Basic Biographical Details

Name: Colen Campbell
Designation: Architect
Born: 18 June 1676
Died: 13 September 1729
Bio Notes: Colen Campbell was born on 15 June 1676, the eldest son of the four children of Donald Campbell who himself was a younger brother of Sir Hugh Campbell of Cawdor Castle. Donald Campbell owned two small estates in Nairnshire, Boghole and Urchany, which had been settled on him by his brother.

Colen Campbell inherited these estates at the age of four when his father died. He was said to have had a ‘liberal education’ and he may have been the Colen Campbell who graduated from the University of Edinburgh in July 1695. However it seems unlikely that he was the Colen Campbell who signed the Visitors’ Book at Padua University in 1697. Nevertheless he may have visited Italy in 1715 or 1716 as in a petition to King George I he stated that he had ‘studied Architecture here and abroad for several years’.

In 1702 it is known that he was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates at Edinburgh, having ‘past his tryalls as ane lawier’ and had the reputation of being ‘the best civilian that pasyt since the Revolutione’. For the next few years after this he practised as a lawyer in Edinburgh. He was still practising as a lawyer when he designed the Rolls House in London in 1717, by which date he was already established as an architectural designer and publicist.

It is not yet known how Campbell moved from law to architecture. He seems to have some connection to James Smith whom he was to describe as ‘the most experienced architect’ in Scotland. The collection of Campbell drawings in the RIBA includes some by Smith, some being for ‘Vitruvius Britannicus’, others are studies on Palladian themes. One was intended for Sir Hugh Campbell of Cawdor. It is possible that Campbell was Smith’s pupil. Smith may have directed Campbell to study the work of Palladio, if and when he was in Italy. Whatever is the case, Campbell became famous through his advocacy of Palladian architecture in Britain.

‘Vitruvius Britannicus’ was conceived about 1713 as a printsellers’ publication similar to Kip’s ‘Britannia Illustrata’. The book was to be largely a study of English baroque buildings. However Campbell was asked at a late stage to supply some Palladian content which he did and his name was added at a late stage to the title page. He introduced several of his own designs and wrote an introduction advocating the Palladian style. He said almost nothing about the plates of buildings which were not Palladian in character. However he was complimentary to Wren, Hawksmoor and other architects whose drawings appear in the book. Both Palladio and Inigo Jones received special mention and the works of the latter figured prominently in the three volumes. James Gibbs whom Campbell saw as a rival did not receive a mention but he was implicitly criticised as the chief English exponent of the ‘affected and licentious’ forms of Italian baroque. Through his introduction and selection of plates for inclusion, Campbell engineered the book to become an advertisement for himself and for Palladianism and the superiority of ‘Antique Simplicity’.

The three volumes were published by subscription in 1715, 1717 and 1725. By 1725 there was a long list of subscribers which included the royal family. Largely the subscribers were noblemen but there were a few artisans, in particular those from the building trade.

Campbell made a first attempt to secure an architectural office in 1708, in particular he seems to have wanted the post of Master of Work in Scotland. This post had been held by Sir William Bruce followed by James Smith. However he was not successful. Campbell did not follow this up until ten years later when William Benson, successor to Wren as Surveyor of the King’s Works appointed him as Chief Clerk and Deputy Surveyor in September 1718. Campbell may have had a hand in the design of Benson’s house in Wiltshire. Benson fell from grace in the following July and Campbell lost his positions at the same time.

In December 1719 Campbell was appointed Architect to the Prince of Wales and although no royal commission came his way, he did find several new clients in the court.

An important client was Lord Burlington. Campbell may have helped him to design the Casino which the latter built at Chiswick in 1717. In 1719 Burlington employed Campbell to remodel his town house in the Palladian style. Later Burlington abandoned Campbell in favour of William Kent and Henry Flitcroft. However Campbell obtained the patronage of several rich and influential clients such as Sir Robert Walpole and Henry Hoare. In 1726 he followed Vanbrugh as Surveyor of Greenwich Hospital. Two years later, 1728, he published a translation of Palladio’s First Book of Architecture’ which was published the following year as ‘Palladio’s Five Orders of Architecture’ and this included plates of Campbell’s own designs.

Campbell was taken ill in Norfolk in the summer of 1729. He died on 13 September that year in his home in London in Brook Street. He was buried at Westminster Abbey. He was said to have left estate worth £12,000. His will was contested between his sister Henrietta and her husband Rev John Grant of Auchinleck and Jane Bubb, his maid servant (some sources state she was his wife) with whom he had been living from before 1721.

At the time Campbell’s reputation was soon eclipsed by that of Lord Burlington. He was largely forgotten by 19th century writers and it was only with the discovery of a large collection his drawings in 1966 that his own designs were re-evaluated. To his contemporaries and those of succeeding generations he was known largely through ‘Vitruvius Britannicus’.

Colvin considers Campbell to be one of the ‘outstanding figures of English eighteenth century architecture’. His importance lies in his country house work and he was responsible for some of the key buildings of the Palladian movement. Wanstead House, Essex, built about 1714-20, was a strictly classical country house and provided the Palladian answer to Blenheim and Castle Howard. It was to have significant progeny. At Houghton in Norfolk he Palladianised the standard late 17th century country house. By his death in 1729 Palladianism was firmly established.

Private and Business Addresses

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

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 2 Ardkinglas House  ArgyllScotlandTwo unexecuted schemes - based on Palladio's Villa Emo.
Item 2 of 21711Shawfield Mansion  GlasgowScotland 


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 2Colvin, Howard2008A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 London: YUP. 4th edition 
Item 2 of 2New DNB New Dictionary of National Biography  Article by T P Connor.