We could, of course, have discovered this before. John Harris's biography of 1970 had shown that Chambers was far more interesting an architect and a man than it was fashionable to think. But the fashionable rediscovered Georgian in the Seventies was James Paine, and in the Eighties, Robert Taylor. In the Nineties, Georgians with daft names have been all the rage, with Batty Langley setting the tone and the rehabilitation of Stiff Leadbetter following hard on his heels. Chambers has had to await his moment.
That moment is the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his death. It has been worth the wait. Chambers' bicentennial show is housed within that true rarity, a purpose-built Georgian exhibition space, the "Great Room" of the former Royal Academy of Arts at Somerset House. To reach it the public experiences the dizzy, if brilliant, geometry of Chambers' Royal Academy stair. It is worth a visit to the exhibition for this alone.
Somerset House has often been thought of as rather stuffy, despite its magnificent set-piece interiors. Why? Because it was begun in 1774 as public offices. In fact it was one of the first purpose-built office blocks in Britain. Here Chambers located various government departments (the Navy Pay Office, the Hackney Carriages Office, the Hawkers' and Peddlars' Office) around a sublime courtyard, each having its own entrance. The courtyard has, in recent years, been used as a car park, but plans to transform it into a thing of beauty are under way. On Saturdays during the current exhibition, the public is admitted to some of the offices leading off the courtyard, but as these house the Board of the Inland Revenue they may decide to give them a miss. If you feel brave, try not to miss the Seamen's Hall, where jack tars once waited in line for pay and pensions, the Navy Stair which climbs up through a void as if unsupported in any way, and, of course, the river terrace with magnificent and rarely seen views of the Thames, although Somerset House was, regrettably, separated from the river by the construction of the Victoria Embankment in 1865.
Chambers was certainly inventive. That he was the most official of all British government architects is equally true, and because officialdom is equated with tedium, he has been unfairly labelled something of a dullard. Certainly, no architect has been more official since. Sir Norman Foster and my Lord Rogers of Riverside are honoured by government, toadied to and advised by the profession and this is rare, especially today. But Chambers capped them easily. He dominated profession, government and king. He was not merely honoured by government, but put in command of its building service, the Office of Works. It was in this capacity that he built Somerset House. He helped to found the Royal Academy, the first professional and educational body for both artists and architects, and, as Sir Joshua Reynolds said, he might be the president, "but Sir William is Viceroy over me".
Both the government and academy were more neatly integrated with the Crown than they are today, and Chambers owed some of his success in these fields to his position as architectural tutor to the Prince of Wales. In an interesting essay in the exhibition catalogue, Jane Roberts suggests that Chambers' buildings in Kew Gardens were in different styles (Roman, Gothick, Chinese, Moorish, Hindoo) as a didactic exercise for the young prince. Most of these (save the wonderful and much-loved Pagoda) have gone, but those that survive, and the Pagoda in particular, are favourites among children visiting the gardens today. Chambers taught the young prince well and the exhibition succeeds in showing that as King George III he was a real architect, just as Frederick the Great of Prussia was a real composer, and he comforted himself in his later madness by designing fanciful architectural schemes.
Chambers himself was the sanest of men, but was prey to his own weaknesses. One of these was his desire to be recognised as a Swede in royal Swedish circles. The architect was born in Gothenburg to a Scottish trading family, and served, before he took to the drawing board, with the Swedish East India Company, with which he went on three trips to China. In later life, and despite success and recognition in Britain, Chambers continued to court the Swedish crown, sending King Gustavas III and Queen Louisa Ulrika impractical and unwanted designs. His brothers and sisters, however, had remained in Sweden, one sister climbing into the ranks of the aristocracy, while Chambers himself spoke fluent Swedish and described himself as "an honest Swede."
Well, not entirely honest. When King Gustavas appointed him a "riddare" in the Order of the Polar Star, an honour equivalent to a modern OBE, Chambers persuaded English circles to believe that the award was in fact a knighthood. He thus became "Sir William", and saved himself the trouble of toadying for a knighthood in Britain.
Chambers' importance as an architect is that he was among the first to view Classical architecture with a picturesque sensibility. Chambers learned in Rome to draw buildings with landscaped backgrounds, sometimes even envisaging them as ruins. These exquisite drawings are on show at Somerset House. This vision was carried over from drawings into architecture, and most conspicuously so in his theatrical stairs, one of which takes visitors to the exhibition to see the drawings that inspired it.
Most of all, Chambers was a bold and robust architect in an age that tended towards fiddly design, filigree and even fey decoration. This sets him well apart from his famous contemporary, Robert Adam. Adam had been in Rome at the same time as Chambers and was clearly worried by the talents of the "honest Swede". "Superior to me at present," Adam wrote home, "it will require very great interest to succeed against Chambers."
Chambers succeeded mostly because of his powerful talent. If he was keen to succeed socially, he was robust in professional opinions. He upset fellow architects by describing the naturalistic carving at Wilton House, designed by Inigo Jones (and thus sacred), as a "string of turnips". When John Soane, the strange but brilliant architect rising beneath him, protested at having to work with Charles Craig, whom he regarded as an inferior, Chambers advised that the problem might be "alleviated by an expedient for which the world is indebted to German Sagacity. In Germany when a great man connects with a lady inferior to him in rank, the great man preserves his dignity by performing all connubial occasions with his left hand. The application is obvious, and I am very truly, Sir, your humble servant, William Chambers." The circumlocation delays the shock and thereby heightens it: the application is indeed obvious.
Sir William Chambers was without doubt one of the most successful of eighteenth-century architects. He might have been official, and he might have designed the first government office block, but as his odd history, his Pagoda at Kew and his robust, not to say ribald, opinions prove, he cannot be accused of dullness as once he was. Two hundred years on, his time has finally comen
"Sir William Chambers, Architect to George III", Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London WC1 until 5 April 1997
The author is a historian with English HeritageReuse content