Chambers, Sir William

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Chambers, Sir William (1723-1796): Scottish Architect.

Born in Sweden to Scottish parents, William Chambers was a particularly well-traveled architect. He was educated in England and then spent ten years in Asia with the Swedish East India Company. After this, he spent a year in Paris studying architecture and then five years in Italy. In 1755, he finally returned to England where he set up his practice in London. He was appointed tutor in architecture in 1756 to the Prince of Wales, the future George III.

In 1757, he was retained to lay out the Kew Gardens, one of his most famous achievements. His design featured a Chinese pagoda and a Moorish mosque in addition to more classical elements. That same year, he published his Designs of Chinese Buildings, a major source of pictures of Chinese architecture, which along with his later publication of Plans, Elevations, Sections, and Perspective Views of the Garden Buildings at Kew in 1763, helped to renew interest in chinoiserie, or the use of Chinese motifs in design. In 1759, Chambers argued for the superiority of Roman to Greek architecture in his Treatise on Civil Architecture, which became a standard text in the field. The next year, he was named one of two Architects of the Works, the other being his great rival Adam, Robert. In his Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772), he criticized Brown, Lancelot "Capability"’s naturalistic approach to landscape in favor of greater artistry in the transformation of nature.

Chambers’ grandest work was Somerset House (1776-1796) on the bank of the Thames River. A massive edifice, Somerset House was designed to house the central offices of the government as well as the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. In his design, he combined elements of English Palladianism with French neoclassicism. As one of his final accomplishments, Chambers was responsible for the development of the Code of Professional Conduct for architects.

Further Reading:

John Harris and Michael Snodin, eds. Sir William Chambers: Architect to George III, 1996.

Kevin E. Dodson

Lamar University

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