Elizabeth Wilbraham, the first lady of architecture

A new book will unveil the extraordinary influence of Britain's earliest female architect on Sir Christopher Wren, says Jay Merrick

Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham was the first woman architect, and she not only tutored the young genius Christopher Wren, but helped him design 18 of the 52 London churches that were commissioned by him following the Great Fire of London in 1666. This apparently extraordinary claim is due to appear in a book, First Woman Architect, being prepared by the American historian (and ex-Charterhouse public schoolboy) John Millar.

Millar's claims will cause a furore among Wren scholars. "Some," Millar tells me, "have already said I can't be right, simply because they haven't heard of it." Neither, presumably, have Tony and Cherie Blair, who bought the South Pavilion of Wotton House in Buckinghamshire two years ago for £4m – Wotton House being one of Wilbraham's pieces de resistance, according to Millar.

Millar is putting Wilbraham on a pedestal at precisely the moment that British women architects are objecting to being stashed under their professional pedestal: the Royal Institute of British Architects' president-elect, Angela Brady, has launched a campaign to get architectural practices to employ women designers as 50 per cent of their staff; the figure is currently 19 per cent.

But Elizabeth Wilbraham remains a tantalising figure: now you see her, now you don't. She is not mentioned in substantial books about Wren's life and architecture by authors including Paul Jeffrey, Margaret Whinney, Bryan Little, Adrian Tinniswood or, most recently, the slab of research by Lisa Jardine titled On a Grander Scale.

"The Wren connection is problematical, of course," admits Millar. "There is no smoking gun. My book will show what connections there are. Wren had no time to learn architecture until he was 33. Of all the people who could have taught him – and there were very few architects in the UK in the early 1660s – Wilbraham's style is by far the closest to his, based on her documented buildings. The 18 City churches she designed for him share a number of unusual design features with other documented Wilbraham designs – details that don't show up on Wren's other buildings."

In a century when it was inconceivable that any woman should openly pursue a profession, Wilbraham managed to practise architecture more or less secretly, and was centrally involved in the design of up to a dozen houses for her wealthy family. But Millar goes for broke, claiming that she may have strongly influenced the design of 350 others, including 100 buildings that carried the imprint of Wren's style.

Elizabeth Mytton, from an extremely wealthy family, married Thomas Wilbraham in 1651 at the age of 19 – and was, says Millar, already keenly interested in architecture. They embarked on an extended tour of the Netherlands and Italy, where she met the Dutch architect Pieter Post and studied significant buildings.

Millar is on firm ground when referring to Wilbraham's design of grand houses for her family. They include Weston Park, Staffordshire, and the chapel at Woodley, Cheshire. Her involvement in Weston Park is particularly intriguing. Millar notes that unusual architectural details found at Weston Park later appeared in the original Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire; and the floor-plan of Buckingham House – which forms the core of Buckingham Palace – resembles Cliveden's. Furthermore, Buckingham House's construction was surpervised by William Winde, who also built houses for the Wilbrahams.

Elizabeth Wilbraham's social position meant that she could not be seen to be involved in construction, and appointed others to carry out her designs on site. They included men who were considered to be architects – Winde was one – and this is what has veiled Wilbraham's place in architectural history. There seems no doubt that she was effectively an architect, but history simply will not reveal enough detailed evidence to confirm the full extent of her works.



John Millar expects to publish 'First Woman Architect' in 2012

Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee