William Wilkins (architect)

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Not to be confused with American architect William J. Wilkins.
For other people named William Wilkins, see William Wilkins (disambiguation).
William Wilkins
Born (1778-08-31)31 August 1778
Died 31 August 1839(1839-08-31)
Lensfield, Cambridge
Nationality English
Buildings University College, London
National Gallery, London

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 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 School and then won a scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.[1] He graduated as 6th wrangler in 1800.[2][3] With the award of the Worts Travelling Bachelorship in 1801, worth £100 for three years,[4] 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).

The Grange, Northington

His architectural career began in 1804 with his Greek-revival designs for the newly established Downing College, Cambridge.[5] 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.[6]

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.[5] 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.[7]

In 1815, Wilkins inherited his father's chain of six theatres.[8] He went on to rebuild or remodel several of them, and occasionally designed scenery.[9]

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 (1827–28) and the National Gallery (1832–38).[5] 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;[10] 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".[11]

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.[10]

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 King's 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.[5]

Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

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".[5]

Wilkins was a member of the Society of Dilettanti from 1817. In 1822–26, he collaborated with John Peter Gandy on the Clubhouse for the new United University Club, in Pall Mall. He was made an associate of the Royal Society in 1824 and given full membership in 1826.[5] He was appointed professor of architecture at the Royal Academy following the death of John Soane in 1837, but gave no lectures before he died himself in August 1839.[10]

He is buried in the chapel of Corpus Christi College, his own favourite among his works.

His study of Vitruvius, while flawed, assisted later authors interpreting difficult parts of the text.[5]

List of publications[12][edit]

  • Some Account of the Prior's Chapel at Ely in pages 105–12 Archaeologia XIV (1801)
  • Antiquities of Magna Graecia (1807)
  • Observations on the Porta Honoris of Caius College, Cambridge in Vetusta Monumenta, iv (1809)
  • The Civil Architecture of Vitruvius: Comprising those Books of the Author which Relate to the Public and Private Edifices off the Ancients (1813 and 1817)
  • Atheniensia, or Remarks of the Topography and Buildings in Athens (1816)
  • Remarks on the Architectural Inscription Brought from Athens, and now Preserved in the British Museum in pages 580–603, Memoirs relating to European & Asiatic Turkey edited by Rev. Robert Walpole (1817)
  • On the Sculptures of the Parthenon in Travels in Various Countries edited by Rev. Robert Walpole (1820)
  • Report on the State of Sherborne Church (1828)
  • Prolusiones Architectonicae or Essays on Subjects Connected with Grecian and Roman Architecture (1837)
  • The Lydo-Phrygian Inscription in pages 155–60 of Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom, III (1839)

List of architectural work[13][edit]

Gallery of architectural work[edit]


  1. ^ Searby, Peter. A History of the University of Cambridge 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-521-35060-0. Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  2. ^ "Wilkins, William (WLKS796W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. ^ Liscombe, R. W. (1980). William Wilkins 1778–1839. Cambridge University Press. p. 18. 
  4. ^ Liscombe, R. W. (1980). William Wilkins 1778–1839. Cambridge University Press. p. 24. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g  Waterhouse, Paul (1900). "Wilkins, William". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography 61. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
  6. ^ Pevsner, Nikolaus (1954). Cambridgeshire. The Buildings of England. Harmondsworth: 1954. pp. 55–6. 
  7. ^ English Heritage. "Details from listed building database (145178)". Images of England. 
  8. ^ Searby, Peter. A History of the University of Cambridge 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 701. ISBN 978-0-521-35060-0. Retrieved 22 January 2012. 
  9. ^ Mackintosh, Iain (1993). Architecture, actor, and Audience. London: Routledge. p. 158. ISBN 978-0-415-03183-7. 
  10. ^ a b c Knight, Charles, ed. (1858). The English Cyclopædia 6. London: Bradbury & Evans. p. 704. Retrieved 28 October 2011. 
  11. ^ Summerson, John (1962). Georgian London (revised ed.). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. p. 209. 
  12. ^ Liscombe, R.W. (1980). William Wilkins 1778–1839. Cambridge University Press. pp. 281–282. 
  13. ^ Liscombe, R. W. (1980). William Wilkins 1778–1839. Cambridge University Press. pp. 233–242. 

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