Basic Biographical Details

Name: William Chambers (Sir)
Designation: Architect
Born: 23 February 1723
Died: 10 March 1796
Bio Notes: Early years
Sir William Chambers was born in December 1722 in Gothenborg, Sweden, the son of John Chambers who was a partner in the brokering firm of Chambers & Pierson, and his wife Sara Elphinstone. The young Chambers was educated at Ripon. When he returned to Sweden in 1739 aged sixteen his father had been dead for four years. A career for the young Chambers in the East India Company had almost certainly been decided long before this. In 1740 he set sail for Bengal with the rank of cadet to the assistant supercargoes. Working for the East India Company was very profitable. He made two further voyages to the Far East, both to China and returning in July 1749 for the last time. By this date he had accumulated enough capital to make architecture his sole study and profession. During the long voyages to the Far East he had studied languages, mathematics and the liberal arts but chiefly civil engineering. He also had the opportunity to study Chinese architecture at first hand. He made sketches and drew up various memoranda on the subject. He was later to publish a book of Chinese designs (1757). Between voyages he was also able to visit England, Scotland, Holland, Flanders and part of France.

Paris and Italy
Chambers began to study architecture seriously in J F Blondel’s Ecole des Arts in Paris from late in 1749. There he would have met some of the young men who were to become leaders of French neo-classicism. His drawings during this year show him to have been an exceptional draughtsman. In the autumn of 1750 he set out for Italy where he spent to next five years accumulating more knowledge of his chosen field. He seems to have had lessons from the French drawing masters, Clérisseau and Pécheux in Rome and to have absorbed the ideas of the neo-classical designers Le Geay and Le Lorrain. He had a good reputation among his fellow Englishmen in Rome and even Robert Adam acknowledged his ‘genius…sense and good taste’. He also probably visited Piranesi’s workshop at the Palazzo Tomati where Chambers lodged.

Early days in London
In 1755 Chambers returned to England with his wife, Catherine More, whom he had married in Rome in 1753 (or 1752 according to ODNB), and older daughter (his younger daughter remained in Rome with her nurse). He settled in Russell Street, Covent Garden. He may have chosen London in preference to Paris or elsewhere because of connections to potential clients made in Rome. He was recommended by Lord Bute as a suitable person to become tutor to the Prince of Wales. Although his design for Harewood House was rejected by the client Edwin Lascelles, his appointment to the royal family laid the foundations of the royal favour he later enjoyed. In 1757 the Dowager Princess employed him to lay out the grounds at Kew and to design garden buildings, the designs of which were published in 1763. A few years before he had produced the first part of the ‘Treatise on Civil Architecture’ which was intended to set standards for ‘sound precepts and good designs’. The book became the standard English treatise on the use of the Orders and their enrichments and largely superseded Isaac Ware’s ‘Complete Body of Architecture’. A number of editions followed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Villa designs
Chambers’ first villa designs (Fitz Foy at Castle Hill, Dorset) date from 1760. He took the model of the English Palladian villa and stripped it of all but essentials. Within two years several others had been built, including Duddingston House, Edinburgh which has been described as ‘perhaps his most original and memorable design’ (Girouard). Very few of Chambers’ interiors have survived without alterations. The ground floor, hall and staircase of Duddingston constitute one of three remaining examples.

Public appointments
In 1761 Chambers joined the Office of Works as one of the two architects appointed by the Crown at a salary of £300 per year. The other appointment was Robert Adam. By 1769 he had succeeded Flitcroft as Comptroller of Works. He was effectively then head of the department. When it was reorganised in 1782 he became the first holder of the combined post of Surveyor-General and Comptroller. In this post Chambers proved to be a good and humane administrator and a distinguished government architect. His main public work during his tenure of the post was the remodelling of Buckingham House for George III, the design of the State Coach (still in use) and Somerset House. From 1776 Somerset House occupied Chambers almost completely during the last twenty years of his life. It exemplified all the precepts that he had laid down in his ‘Treatise’. It is considered to be one of the masterpieces of English architecture during this period.

Chambers received a wide range of honours. From 1752 he was a member of the Florentine Academy; from 1763 a corresponding member of the French Academy of Architecture and in 1766 he was elected a member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences. In 1770 he was made a Knight of the Polar Star by King Gustav of Sweden and he was later permitted by George III to assume the title and rank of an English knight. In 1776 he was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Royal Academy of Arts
Chambers exhibited at the Society of Arts from 1761 to 1768. In the latter year he played a significant role in the foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts. He became the first Treasurer. From this point until his death he played a hugely important role in the Academy, at times more significant than the president Joshua Reynolds. He was also a member of the Architects’ Club, which began its meetings in 1791 at the Thatched House Tavern.

Chambers style was a mixture of French neo-classicism and English Palladianism. When he set up practice in England in 1755 his style was too severely neo-classical for the taste of his clients and he therefore used a refined Palladian style for most of his early commissions. He made a return visit to Paris in 1774 and the influence of his French contacts such as le Roy and de Wailly are to be seen in his work at Somerset House. He succeeded in balancing his ‘fastidious, almost academic’ approach with a more ‘luxuriant , bold and perhaps licentious’ style. He did not like the Greek Revival style as promulgated by the architects and archaeologists Stuart & Revett. His attitude was made clear in lectures presented at the Royal Academy when Thomas Sandby who was professor there was indisposed and also in the introduction to his ‘Treatise on Civil Architecture’ of 1791. He also disliked the Gothic style. He designed only one Gothic house, Milton Abbey, which was to please his client, Lord Milton, but he considered the house to be ugly and the client ‘unmannerly’.

However Chambers was capable of a more frivolous style than that used in his large public commissions. He always enjoyed the challenge of designing on a small scale and built more than fifty-two garden buildings. At Kew, the Alhambra, the Moorish Mosque and the Chinese pagoda are examples of his lighter style. The fact that he had been to China and seen examples of Chinese architecture for himself (the only English architect to have done so) gave him a certain amount of authority in the Chinese style. He himself did not wish to exaggerate this authority. His book ‘Designs for Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses etc’ was published in 1757 which was almost at the end of the vogue for this subject but it was useful as a source-book for authentic Chinese designs. His ‘Dissertation on Oriental Gardening’ (1772) was intended as an attack on ‘Capability’ Brown style bare landscapes. However this was taken seriously by the public and Chambers had to publish the following year an ‘Explanatory Discourse’. This in its turn provoked an anonymous publication ridiculing him, ‘An Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers’ (1773), which is known to have been written by the poet Mason with the assistance of Horace Walpole.

Chambers died at his home in Bolsover Street (originally Norton Street) on 8 March 1796. He was buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey.

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 5Norton Street (now Bolsover Street), London, EnglandPrivate 1796 
Item 2 of 5Russell Street, Covent Garden, London, EnglandPrivate1755  
Item 3 of 5Poland Street, London, EnglandPrivate17581765 
Item 4 of 5Berners Street, London, EnglandPrivate1765 House which Chambers had built for himself.
Item 5 of 5Villa, Whitton, Hounslow, London, EnglandPrivate1765 Leased this villa at the same time as owning the house in Berners Street

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 61759Culzean Castle  AyrshireScotlandDrew up plans for a banqueting house - not realised
Item 2 of 61763Duddingston House  EdinburghScotlandArchitect of original house
Item 3 of 6177024 St Andrew Square  EdinburghScotlandOriginal Building
Item 4 of 6177025 St Andrew Square  Edinburgh  
Item 5 of 6177026 St Andrew Square  EdinburghScotland 
Item 6 of 61771Royal Bank of Scotland Headquarters  EdinburghScotland 


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 3Colvin, Howard2008A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 London: YUP. 4th edition 
Item 2 of 3Harris, John1970Sir William Chambers  This has full bibliography and supersedes all other material.
Item 3 of 3New DNB New Dictionary of National Biography