William Chambers (architect)

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Sir William Chambers
William Chambers, painted in 1764 by Frances Cotes
Born23 February 1723
Gothenburg, Sweden
Died10 March 1796(1796-03-10) (aged 73)
London, England
NationalityBritish (originally Scottish)
BuildingsCasino at Marino
Dundas House (now the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland)
Dunmore Pineapple
Somerset House

Sir William Chambers RA (23 February 1723 – 10 March 1796) was a Swedish-Scottish architect, based in London. Among his best-known works are Somerset House, and the pagoda at Kew. Chambers was a founder member of the Royal Academy.


William Chambers was born on 23 February 1723 in Gothenburg, Sweden, to a Scottish merchant father.[1][2]

Between 1740 and 1749 he was employed by the Swedish East India Company making three voyages to China[3] where he studied Chinese architecture and decoration.

Returning to Europe, he studied architecture in Paris (with J. F. Blondel) and spent five years in Italy. Then, in 1755, he moved to London, where he established an architectural practice. In 1757, through a recommendation of Lord Bute,[4] he was appointed architectural tutor to the Prince of Wales, later George III, and in 1766 also, along with Robert Adam, Architect to the King, (this being an unofficial title, rather than an actual salaried post with the Office of Works).[5] He worked for Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales, making fanciful garden buildings at Kew, and in 1757 he published a book of Chinese designs which had a significant influence on contemporary taste. He developed his Chinese interests further with his Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772), a fanciful elaboration of contemporary English ideas about the naturalistic style of gardening in China.

The central courtyard of Chambers' Somerset House in London. The pavement fountain was installed in the 1990s.

His more serious and academic Treatise on Civil Architecture published in 1759 proved influential on builders; it went into several editions and was still being republished in 1862.[6] It dealt with the use of the classical orders, and gave suggestions for decorative elements, rather than dealing with construction and planning; for its third edition it was retitled A Treatise on the Decorative Parts of Civil Architecture. It included ideas from the works of many 16th- and 17th-century Italian architects then still little known in Britain.[7] His influence was also transmitted through a host of younger architects trained as pupils in his office, including Thomas Hardwick (1752–1825), who helped him build Somerset House and who wrote his biography.

He was the major rival of Adam in British Neoclassicism. Chambers was more international in outlook (his knighthood being originally a Swedish honour) and was influenced by continental neoclassicism (which he in turn influenced) when designing for British clients. A second visit to Paris in 1774 confirmed the French cast to his sober and conservative refined blend of Neoclassicism and Palladian conventions.

From around 1758 to the mid-1770s, Chambers concentrated on building houses for the nobility, beginning with one for Lord Bessborough at Roehampton.[8] In 1766 Chambers was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. From 1761 he held the unofficial post of Joint Architect to the King,[9] he was then promoted to his first official post in the Office of Works and was from 1769–82 Comptroller of the King's Works, his final promotion put him in charge, from 1782 being Surveyor-General and Comptroller a post he kept until his death.

When a scheme to unite a number of government offices on the site of Somerset House in the Strand was projected, his position did not give him automatic authority over the construction; however when William Robinson, secretary to the board, who had been put in charge of the new building, died in 1775, Chambers became its architect. His initial plans for a great oval courtyard, connected to three smaller, narrow rectangular courts, were soon modified into a simpler rectilinear scheme.[10]

On 10 December 1768 the Royal Academy was founded. Chambers played an important role in the events that led to the Academy's foundation,[11] the Minutes of the General Assembly of the Royal Academy of 14 December 1768 record 'That some time towards the latter end of November 1768, Mr Chambers waited upon the King and informed him that many artists of reputation together with himself are very desirous of establishing a Society that should more effectively promote the Arts of Design'. He was appointed the Academy's first Treasurer.

Chambers died in London in 1796. He is buried in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.[12] His tombstone is inscribed:[13]

Sir William Chambers, Knight of the Polar Star, Architect, Surveyor General of His Majesty's Works, F.R.S., F.A.S., R.S. Died March 8th, 1796. Aged 74.

Visits by Swedes[edit]

One of Chambers friends, James Maule, wrote in his journal in August 1771: I visited the Stock Exchange and met John Wilson. I also met several Swedes at sir William Chambers. I spent the Sunday with sir William Chambers at Hampton Court, where his family lives.[14]

The orientalist Jakob Jonas Björnståhl wrote after a visit at Chambers house in London in 1775:[15]

He counts himself a Swede and speaks the language just like a Swede. He really honours our Nation; he keeps a fairly beautiful house, where he receives Swedes and entertains them in a princely manner.


  • Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils. To which is annexed, a Description of their Temples, Houses, Gardens, &c. (London) 1757
  • Desseins des edifices, meubles, habits, machines, et ustenciles des Chinois ; Auxquels est ajoutée une descr. de leurs temples, de leurs maisons, de leurs jardins, etc. (London) 1757
  • A treatise on civil architecture in which the principles of that art are laid down and illustrated by a great number of plates accurately designed and elegantly engraved by the best hands (London) 1759
  • Plans, Elevations, Sections and Perspective Views of the Gardens and Buildings at Kew in Surrey (London) 1763
  • A dissertation on oriental gardening. (London) 1772
Treatise on Civil Architecture, second edition 1768
A treatise on civil architecture, second edition 1768

Main works[edit]

Door handle from Somerset House, about 1785, designed by Sir William Chambers V&A Museum no. 4013-1855

List of architectural work[20][edit]

London work[edit]

  • Kew Gardens, Kew, Surrey, various structures: House of Confucius (1749) demolished; Frederick, Prince of Wales, Mausoleum (unexecuted); Gallery of Antiquities (1757) demolished; Orangery (1757–61); Temple of Pan (1758) demolished; Temple of Arethusa (1758) demolished; Alhambra (1758) demolished; Garden Seat (1758) demolished; Porter's Lodge (1758) demolished; Stables (1758) demolished; Temple of Victory (1759) demolished; Ruined Arch (1759); Theatre of Augusta (1760) demolished; Temple of Bellona (1760); Menagerie (1760) demolished; Exotic Garden (1760) demolished; Mosque (1761) demolished; Temple of the Sun (1761) demolished 1916 after damage in a storm; Great Pagoda (1761–62); Temple of Peace (1763) demolished; Temple of Aeolus (1763); Temple of Solitude (1763) demolished; Palladian Bridge (1763) demolished; Dairy (1773) demolished; and alterations to Kew Palace – demolished
  • Leicester House, Leicester Square, alterations (1757) – demolished
  • Carlton House, alterations, (1757–61), new porters lodge and remodelled entrance passage (c. 1761), later virtually rebuilt (1783–6) by Henry Holland – demolished
  • Richmond House, Whitehall, gallery, greenhouse, gate to Privy Garden (1759–60) – demolished
  • Parkstead House (formerly Manresa House and Bessborough House), Roehampton (1760)
  • 47 Leicester Square, Sir Joshua Reynolds's house, new painting room and gallery (c. 1760-2) – demolished
  • Pembroke House, Whitehall, internal decoration (1760) riding house (1773) – demolished
  • Buckingham Palace (then Queen's House), addition of north & south wings, west and east libraries, the Octagon Library, interior decorations and riding house (1762–68) – none of this work survives
  • Grantham House, Whitehall, alterations (1760s) – demolished
  • 25 Grosvenor Square, internal alterations (1762) – demolished
  • Richmond Palace, Richmond, various designs (1762, 1764, 1769, 1775) – none executed
  • 45 Berkeley Square, internal decoration (1763–7)
  • 13–22, 44–58 Berners Street (1764–70)
  • Gower House, Whitehall, Chamber's largest town house (1765–74) – demolished
  • German Lutheran Chapel, Savoy Palace, (1766) – demolished
  • 20 Grosvenor Square, internal alterations (1767) – demolished
  • Kew Observatory, Old Deer Park, for George III (1768)
  • 6 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea (c. 1768)
  • St James's Palace, internal decorations (late 1760s)
  • 21 Arlington Street, Westminster (1769)
  • Milton House, Park Lane, entrance gate and screen (1769–71) – demolished
  • Bedford House, Bloomsbury, London, alterations and internal decorations (c. 1769 – c. 1772) – demolished
  • 79 Piccadilly, alterations including addition of attic storey (1770–71) – demolished
  • Errington House (later Warwick House), Cleveland Row (1770–71) – demolished
  • House Knightsbridge (1770–72) – demolished
  • Wick House, Richmond Hill (1771–72)
  • 3 St. James's Square, internal alterations (1771) – demolished
  • The Earl and Countess of Mountrath's tomb, St John's Chapel, Westminster Abbey (1771)
  • Melbourne House Piccadilly, (1771–76) converted to the Albany by Henry Holland (1803–4)
  • Marlborough House, addition of attic and internal alterations including new chimney-piece in the state drawing room (1771–74)
  • 14 Cecil Street, interior work (c. 1772)
  • 62 Curzon Street (1773)
  • 15 George Street, internal alterations and Doric porch (1774)
  • 51 Grosvenor Street, alterations (1774–5)
  • Somerset House, Chambers' magnum opus (1776–96), the building was unfinished at Chambers' death and continued in (1829–31) under Robert Smirke who added the east wing

England outside London[edit]


  • Abbeyleix House, managing the construction of the house which had earlier been designed by James Wyatt
  • Casino at Marino, Marino, Dublin (1758–76). Garden pavilion for 1st Earl of Charlemont. Open to the public.
  • Marino House, Dublin. (1758–75) Alterations and additions to existing country house for 1st Earl of Charlemont. Demolished.
  • Marino House, Dublin. Dragon gates. Relocated from original position.
  • Castletown House, (1760) County Kildare, internal alterations of long gallery and other rooms and gate piers for Thomas Connolly
  • Slane Castle, County Meath, work of unknown nature (1760s)
  • Charlemont House, Rutland Square, Dublin (1762–75) for 1st Earl of Charlemont. City house. Adapted for use as Hugh Lane Gallery. Porch added by others. Rear section demolished.
  • Headford, County Meath, (1765) Unexecuted design for country house with 13 bay garden front
  • Town Hall, Main Street, Strabane, County Tyrone. Design for steeple.
  • Leinster House, Dublin, redecoration of first floor apartments on garden front (1767)
  • Hunting lodge, Roxborough Castle, Moy, County Tyrone. (1768). Two unexecuted designs for Lord Charlemont.
  • City Hall, Parliament Street, Dublin, (1768–1769). Unsuccessful competition entry.
  • Rathfarnham Castle, County Dublin, refaced 16th-century castle, provided with Georgian windows, straight roof parapets with urns and Georgian interiors (1770–71) for Henry, 4th. Viscount Loftus, Later 1st. Earl of Ely.
  • Lucan House, Lucan, County Dublin, (1773–75) for Agmondisham Vesey. Now Italian Embassy.
  • Trinity College, Dublin, East range. (1775). Not built.
  • Trinity College, Dublin, College Exam Hall. (1775) In use as exam hall and theatre.
  • Trinity College, Dublin, Collegiate chapel (c. 1775–1797). In use as chapel.



Gallery of architectural works[edit]


  1. ^ William Chambers Biography
  2. ^ page 11, Sir William Chambers Architect to George III, John Harris and Michael Snodin, 1996, Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-06940-5
  3. ^ page 11, Sir William Chambers Architect to George III, John Harris and Michael Snodin, 1996, Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-06940-5
  4. ^ page 59, The Architect King: George III and the Culture of the Enlightenment, David Watkin, 2004, Royal Collection Publications
  5. ^ page 15, The Architect King: George III and the Culture of the Enlightenment, David Watkin, 2004, Royal Collection Publications
  6. ^ A Treatise on the Decorative Parts of Civil Architecture, 1862 ed, revised and edited by W.H. Leeds
  7. ^ Summerson 1970, p.416
  8. ^ Summerson 1970, p.416
  9. ^ Chapter 8, The Office of Works 1761–96, Sir William Chambers Knight of the Polar Star, John Harris, 1970, A. Zwemmer Ltd
  10. ^ Summerson 1970, p.416
  11. ^ Chapter 11, The Royal Academy, Sir William Chambers Knight of the Polar Star, John Harris, 1970, A. Zwemmer Ltd
  12. ^ "Anecdotes of the Late Sir William Chambers, from the European Magazine," The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politicks and Literature of the Year (1796):366.
  13. ^ Ashton, John Rowland: Lives and Livelihoods in Little London, The Story of the British in Gothenburg (1621–2011), Warne förlag, Sävedalen 2003. ISBN 91-86425-48-X (inb), p. 40.
  14. ^ Ashton, John Rowland: Lives and Livelihoods in Little London, The Story of the British in Gothenburg (1621–2011), Warne förlag, Sävedalen 2003. ISBN 91-86425-48-X (inb) pp. 38–39.
  15. ^ Frängsmyr, Tore (1976). Ostindiska kompaniet: människorna, äventyret och den ekonomiska drömmen [East India Company: the people, the adventure and the economic dream] (in Swedish). Höganäs: Bra böcker. p. 161. Libris 139572.
  16. ^ Parkstead House Archived 5 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ Kew Gardens web site Archived 8 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ Historic Register of Parks and Gardens Archived 26 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ Weinreb, Ben (1986). The London encyclopedia. Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler. p. 568. ISBN 978-0-917561-07-8.
  20. ^ pages 196–256, Sir William Chambers Knight of the Polar Star, John Harris, 1970, A. Zwemmer Ltd
  21. ^ Woods, May (1996). Visions of Arcadia: European gardens from Renaissance to Rococo. London, UK: Aurum. p. 180. ISBN 1854104292.


  • Summerson, John (1970). Architecture in Britain, 1530 to 1830. Pelican History of Art. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  • Michael Snodin (Ed.), Sir William Chambers, V&A Publishing ISBN 1851771824

Further reading[edit]

  • His predecessors ended up in a small town called Hartsville Tennessee with the youngest blood son to be born in the line to have William as their middle name.(written by Jon William Chambers son of James William Allen Chambers, grandson of Fred William Chambers)

External links[edit]

Court offices
Preceded by Comptroller of the King's Works
Succeeded by
(post merged)
Court offices
Preceded by
(new position)
Surveyor-General and Comptroller
Succeeded by