William Wilkins (architect) : biography
William Wilkins RA (31 August 1778 – 31 August 1839) was an English architect, classical scholar and archaeologist. He designed the National Gallery and University College in London, and buildings for several Cambridge colleges.
Wilkins was born in the parish of St. Giles, Norwich, the son of a successful builder who also managed a chain of theatres. His brother George Wilkins was Archdeacon of Nottingham.
He was educated at Norwich Grammar School and then won a scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He graduated as 6th wrangler in 1800. With the award of the Worts Travelling Bachelorship in 1801, worth £100 for three years, he was able to tour Greece, Asia Minor, and Magna Græcia in Italy between 1801 and 1804. He published researches into both Classical and Gothic architecture, becoming one of the leading figures in the English Greek Revival of the early 19th century. On his tour of the classical antiquities around the Mediterranean he was accompanied by the Italian landscape painter Agostino Aglio, who had been commissioned by Wilkins as draughtsman on the expedition. Aglio supplied the drawings for the aquatint plates of monument illustrations in Wilkins' volumes from the expedition, such as The Antiquities of Magna Graecia (1807).
His architectural career began in 1804 with his Greek-revival designs for the newly-established Downing College, Cambridge. The commission came after earlier plans in a Palladian style by James Wyatt had been rejected as insufficiently classical. Wilkins arranged the college buildings around a single large courtyard. Construction began in 1807 and proceeded slowly, coming to a halt in 1821 with Wilkins' scheme still incomplete.
In 1806 Wilkins designed a college near Hertford for the East India Company. The company ceased to exist in 1857, and in 1863 it became Haileybury College. He built or added to Osberton House, near Worksop. These works were followed in 1808 by the Doric entrance to the Lower Assembly Rooms at Bath, and a villa at North Berwick for Sir H. D. Hamilton. At Grange Park, Northington, Hampshire, in 1809, Wilkins encased and remodelled an existing seventeenth-century house, giving it something of the form of a Greek temple, with a large Doric portico at one end.
In 1815, Wilkins inherited his father's chain of six theatres. He went on to rebuild or remodel several of them, and occasionally designed scenery.
Wilkins carried out three major London buildings, all in a severe Classical style: University College, Gower Street, designed in 1827–8; St George's Hospital (1827–8) and the National Gallery (1832–8). The National Gallery was built to occupy the north side of the newly-created Trafalgar Square, and originally also housed the Royal Academy. From the beginning the design attracted a great deal of adverse criticism; more recently John Summerson concluded that although Wilkin's frontage has many virtues "considered critically as a facade commanding a great square, its weakness is apparent".
His other works in the Classical neo-Grecian style include the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds 1819, St. Paul's Church, George Street, Nottingham 1822 and the Yorkshire Museum (1830). He was responsible for two columns built to memory of Admiral Nelson, both predating William Railton's design for Trafalgar Square, one in Dublin and the other in Great Yarmouth.
He also produced buildings in the Gothic style, using it at Dalmeny House for Lord Rosebery in 1814-17 and at Tregothnan for Lord Falmouth in 1816. He also used the style at several Cambridge colleges. In 1823 he won the competition to design a set of new buildings for Kings College, Cambridge, comprising the hall, provost's lodge, library, and a stone screen towards Trumpington Street, and in the same year started work on the King's court of Trinity College, and new buildings, including the chapel, at Corpus Christi College.
In 1827 Wilkins was appointed architect to the East India Company, and the following year made alterations to its building in Leadenhall Street. He entered the competition to design the Duke of York's Column, and in 1836 that for the Houses of Parliament. After failing to win the latter competition he attacked the plans of his rivals and the decision of the committee in a pamphlet signed "Phil-archimedes".
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