William Wilkins (architect)

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William Wilkins
Born(1778-08-31)31 August 1778
Norwich, Norfolk, England
Died31 August 1839(1839-08-31) (aged 61)
Lensfield, Cambridge
BuildingsUniversity 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 William Wilkins (1751–1815),[1] a successful builder who also managed the Norwich Theatre Circuit, a chain of theatres. His younger brother George Wilkins became Archdeacon of Nottingham.

He was educated at Norwich School and then won a scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.[2] He graduated as 6th wrangler in 1800.[3][4] With the award of the Worts Travelling Bachelorship in 1801, worth £100 for three years,[5] he was able to visit the classical antiquities Greece, Asia Minor, and Magna Græcia in Italy between 1801 and 1804. On his tour he was accompanied by the Italian landscape painter Agostino Aglio, whom Wilkins had commissioned as a draughtsman on the expedition. Aglio supplied the drawings for the aquatint plates of monuments illustrating Wilkins' volumes from the expedition, such as The Antiquities of Magna Graecia (1807).

Wilkins was a member of the Society of Dilettanti from 1817.[6] 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.

The Grange, Northington

His architectural career began in 1804 with his Greek-revival designs for the newly established Downing College, Cambridge.[6] 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.[7]

In 1806, Wilkins designed a college near Hertford for the East India Company. It became Haileybury College following the dissolution of the company. 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.[6] 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.[8]

In 1815, Wilkins inherited his father's chain of six theatres.[9] He continued to manage them for the rest of his life, and rebuilt or remodelled several of them, occasionally also designing scenery.[10]

In 1822–26, he collaborated with John Peter Gandy on the Clubhouse for the new United University Club, in Pall Mall, London. He was made an associate of the Royal Society in 1824 and given full membership in 1826.[6]

Trafalgar Square in 1852

Wilkins was influential in the development of London's Trafalgar Square, which had been opened up as part of a scheme by John Nash. He campaigned to have the new building for the National Gallery sited on the north side of the square, initially suggesting that the existing building, William Kent's Great Mews should be converted for the purpose.[11] The government accepted the idea, but opted for a wholly new building, and a Neoclassical design by Wilkins was accepted over alternative schemes by Nash and CR Cockerell.[11] Wilkins also drew up plans for the laying out of the square itself. They were not put into effect, although the scheme eventually carried out by Charles Barry after Wilkins' death replicated many of his ideas.[12] The appearance of the National Gallery (1832–38), which was originally shared with the Royal Academy, attracted adverse criticism from the beginning.[13] John Summerson concluded in 1962 that although Wilkins' frontage has many virtues "considered critically as a façade commanding a great square, its weakness is apparent".[14]

Wilkins carried out two other major London buildings in a severe Classical style both designed in 1827–28: University College on Gower Street, and St George's Hospital[6] (now The Lanesborough hotel on Hyde Park Corner). His other Greek Revival works 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 commemorating Admiral Nelson, one in Dublin and the Britannia Monument in Great Yarmouth. Both predate William Railton's design for Trafalgar Square.[13]

He also produced buildings in the Gothic style, such as Dalmeny House for Lord Rosebery in 1814–17 and Tregothnan for Lord Falmouth in 1816. He 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.[6]

Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Wilkins is buried in the chapel at centre.

In 1827, Wilkins was appointed architect to the East India Company, and the next 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 rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament. After failing to win the latter he attacked the plans of his rivals and the decision of the committee in a pamphlet signed "Phil-archimedes".[6]

He was appointed professor of architecture at the Royal Academy following the death of John Soane in 1837, but gave no lectures before he himself died[13] at his house in Cambridge on 31 August 1839. He was buried in the crypt under the chapel of Corpus Christi College.[6]

List of publications[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 Robert Walpole (1817).
  • On the Sculptures of the Parthenon in Travels in Various Countries edited by 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[edit]


Gallery of architectural work[edit]


  1. ^ Searby 1988, p. 699.
  2. ^ Searby 1988, p. 19.
  3. ^ "Wilkins, William (WLKS796W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  4. ^ Liscombe 1980, p. 18.
  5. ^ Liscombe 1980, p. 24.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Waterhouse, Paul (1900). "Wilkins, William" . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 61. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  7. ^ Pevsner 1954, pp. 95–96.
  8. ^ Historic England. "Details from listed building database (1095216)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 29 October 2011.
  9. ^ Searby 1988, p. 701.
  10. ^ Mackintosh, Iain (1993). Architecture, actor, and Audience. London: Routledge. p. 158. ISBN 978-0-415-03183-7.
  11. ^ a b Mace 1976, p. 43.
  12. ^ Mace 1976, pp. 44–45.
  13. ^ a b c Knight, Charles, ed. (1858). "Wilkins, William". The English Cyclopædia. Vol. 6. London: Bradbury & Evans. p. 704. Retrieved 28 October 2011.
  14. ^ Summerson 1962, p. 09.
  15. ^ Liscombe 1980, pp. 281–282.
  16. ^ Liscombe 1980, pp. 233–242.
  17. ^ Searby 1988, p. 11.


External links[edit]