Basic Biographical Details

Name: William Wilkins
Designation: Architect
Born: 31 August 1778
Died: 31 August 1839
Bio Notes: William Wilkins was born in Norwich on 31 August 1778, the eldest son of the building contractor and later architect William Wilkins and his wife Hannah Willett. He was educated at Norwich Grammar School where he excelled in drawing, classics and mathematics and in 1796 enrolled at Caius College, Cambridge. He graduated sixth wrangler in 1800 in mathematics. In 1798 he had begun a set of drawings of King’s College chapel which indicate his budding ability as a draughtsman. At this time the chapel was being repaired by his father and Wilkins junior exhibited these twice at the Royal Academy in 1810 and 1837. In 1799 he made a set of designs for improvements to Thoresby Park, Nottinghamshire for Earl Manvers. He also attracted the attention of George Gordon, 5th Earl of Aberdeen and this led to the award of a Worts travelling bachelorship in 1801 which enabled him to spend four years in Greece, Asia Minor and Italy.

In his absence on the Continent he was elected a Fellow of Caius and from 1806 (terminated on his marriage to Alicia Carnac Murphy in 1811) was master of the Perse School a post regularly held by junior fellows. In 1807, supported by the fellowship and the mastership of the Perse School, he published ‘The Antiquities of Magna Graecia’ which sealed his reputation as a scholar. When he returned from the Continent he set up in practice in Cambridge where he remained until about 1809 when he established an office in London.

Wilkins applied his knowledge of Greek architecture to his design for Downing College which was a pioneeringly consistent Greek Revival scheme, although only the side ranges and the common room were built. His scheme for Haileybury College for the East India Company was similar and was chosen in preference to one submitted by the company’s own surveyor, Henry Holland. Other major buildings designed in the Greek Revival style by Wilkins were University College London, the Museum at York and the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London.

Wilkins obtained the commission for the National Gallery in a circuitous fashion. He claimed that he had suggested the Royal Mews site in 1831 after it was proposed to demolish the buildings of the site. Wilkins drew up plans for adapting the existing buildings for a gallery. The scheme was considered by the Prime Minister who appointed a committee to consider the design which ultimately was approved. In March 1833 Parliament voted £50,000 for the erection of a new building to accommodate the Royal Academy, the Public Records and the national collection of pictures. C R Cockerell and John Nash also submitted designs but that of Wilkins (said to have been submitted at the last moment) was chosen in preference. The academy was opened in 1837 and the gallery in 1838. Certain constraints such as the re-use of Corinthian columns from Carlton House and the necessity to insert two public lanes through the building for moving out troops swiftly from the barracks at the rear affected the design and to some extent Wilkins’ reputation was damaged.

Like his contemporaries Wilkins was obliged to enter public competitions. He entered that for the Waterloo Monument with J P Gandy and although the design was premiated, it was never built. In 1834 he competed for the Duke of York’s column in Waterloo Place, London, and the following year for the Houses of Parliament. In neither case was he successful and he wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘An Apology for the Design of the New Houses of Parliament marked Phil.Archimedes’ in which he criticised his rivals’ designs and the decision of the judging committee. He was second in the competition for the new Observatory in Cambridge and in the new Court for St John’s College. In 1829 he was invited to compete for the extension to the University library in Cambridge but the commission went to C R Cockerell in 1836. Despite Wilkins’ pamphlet of 1831 (‘Appeal to the Senate’) none of the sixty-nine votes were cast in his favour.

Wilkins’ scholarship inhibited his inventive powers to some degree. Colvin states that he lacked Cockerell’s ability ‘to assimilate and synthesise’ his sources. His style was better suited to large public commissions than to private buildings and he was fortunate that a number of opportunities arose after Waterloo. However his architecture is better in detail than in overall effect and the National Gallery indicates his inability to subordinate the parts to the whole. Generally his domestic work followed current fashion and was in the Tudor Gothic style. Both his Scottish commissions, Dalmeny House and Dunmore Park, were designed in this style. The details of this building were derived from East Anglian manor houses such as East Barsham and provided a model for William Burn and others.

The three Cambridge college commissions gave Wilkins most satisfaction because he felt that Gothic was his ‘forte’: King’s (1824-8), Trinity (1823-5) and Corpus Christi (1823-7). Of the three the work at Corpus consisting of a new quadrangle which included chapel, hall, library and accommodation for the master and fellows as well as undergraduates won him recognition as a Gothic revivalist. Trinity New Court and his additions to King’s are less satisfactory.

Wilkins was elected FSA in 1800 and became a member of the Society of Dilettanti in 1809. He was also elected ARA in 1824, RA two years later and FRS in 1831. He was appointed Professor of Architecture in succession to Soane in 1837 but died before he delivered any lectures. He inherited the management of the Theatre Royal in Norwich from his father and had controlling interests in other theatres in the East Anglia area and beyond.

Wilkins died at his home in Cambridge on 31 August 1839 and was buried in the crypt of Corpus Christi College Chapel. Several drawings of him are in the RIBA drawings collection.

‘An Account of the Prior’s chapel at Ely’ ‘Archaeologia’, xiv (1801)
‘The Antiquities of Magna Graecia’ Cambridge (1807)
‘John of Padua and Porta Honoris’ in ‘Vetusta Monumenta, iv (1809)
‘Atheniensia, or Remarks on the Topography and Buildings of Athens’ (1816)
‘The Civic Architecture of Vitruvius’ (a translation with plates, prefaced by a ‘History of the Rise and Progress of Grecian Architecture’ written anonymously by Lord Aberdeen (1812)
‘Prolusiones Architectonicae’, essays on Greek and Roman architecture (1837)
‘A Letter to Lord Viscount Goderich on the Patronage of the Arts by the English Government (1832). (Reprinted in ‘Library of the Fine Arts’ later that year)

Private and Business Addresses

The following private or business addresses are associated with this architect:
 AddressTypeDate fromDate toNotes
Item 1 of 2Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, EnglandPrivate/business   
Item 2 of 2London, EnglandPrivate/business   

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 21814Dalmeny House  West LothianScotland 
Item 2 of 21820Dunmore Park  StirlingshireScotland 


Bibliographic References

The following books contain references to this architect:
Item 1 of 8APSD The Dictionary of Architectureed Wyatt PapworthThe Architectural Publication Society (8v 1852-1892) 
Item 2 of 8Colvin, H (ed.)1982History of the King's Works  vi, 1973, pp461-70
Item 3 of 8Colvin, Howard2008A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 London: YUP. 4th edition 
Item 4 of 8DNB Dictionary of National Biography   
Item 5 of 8Harris, John1971Catalogue of Britsh Drawings for Architecture etc in American Collections   
Item 6 of 8Liscombe, R W1980William Wilkins   
Item 7 of 8Neale, J P1819Views of Seats 1st and 2nd ser.Ist ser, volume ii,
Item 8 of 8Willis, R and Clark, J W1886The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge 3v 

Periodical References

The following periodicals contain references to this architect:
 Periodical NameDateEditionPublisherNotes
Item 1 of 5ApolloJune 1984  pp400-405
Item 2 of 5Civil Engineer and Architects' Journal1839ii p388
Item 3 of 5Country Life30 December 1939   
Item 4 of 5Country Life17 August 1989  Issue covering 17-24 August
Item 5 of 5RIBA Journal24 December 19323rd ser., xlLondon: Royal Institute of British Architects