Michael Mansbridge   John Nash: A Complete Catalogue, 1752-1835.
Introduction by John Summerson.
Rizzoli, 336 pages, $75

As recently as the 1930s, a curator of the Soane Museum in London described him as“an ignorant rogue in whom no artistic excellence was to be found.” But today John Nash is widely recognized as one of the most important English architects of his generation, a dazzling generation which boasted such giants as John Soane himself and Robert Smirke, architect of the British Museum.

Nash was born in 1752 to a Welsh millwright living in Lambeth. His early career was dogged by a bankruptcy and failed marriage, but he quickly recouped, becoming by his late thirties a fashionable and prosperous purveyor of country houses in Ireland as well as England. Nash’s architectural vocabulary derived chiefly from the neoclassicism of William Chambers (1723-1796) and Robert Adam (1728-1792). But his eclectic adaptation of these influences—as well as the influence of Uvedale Price (1747-1829), a founder of the Picturesque movement —resulted in an architecture of dignified whimsy. Thatched cottages and Gothic extravaganzas, neoclassical villas and Indian pleasure palaces: all came tumbling from his drawing board in abundant profusion. In 1796, Nash entered into a brief but highly productive collaboration with the legendary landscape designer Humphry Repton. Soon thereafter he became acquainted with the Prince Regent, the future George IV, who became his protector and chief patron. Because of his close association with the crown—Nash became a trusted advisor on political affairs as well as the King’s personal architect—Nash naturally became a prominent social figure. Mrs. Arbuthnot, the Duke of Wellington’s imperious confidante, described him as“a very clever, odd, amusing man, with a face like a monkey.”

While Nash’s work for the Prince Regent —which included the transformation of a renovated farmhouse in Sussex into the famous Oriental fantasy we know as Brighton Pavilion—brought him great influence, it also won him many enemies. George IV was an extraordinarily unpopular monarch —“The King,” Mrs. Arbuthnot observed,“is such a blockhead nobody minds what he says”—and Nash to some extent shared in his unpopularity. In 1825, Nash was put in charge of remaking Buckingham House into Buckingham Palace, a huge project that was incomplete when the King died in 1830. With the King gone, the architect’s enemies were finally free, as the Duke of Wellington put it,“to make a hash of Nash.” Financial irregularities were discovered in his handling of the Buckingham Palace project—Nash had often been suspected of sharp dealings—and he was summarily dismissed from his position on the Board of Works and replaced as the architect in charge of rebuilding the palace. He died a few years later, in 1835, having withdrawn into a wounded if financially comfortable semi-retirement.

Together with John Summerson’s definitive 1980 biography ofNash, this sumptuous inventory provides a comprehensive introduction to the achievement of the archetypical Regency architect. Michael Mansbridge, who died shortly after completing this volume, gathered over 720 illustrations of work by Nash and his circle: photographs where possible, prints or drawings where photos were unavailable. The book also includes dozens of architectural plans, and Mansbridge’s informative annotations, along with the biographical sketch by Summerson, remind us that Nash, unlike the meticulous Soane, preferred to work on a large canvas and aimed for overall effect rather than perfection of detail. Indeed, Nash was as much a town planner and urban designer as a creator of individual buildings, and his work laying out Regent’s Park, Regent Street (“It will quite eclipse Napoleon,” the Prince Regent gloated), Trafalgar Square, and other areas did a great deal to bring the physical texture of modern London into existence.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 6, on page 68
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