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Basic Biographical Details

Name: (Sir) Robert Smirke
Designation: Architect
Born: 1780
Died: 1867
Bio Notes: Robert Smirke was born in London on 1 October 1780, the second of the five surviving sons and two daughters of Robert Smirke RA, artist and illustrator, and his wife Elizabeth Russell. He attended a private school in Aspley Guise in Bedfordshire where he showed an aptitude for drawing and was head boy. Through the recommendation of George Dance the younger, he entered the office of John Soane. Soane gave him, as he did all his pupils, a copy of Marc-Antoine Laugier’s ‘Essai sur l‘Architecture’ which was to have a profound influence on Smirke’s later architectural thinking. However Soane was temperamental and Smirke and they did not get on well with one another. Smirke left without completing his apprenticeship which Soane took as an insult.

To continue his training Smirke moved to the office of George Dance and then to the surveyor and measurer, Thomas Bush. In 1796 he began to study at the Royal Academy Schools and was awarded the Silver Medal that year and the Gold Medal in 1799.

In 1801 he and his brother Richard travelled abroad. After the Peace of Amiens they visited Paris, moving through the Southern Netherlands, Germany, and Austria and then travelled extensively in Italy and Sicily. Robert continued to Greece and drew many of the antiquities in the Peloponnese despite the dangers of that country at the time. He witnessed the removal of the Parthenon frieze but later admitted that he had missed an opportunity to be Lord Elgin’s artist. Athenian architecture made a great impression on the young Smirke.

Smirke returned to Britain in January 1805. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries as well as a member of the Architects’ Club that year. He also published ‘Specimens of Continental Architecture'.

Smirke enjoyed rapid success partly through his father’s connections and he was soon the favoured architect of the Tory establishment. A wide range of different types of commission followed many through his Tory connections which also brought him his official positions. He was introduced to Sir Robert Peel for whom he designed a town house in Whitehall and his country seat in Staffordshire. His close connection with Peel provoked the comment in the press ‘Sir Robert and his pet’.

In 1813 he was nominated as one of the three architect attached to the Office of Works, along with Soane and Nash. This appointment brought him a number of large commissions including the British Museum, the General Post Office, the Custom House and King’s College, The Strand. He became Surveyor to the Inner Temple in 1819 and from 1820 was Surveyor-General for the South Parts of the Duchy of Lancaster which brought him the Savoy estate development commission. He also secured many private commissions: in London the Covent Garden Theatre for the actor-manager John Phillip Kemble, (a very large commission and forced the work on Lowther Hall to be suspended); the Royal College of Physicians; four clubs and various churches; and outwith London thirty country house commissions (new build and alterations); and numerous country halls, including one in Scotland in Perth. Later in his life he supposedly turned down commissions for work costing less than £10,000.

When the Office of Works was re-organised in 1832 without the three ‘attached’ architects, he received a knighthood. Smirke held many gratuitous professional posts and received many plaudits He was Treasurer of the Royal Academy from 1820-1850. He was an honorary fellow of the RIBA and was awarded the Gold Medal in 1853.

Smirke’s success lay more in his reliability and ability to stay within budget than to his ability as an architect. He specialised in sound construction but was frequently called up to make good the deficient work of others (see for example the Carlisle Country Courts and the London Custom House). He was abreast with the latest technical development and was a pioneer of some for example he was the first British architect to use load-bearing foundations of lime concrete in measured quantities and was one of the first architects to use load-bearing cast-iron beams in domestic work (as opposed to industrial).

Smirke adhered to the Greek revival style throughout his career. Covent Garden Theatre was the first building in London in the pure Doric style and is thought to be the largest and earliest portico of this type in Britain (just ahead of Stark’s Portico on the Justiciary buildings in Glasgow). The theatre opened on 18 September 1809 to almost universal approbation. Soane did not agree. In his fourth lecture as professor of architecture at the Royal Academy he stated that one elevation had received all the interest at the expense of all the others and pointed out the deviation from ‘classical purity’. The Academy subsequently brought in rules to prevent future opinions on the work of living architects being expressed. The Academy was clearly supportive of Smirke as he was a royal Academician on 1811. Despite a brief public reconciliation, the acrimony between the two architects continued for some time. Soane identified the rationalist geometrical basis of Smirke’s neo-classicism and analytic approach to composition and accurately foresaw how porticoes could be applied indiscriminately as metaphors for temples.

Smirke admired the rational simplicity of the Greek style and used the Order of the Temple on Ilissus for his prototype many times over, especially in public commissions. The British Museum is probably the finest Greek Revival building in London. Colvin remarks: ‘only in the front of the British Museum did grandeur of scale and the novel combination of portico with a colonnade enable him to transcend his usual urbane banality and produce a masterpiece’. In designing country houses, Smirke was more flexible and Ionic or Doric porticos rarely dominate. He used castellated Gothic style in some cases – for example at Lowther and Eastnor, and Gothic, Tudor or Jacobean elsewhere. He tried to develop a simplified classical style for other houses – two Scottish house, Kinmount and Whittinghame being examples – which are described by Colvin as ‘cubical’ (described by Pugin as ‘New Square Style of Mr Smirke’) and perhaps his most important contribution at this time. Despite this he had a reputation as a conventional and uninspiring designer.

In 1819 Smirke had married Laura, daughter of Rev Anthony Freston, a nephew of Matthew Brettingham. They had one daughter. He had many pupils to assist in his busy office, including William Burn and Charles Robert Cockerell. He retired from practice in 1845. His brother Sydney who had joined the practice in 1815 then took over. Peel at this point appointed him a member of the Commission for London Improvements. In 1859 he resigned from the Royal Academy and retired to Cheltenham. He died there on 18 April 1867 at the advanced age of 87.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 1London, EnglandBusiness   

Employment and Training

Employees or Pupils

The following individuals were employed or trained by this architect (click on an item to view details):
 NameDate fromDate toPositionNotes
Item 1 of 5Charles Robert Cockerell18091810Architect 
Item 2 of 5Sydney Smirkec. 1815(?)1819(?)Apprentice(?) 
Item 3 of 5Sydney Smirke1819(?)1827Assistant(?) 
Item 4 of 5William DoullBefore 181 Apprentice 
Item 5 of 5Henry Robertsc. 1825 Assistant 

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 20 Lansdowne House  LondonEnglandRomodelling of library (originally gallery) as picture-gallery.
Item 2 of 20c. 1801Bridge over the River Eden  Carlisle (near)EnglandHis design was chosen over that of Thomas Boyd.
Item 3 of 201808BroomhallLimekilns, Dunfermline FifeScotlandProduced designs for the new wings (not executed)
Item 4 of 201812Kinmount HouseAnnan DumfriesshireScotlandOriginal house and possibly gatepiers and quadrants at Main Drive
Item 5 of 201812Monreith House  WigtownshireScotlandProposed scheme for refronting the house - porch added
Item 6 of 201817Newton DonKelso RoxburghshireScotland 
Item 7 of 201817Whittingehame HouseWhittingehame East LothianScotlandHouse and probably stables and lodges
Item 8 of 201818Strathallan Castle  PerthshireScotlandPartly encasing earlier house. Port cochere added to east front and interior work.
Item 9 of 201819Perth County BuildingsPerth PerthshireScotlandOriginal building (his assembly room in south wing survives)
Item 10 of 20c. 1820Cultoquhey House  PerthshireScotlandDate given in Colvin. (Previously we had about 1816)
Item 11 of 20c. 1820Strathallan Castle, Home Farm  PerthshireScotlandPossibly Smirke (HS)
Item 12 of 201821Gosford House  East LothianScotlandUnexecuted proposals for alterations and additions
Item 13 of 201823British MuseumBloomsbury LondonEnglandOriginal building
Item 14 of 201825Baldovan HouseBaldovan AngusScotlandHouse doubled in size
Item 15 of 201825Kinfauns CastleKinfauns PerthshireScotlandOriginal house and west lodge
Item 16 of 20c. 1825Luton Hoo  BedfordshireEnglandAlterations
Item 17 of 201826Erskine House and terraces and formal gardensFreeland, Bishopton RenfrewshireScotlandOriginal house and possibly lodge, also Ferry Lodge
Item 18 of 201826Kinfauns Castle, Castle FarmKinfauns PerthshireScotland 
Item 19 of 20c. 1826CoodhamKilmarnock AyrshireScotlandAttribution in 'Buildings of Scotland'
Item 20 of 20c. 1831Terregles Estate, stables  KirkcudbrightshireScotland 


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 9APSD The Dictionary of Architectureed Wyatt PapworthThe Architectural Publication Society (8v 1852-1892) 
Item 2 of 9Colvin, H (ed.)1982History of the King's Works  vi
Item 3 of 9Colvin, H M1995A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-18403rd editionNew Haven and London: Yale University Press 
Item 4 of 9Crook, J M1972The British Museum   
Item 5 of 9Crook, J Mordaunt1961The Career of Sir Robert Smirke D.Phil thesis, University of Oxford  
Item 6 of 9DNB Dictionary of National Biography   
Item 7 of 9Farington, Joseph Diary   
Item 8 of 9Gow, Ian and Rowan, Alistair1995Scottish Country Houses  Chapter entitled 'Robert Smirke's Country house' by J M Crook
Item 9 of 9Walker, Frank Arneil1986South Clyde Estuary: An Illustrated Architectural Guide to Inverclyde and Renfrew  p104

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this architect:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 5Architectural ReviewSeptember 1967   
Item 2 of 5Country Life13 April 1967   
Item 3 of 5Journal of the London SocietyMarch 1968   
Item 4 of 5Newcomen Society Transactions1965xxxviii 1965-66
Item 5 of 5RIBA Journalbetween 1866 and 1867 London: Royal Institute of British ArchitectsReprinted in the Builder xxv, 1867, 604

Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this architect:
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 3Bodleian LibraryManuscriptsAdd.MS. 40605Correspondence with Sir Robert Peel
Item 2 of 3RIBA Archive, Victoria & Albert MuseumRIBA Drawings Collection Large collection of Smirke's drawings.
Item 3 of 3Yale Centre for British ArtArchive Continental drawings by Smirke.


© All rights reserved. © National Portrait Gallery, London 

© All rights reserved. © National Portrait Gallery, London