-23

Colefax and Fowler in association with the Georgian Group are celebrating the bicentenary of James Wyatt (1746-1813) with an exhibition at 39 Brook Street, in the Yellow Room, which was created by his nephew, Jeffry Wyatville between 1821 and 1823. It has been designed by George Carter and includes furniture from Heveningham Hall, Suffolk, a series of watercolours of Wyatt interiors painted this year by Royston Jones, silver by Matthew Boulton and an architectural model of Fonthill Spendens. Wyatt, who was Britain’s greatest architect of the last 30 years of the 18th century, has finally won the recognition he deserves. This is largely owing to the researches of John Martin Robinson, curator of the exhibition and author of James Wyatt (1746-1813): Architect to George III (2012).

Robert Adam is famous enough to have had a style named after him. But by about 1775 his reputation had been partly eclipsed by the rising star of James Wyatt, architect of the Pantheon, a winter assembly room in Oxford Street, London. After it was completed in 1772, Horace Walpole hailed this building as “the most beautiful edifice in England”, and Wyatt became the latest “must-have” architect. But after his death in 1813, the Gentleman’s Magazine praised his genius but regretted his neglect of detail and lack of material rewards. Gothic purists called him “Wyatt the Destroyer”, and the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, thought him “one of the worst Public Servants I recollect in any office”. Adam may have been ruthlessly professional but Wyatt was a genial man who liked good wine and company, though ready to leave the dinner table abruptly when work demanded. But he took on more commissions than he could cope with, and channelled his energies into what interested him instead of nurturing his many clients. Some, particularly William Beckford, raged at his unreliable ways, and others he placated with his characteristic charm. As Surveyor General to the King’s Works from 1796 until his death in 1813, he left the office in disarray. But as favourite architect to both King George III and Queen Charlotte, he allowed their demands to take precedence: his royal commissions are very much in evidence at Windsor Castle, and there survives an exquisite design for a Gothic cottage at Frogmore intended for Queen Charlotte but (sadly) never executed.

Unlike the Adam brothers, Wyatt responded enthusiastically to Matthew Boulton’s overtures with designs for commercial metalwork. He also designed furniture for Gillows and architectural ornament for Mrs Coade. Articles made in this elegant style were produced on a large scale and exported worldwide towards the end of the 18th century. They were thought of as characteristically English good taste, and this was largely owing to the genius of Wyatt. But he received little credit, and his furniture designs were attributed to Hepplewhite. However, in 1946 the Vicomte de Noailles bought an album of Wyatt designs. This priceless document has helped dispel such mistaken impressions and gain Wyatt long overdue recognition as perhaps the first architect-cum-industrial-designer, a role widespread among Victorians but virtually unknown in the 1770s.

Thanks to the generosity of English Heritage, examples of the original furniture from Heveningham Hall feature prominently in the exhibition. Between 1778 and 1784, James Wyatt created interiors in a house, already built by Sir Robert Taylor (1714-1788) for Sir Gerard Vanneck, a rich city merchant of Dutch origins. Heveningham is one of the few Wyatt houses to retain a large amount of its original furniture. A selection of chairs, mahogany and painted, from the Dining Room, Hall, various drawing rooms and bed chambers can be seen, as well as a hall table and torchères. The makers remain unknown, but the exquisite mahogany dining chairs have been attributed to Gillows. They closely resemble designs formerly belonging to Thomas Penrose, Wyatt’s chief executant in Ireland, now in an album in the National Library of Ireland, Dublin. In addition, a painted tripod in the exhibition is clearly derived from a design in the de Noailles album. This priceless furniture is amongst the best examples of what has often mistakenly been called “Hepplewhite” furniture, but ultimately it was Wyatt to whom Hepplewhite’s widow was indebted when she first published her late husband’s engravings in 1788.

This exhibition goes a long way to providing James Wyatt with the recognition he deserves – indeed what the Gentleman’s Magazine’s obituary called “a reputation which will live as long as the Liberal Arts continue to embellish and ennoble human life”.

Published Mon, 04 Nov 2013 14:00:00 GMT

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