Basic Biographical Details

Name: Robert William Billings
Designation: Architect
Born: 1813
Died: 14 November 1874
Bio Notes: Robert William Billings was born in London in 1813 and became a pupil of John Britton at the age of 13. He early became a fine architectural draughtsman, and although he had no formal training as an architect was admitted ARIBA on 27 July 1835, his proposers being Peter Frederick Robinson, Henry Rhodes and Henry Edward Kendall. At that date he was based in Bath where he lived from 1834 until 1837, but both Robinson's nomination and his subsequent succession to Robinson as architect to Robert and Anna Gordon’s Kemble estate in Gloucestershire suggest that he may have had some practical training in Robinson's office. While in Bath he married Antoinette Clarkson on 21 April 1836. She had some skill in drawing and assisted him in his publications.

In 1837 Billings drew the illustrations for George Godwin's 'History and Description of St Paul's', followed by 'The Churches of London' with another Britton protégé, Frederick Mackenzie. Concurrently with these publications he assisted Sir Jeffry Wyatville with the later stages of the reconstruction of Windsor Castle, his connection with the project lasting until at least 1845, and made drawings of the ruins of the Palace of Westminster after the fire of 1834.

Billings's other publications of the 1830s and early 1840s comprise 'Temple Church' (1838); 'Gothic panelling in Brancepeth Church' (1841); 'Kettering Church' (1843); 'Carlisle Cathedral' (1840); 'Durham Cathedral' (1843) and 'The Architectural Antiquities of the County of Durham' (1846). At that date he was living at 4A Lower Belgrave, London.

In the early 1840s Billings became acquainted with the Edinburgh architect William Burn. How this came about is unclear as it appears to have preceded Burn’s work on Raby Castle in County Durham. Initially Billings seems to have been drafted in on a short-term contract to help with the major projects Burn and his partner David Bryce then had in hand as it is known that he designed a carpet for the royal visit to Dalkeith Palace in 1842, but by that date Burn already had been planning a book on Scottish architecture. A volume of Bryce drawings of Heriot’s Hospital and the tombs in Greyfriars Churchyard, now in George Washington University, St Louis, Missouri, may relate to it. When Burn moved to London in 1844 leaving Bryce in charge of the Edinburgh office, he again sought out Billings with the proposal that he should undertake ‘The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland’ to be published by William Blackwood’s sons Robert and John Blackwood. The concept was finalised in October 1845 and once Billings’s existing commitments in Durham and at Windsor had been cleared, work began in earnest in February 1846, the year in which the prospectus was issued and subscriptions raised. The project cost was largely provided by the Blackwoods who found Billings ‘a very rum customer’ but were reassured by his enthusiasm and the excellence of his draughtsmanship.

Blackwood published the book in sixty parts, each with four plates retailing at two shillings and sixpence. The area surveyed extended as far as Orkney, Antoinette travelling with her husband and ‘studying drawing most confoundedly hard so as to be useful as well as ornamental’. In the north-east Billings was greatly assisted by Thomas Mackenzie, the Elgin and Aberdeen architect, who remained a particular friend until his premature death in 1854. At the Blackwoods’ insistence ‘Historical Notice’ sections in the text were provided by the historian John Hill Burton, both Burn and Billings having initially resisted his involvement.

When the publication was first issued the authors were named on the pictorial title pages as Billings and Burn. In the summer of 1850 Burn sought to withdraw his capital. While this coincided with the closure of his partnership with David Bryce in July, his letter as quoted by Billings indicates a need to raise capital which probably related to one of his sons running into serious financial difficulty although the date of that mishap is not precisely known. In August 1850 Billings and the Blackwoods each bought out half of Burn’s £1000 share, these half shares being valued at £566 and eleven shillings. Burn’s name was then removed from the title page. On completion of the project the book was re-issued as a complete four volume set in 1852. However in that year Robert Blackwood died and Billings’s relationship with John had begun to sour as a result of financial disagreements over Billings’ publications on gothic tracery. These had begun with ‘An attempt to define the geometric proportions of Gothic architecture as illustrated by the Cathedrals of Carlisle and Worcester’ (1840) and ‘Illustrations of Geometric tracery from the panelling belonging to Carlisle Cathedral’ (1842) and were continued in ‘The Infinity of Geometric Design Exemplified’ (1849) and ‘The Power of Form Applied to geometric Tracery’ (1851) both probably undertaken as winter work and published by Blackwoods. The disagreements over these appear to have subsequently extended to their partnership in ‘The Baronial and Eccelsiastical Antiquities’ as the 1855 re-issue was undertaken by Edmonston & Douglas. This included a prefatory note by Billings setting out the story of Burn’s withdrawal of his capital presumably with the object of justifying the change of authorship. Commercially the book was ultimately a success as it became the source book for every Scottish practice undertaking work in the baronial idiom until MacGibbon & Ross's 'Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland' began to appear from 1887 onwards. Billings's 'Studies in gothic geometry and tracery', also had a considerable influence on contemporary architectural practice.

Billings career as an architect in independent practice rather than as Author seems to have begun with work on Kemble House from 1848 and Kemble vicarage built in 1840. Although based at 3 St Mary's Road, Canonbury, London, his business was predominantly Scottish, much of it for the Royal Engineers on the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling. His practice was peripatetic in nature, emulating the master builders of the Middle Ages in that he executed much of the sculpture with his own hands. As a designer he had a marked predilection for angular forms, plate tracery and trapezoidal and multi-angular arches.

In later years Billings was a Director of the Crystal Palace Board, his main duties being its ongoing maintenance although his unfinished panoramic view of London from the dome of St Pauls’ Cathedral was presumably intended for it. His most important client was Sir George Burns for whom he massively extended Wemyss Castle following the latter's retirement in 1860. In 1865 he bought The Moulinière, once the home of Sarah Duchess of Marlborough, where he died on 14 November 1874, leaving moveable estate of 'under £2,000'. He was survived by his wife who died in 1884. The panoramic view of London was given to St Paul’s Cathedral that year.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 5Manor House, Kentish Town, London, EnglandPrivate1835  
Item 2 of 544 Lower Belgrave Place, London, ScotlandBusiness1845  
Item 3 of 596, Lower Belgrave Place, London, EnglandBusiness1848 *  
Item 4 of 53, St Mary's Road, Canonbury, London, EnglandBusiness18551861 
Item 5 of 5Moulinere, Putney, London, EnglandPrivate18681874Moulinere was a former home of the Duchess of Marlborough

* earliest date known from documented sources.

Buildings and Designs

This architect was involved with the following buildings or structures from the date specified (click on an item to view details):
 Date startedBuilding nameTown, district or villageIslandCity or countyCountryNotes
Item 1 of 27 Auldbar Castle  AngusScotlandScheme for porte cochere
Item 2 of 271845Great Malvern Priory screenGreat Malvern WorcestershireEnglandDesign exhibited (also in 1853)
Item 3 of 27c. 1845Cawdor Castle  NairnshireScotlandSketch of panelling in drawing room
Item 4 of 271848Kemble House and estate buildings  Wiltshire/GloucestershireEnglandRemodelling with bay windows; also hall screen
Item 5 of 271850Vicarage at KembleKemble GloucestershireEngland 
Item 6 of 27c. 1850100 Brunswick Street  GlasgowScotlandPossible attribution (HS)
Item 7 of 27c. 1851Bank of Scotland Headquarters, The Mound  EdinburghScotlandSuggested remodelling
Item 8 of 271853Edinburgh Castle, St Margaret's Chapel  EdinburghScotlandScheme
Item 9 of 271853Wemyss Bay HouseWemyss Bay RenfrewshireScotland 
Item 10 of 271854Crosby ChurchCrosby-on-Eden CumberlandEngland 
Item 11 of 271854Gosford House, north and west lodges  East LothianScotlandNorth and west lodges
Item 12 of 271854North London Waterworks Pumping StationStoke Newington LondonEnglandWith William Chadwell Mylne, engineer
Item 13 of 271854Sir James Campbell's Warehouse, Ingram Street and Brunswick Street  GlasgowScotlandFaçade
Item 14 of 271855Carlisle Cemetery, Monument to Peter NicholsonSpital Moor, Carlisle CumberlandEngland 
Item 15 of 271855Kemble House and estate buildings  Wiltshire/GloucestershireEnglandGateway
Item 16 of 27c. 1855CardellWeymss Bay RenfrewshireScotlandOriginal house
Item 17 of 271856Hanbury Hall  WorcestershireEnglandRestoration and recreation of forecourt, demolished in 1790
Item 18 of 271857Dalzell HouseMotherwell LanarkshireScotlandAdditions, including north west wing, Jacobethan interiors, wellhead, steading and alterations to terraced garden
Item 19 of 271857Ramsay Lodge  EdinburghScotlandAlterations, including banked terrace to north, with buttressed wall, porter's lodge to east and gate to west
Item 20 of 271857Stirling Castle, The King's Old BuildingStirling StirlingshireScotlandRestoration of North end of King's Building after fire
Item 21 of 271857Trinity Church  EdinburghScotlandScheme to relocate the building on the site of the Burns Monument, Calton Hill
Item 22 of 271858Dalzell Estate, LodgeMotherwell LanarkshireScotland 
Item 23 of 271859Brunswick Street premises  GlasgowScotland 
Item 24 of 27Mid 1850sClayfurlong FarmKemble GloucestershireEngland 
Item 25 of 271860Kemble House and estate buildings  Wiltshire/GloucestershireEnglandPorter's lodge
Item 26 of 271860Wemyss Bay HouseWemyss Bay RenfrewshireScotlandSouthern additions
Item 27 of 271863Edinburgh Castle Barrack Block  EdinburghScotlandReconstructed at Scottish National War Memorial - 'executed the sculpture with own hands'


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 4Colvin, H M1995A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-18403rd editionNew Haven and London: Yale University Press 
Item 2 of 4Gow, Ian2009Introduction to The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland Birlinn 
Item 3 of 4MacLehose, James1886Memoirs and portraits of one hundred Glasgow Men who have died during the last thirty years … Glasgow: James MacLehose & SonsVolume 1 - memoirs of John Baird
Item 4 of 4New DNB New Dictionary of National Biography   

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this architect:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 3Builder28 November 1874  p982
Item 2 of 3RIBA Journalbetween 1874 and 7500sp35London: Royal Institute of British Architects 
Item 3 of 3Sessional Papers of the RIBAbetween 1876 and 1877   

Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this architect:
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 1RIBA Archive, Victoria & Albert MuseumRIBA Nomination Papers A v1 p28