Basic Biographical Details

Name: James Gibbs
Designation: Architect
Born: 23 December 1682
Died: 5 August 1754
Bio Notes: James Gibbs was born on 23 December 1682, the younger son of Patrick Gibb, a prosperous merchant in Fittsmyre, Aberdeen and his second wife, Ann Gordon. His parents were Scottish Catholics. James Gibbs studied at the University of Aberdeen, matriculating at some point between 1686 and 1700. Early in his life he showed a talent for drawing. After the death of his parents he spent some time in Holland, perhaps with relatives but in 1703 he travelled to Rome through France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Northern Italy where he was particularly struck by the architecture of these places, especially Northern Italy, to enter the Scots College with a view to priesthood. However the strict regime imposed on him at the College was not to his liking and he turned to architecture instead. He became a pupil of Carlo Fontana who was a leading architect and exponent of the Baroque style.

While he was in Rome he made drawings for some of the visiting nobility and was thus able to establish contact with potential clients. He returned to England with first-hand knowledge of Italian Baroque which made him stand out among his competitors. However his religion was an obstacle particularly after the 1715 Rising. His first client, John Earl of Mar, was a Catholic and an amateur architect and also a friend. Gibbs was employed to alter the official house in Whitehall which the Earl of Mar shared with John Campbell 3rd Earl of Loudoun. Through the influence of Mar and Robert Harley and with the support of Christopher Wren, in 1713 he obtained one of the two posts of surveyors to the Commissioners for Building Fifty New Churches in London. His first public commission, the church of St Mary-le-Strand was highly regarded. However after the death of Queen Anne he was dismissed from the post in 1715/16 as he was an object of suspicion as both Tory and a Scot. Gibbs thought that a fellow countryman, almost certainly Colen Campbell, had engineered his dismissal.

However Gibbs had gained sufficient reputation to be able to make his way without the necessity of a salaried post. Tory patronage brought a range of country house commissions and he became the main Tory architect although not all his clients were Tories. The younger Robert Harley brought the job of developer of the family estate at Marylebone where Gibbs built a house for himself in 1730. But Gibbs’ patrons were not all Tories. He designed the English seat of the Duke of Argyll at Sudbury. The Duke secured for him the post of Architect of the Ordnance and Gibbs held this post, which was 'almost if not merely a sinecure’ until his death.

Gibbs published a series of books between the 1720s and the 1740s. ‘A Book of Architecture’ of 1728 advertised his success and contained a series of his designs, both executed and unexecuted. A second edition was published in 1739. This book served more than one purpose. He made up for the omission by Colen Campbell of his name in ‘Vitruvius Britannicus’. He included a number of his designs for monuments, chimneypieces and other architectural elements in the book which served also as a high quality pattern book. The book received widespread interest and was perhaps the most widely used architectural book of the 18th century, both in the British Isles and in the colonies. It provided a source for a number of Georgian vernacular features as well as many church steeples. It was also very profitable to Gibbs himself.

Gibbs suffered ill health in his later years and died aged 71 on 5 August 1754. He never married but left £1000, three houses in Marylebone ad all his plate to Lord Erskine for the favours received from Erskine’s father. Among various other legacies he left his books, prints and drawings to the Radcliffe Library in Oxford.

Gibbs was a very able designer. He may not have been equal to his contemporaries, Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, but his work merged ideas and motifs from his Italian experience with English ones. He was influenced in some respects, for example his church steeples, by Wren. His design for St Martins-in-the-Fields is inspired by Wren’s City churches. Its combination in essence of a Gothic spire and classical portico set a pattern numerous churches in the subsequent 100 years. His design for the Radcliffe Library owes much to Hawksmoor in its central planning with dome but adds Italianate elements. St Mary-le-Strand has elements borrowed from Cortona and Borromini as well as Palladio and Inigo Jones. In his later years the Italian influence is less pronounced and he adapted to the changing taste in England moving toward, if not fully embracing, the restrained Palladianism of Lord Burlington.

In 1729 Gibbs was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and he received an honorary degree from Oxford after the completion of the Radcliife Library. There are numerous portraits of Gibbs including one by Soldi in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Drawings by Gibbs are to be found in a number of locations: the Print Room of the Ashmolean Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Print Room of the British Museum and a few drawings are in the RIBA Drawings Collection, the Gough Collection at the Bodleian and the Soane Museum. At the Soane Museum there is also a MS memoir of the architect which was to be included in the catalogue of books left to the Radcliffe Library but marked as not received. It belonged to Henry Holland before it was acquired by Soane. It may have been written by Gibbs himself and is an important source for his life and works. Another source of information is the records of the Commissioners for Building Fifty Churches. A full bibliography is given in Colvin.

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 1John C Borlach  Draughtsman 

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 51721Culter HousePeterculter AberdeenshireScotlandDrew up designs for alterations to house
Item 2 of 51723Balveny House   ScotlandDrew up designs
Item 3 of 51724St Martin-in-the-Fields  LondonEngland 
Item 4 of 51735Quarrell House  StirlingshireScotlandDesign for enlargement
Item 5 of 51741St Nicholas Church  AberdeenScotlandProvided 2 designs for rebuilding


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 3DNB Dictionary of National Biography  Article by Terry Friedman
Item 3 of 3Friedman, Terry1984James Gibbs New Haven and London 

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this architect:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 2Burlington MagazineMay 1955  Article 'A James Gibbs Autobiography' by John Holloway.
Item 2 of 2Scots Magazine1760  pp475-6

Archive References

The following archives hold material relating to this architect:
 SourceArchive NameSource Catalogue No.Notes
Item 1 of 2PROWillsPCC 228 Pinfold 
Item 2 of 2PRO (Public Records Office)Ordnance Files wo 48/68, p186; wo 54/210