We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  William Wilkins (1778–1839), by Edward Hodges Baily, 1830 William Wilkins (1778–1839), by Edward Hodges Baily, 1830
Wilkins, William (1778–1839), architect and antiquary, was born on 31 August 1778 in the parish of St Giles, Norwich, the son of William Wilkins (d. 1815), a successful building contractor in East Anglia who in 1780 moved the family to Cambridge and became agent to Viscount Newark (later Earl Manvers), and his wife, Hannah (née Willett). was his brother. Architectural design and history increasingly occupied his father's interest. Partner to Humphry Repton between c.1785 and 1796, the elder Wilkins then established an independent practice designing houses in the neo-Gothic and neo-classical styles, most notably Donington Park, Leicestershire (1798–1800), and Pentillie Castle, Cornwall (with his son; c.1810; dem.). Thereby he founded the intellectual and professional foundations of his son's more distinguished career as architect and scholar. Moreover, the financial competence Wilkins senior displayed in his architectural business and management of a profitable circuit of theatres in Norfolk and Suffolk enabled him to support his son's scholarly bent and consequent social elevation to the ranks of the gentry. In this respect William Wilkins typifies proto-professional architectural practice, combining the skills of the artisan with the learning of the antiquary, but also anticipates the incorporation of gentrified social and academic values which elevated the status of architecture to that of a profession within the Victorian period.

At Norwich school, Wilkins was a talented draughtsman and a scholar, in both classics and mathematics; he entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1796, shortly after his father repaired the master's lodge; he graduated sixth wrangler in mathematics in 1800. In 1798 he had begun a fine set of drawings of King's College chapel which were contemporaneous with its repair by his father, and twice exhibited at the Royal Academy, in 1810 and in 1837. These heralded a profound respect for medieval design further indicated in his first publication, ‘Some account of the prior's chapel at Ely’ in 1801 in Archaeologia, the journal of the Society of Antiquaries of London, to which he had been elected in 1796.

Scholarship and early practice

In 1799 Wilkins made his first set of architectural designs for improvements to Earl Manvers's seat, Thoresby Park, Nottinghamshire, which demonstrated his growing interest in classicism and formed the earliest example of what was to become a pattern of aristocratic patronage. Wilkins's gregarious, amiable, and inoffensively ambitious personality, matched by a commanding stature and bluff good looks, later remarked upon in the obituaries published by the Gentleman's Magazine (GM, 426–7) and Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal (1839, 388–9), undoubtedly assisted him in securing commissions from distinguished patrons. His intelligence drew the attention of George Gordon, fifth earl of Aberdeen, who became a friend and later collaborator, and led to his being awarded the Worts travelling bachelorship in 1801. The bursary funded his tour of the ancient Greek empire (mainly the modern Sicily and Greece) that lasted until 1803. His regularly dispatched letters, written in Latin, testify to his dedicated if conventional mind, which he occupied in studying the inconsistently documented Greek remains in Italy and Sicily.

In 1807, supported by a fellowship at Gonville and Caius and a mastership of the Perse School, Wilkins published The Antiquities of Magna Graecia, which sealed his reputation as a scholar. During the preparation of this work, he applied the fruits of his studies to his pioneeringly consistent Greek revival scheme of 1805 for the projected Downing College at Cambridge. Backed by influential alumni, including Sir Busick Harwood of Downing, who had nominated him for the Society of Antiquaries, and endorsed by the collector and virtuoso Thomas Hope, Wilkins won a reconstituted competition with a typically lucid design. The requisite facilities and accommodation were efficiently arranged in four separated blocks forming an innovative campus plan. Only the side ranges housing the fellows, the undergraduates, and the common room were built (1807–13 and 1818–22), owing to budgetary restrictions which prohibited the construction of the northern entrance and the lecture-room block, modelled on the Athenian Propylaea, and the southern library, chapel, and dining hall block, fronted by porticoes adapted from the Erechtheum, which were imitated more modestly on the completed buildings. Wilkins's pragmatically learned approach, whereby he organized the required space into appropriate three-dimensional volumes, themselves moderated by the scale and form of his chosen ancient models, and then applied the identifying motifs to the main façades, was necessarily somewhat less deft in contemporary additions to Osberton House, Nottinghamshire, but yielded an even more harmonious construction for the East India College, Haileybury (1806–9; now Haileybury School). This last commission possibly led to his meeting Alicia Carnac Murphy, daughter of Matthew Murphy of Ravendale, Lincolnshire, who held a senior post with the East India Company; the couple married in 1811.

Stylistic qualities

Wilkins's pure style, informed by classical study and enabled by mathematical acuity, clarified contemporary neo-classical practice. Yet if Wilkins gave preference to pure form rather than architectural expression he was genuinely interested in matters of ideology and technology. The construction of Downing College extended the facilities for legal and medical education at Cambridge, and East India College was the institution where reforms in the government of Britain's major imperial possession could be studied. In the Nelson Pillar at Dublin (1807; dem.) and in revised form at Great Yarmouth (where the Doric column has a statue of Britannia atop a globe and peristyle of caryatid figures of victory in synthetic Coade stone) he combined Roman and Greek motifs. He also embarked upon a series of Gothic revival country houses beginning with the Tudor Gothic Dalmeny House, Linlithgowshire (1814–17), for the fourth earl of Rosebery, after also drawing a neo-Greek scheme that recalled his remarkable attic transformation of Grange Park, Hampshire (1808–9), for his friend the antiquary Henry Drummond. He turned again to East Anglian Tudor architecture when enlarging Tregothnan, Cornwall (1816–18), for the fourth Viscount Falmouth and designing the more austere Dunmore Park, Stirlingshire (1820–22; dem.), for the fifth Earl Dunmore.

Wilkins and the classical style

Where appropriate, however, Wilkins reverted to the Periclean forms of his formative years. He fronted the fashionable Freemason's Hall, Bath (1817–18), with a handsome Ionic recessed (antis) portico, and dignified the economical commissioners' church of St Paul's, Nottingham (1821–2; dem.), with a portico and steeple adapted from the Athenian octagonal Tower of Winds and circular choragic monument of Lysicrates. His compilation with Lord Aberdeen in 1812–13 of The Civil Architecture of Vitruvius, published in 1817, and his participation in the Elgin marbles debate of 1816, bear witness to Wilkins's continuing interest in classical design. His reservations about the presumed unique and pre-eminent qualities of the sculptures, reiterated in Atheniensia, or, Remarks on the Topography and Buildings in Athens (1817) and in Memoirs Relating to European and Asiatic Turkey, edited in 1820 by his Cambridge friend the Revd Robert Walpole of Trinity College, were troubled by evidence of Greek realism and polychromy. None the less, Wilkins reproduced the Panathenaic frieze in the salon of Argyll House, London, which he altered in 1809 for Lord Aberdeen, and for the staircase of his fashionable United University Club, London (1821–6; dem.), another work in which he was aided by J. P. Gandy. Wilkins was also assisted by the young Irish designer James Gallier, and he superintended the training of G. F. Jones, J. H. Stevens, and the better-known Benjamin Ferrey.

Major works

Such assistance was important, since Wilkins was by then heavily involved with three major works at Cambridge and the editorship of the , to which he had been elected in 1809. Since 1814 he had been preparing The Unedited Antiquities of Attica (1817), a finely illustrated volume that would be cited in the testimonial presented toward his successful election to the Royal Society in 1831. He gathered the remaining findings of the 1811–13 Dilettanti expedition into the five-part revised edition of the society's Antiquities of Ionia (1769–1915), the third part of which was completed shortly after his death. From 1822 to 1830 Wilkins acted as secretary of the Dilettanti in lieu of his more hard-pressed friend Sir Thomas Lawrence. During these years Wilkins was elected an associate of the Royal Academy and then Royal Academician in 1823 and 1826 successively.

Three Cambridge college commissions, at King's (1824–8), Trinity (1823–5), and Corpus Christi (1823–7), brought greatest professional satisfaction, succinctly recorded in a remark to the Revd Christopher Wordsworth, master of Trinity College, that Gothic was ‘my forte’ (Liscombe, 131). Not that Wilkins abandoned the classical ideal. In 1821 he had designed a neo-Greek scheme to marry with Wren's work at Trinity, and completed a striking if unbuilt design for Bylaugh Hall, Norfolk, which was still at the forefront of the English Renaissance revival when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1818. He had the greatest latitude in terms of site, specification, and budget at Corpus Christi. There the new quadrangle designed in 1822 and completed by 1827 added a new chapel, hall, library, and accommodation for the master, fellows, and undergraduates alongside the Old Court, part of which he preserved. The visual effect and spatial ambience of the quadrangle and main interiors won Wilkins recognition as an accomplished Gothic revivalist. By comparison, Trinity New Court (1823–6) is less substantial, and his additions to King's College, notwithstanding the remarkable felicity of his screen and hall, are compromised by the divergent size of the quadrangle and the style of James Gibbs's building. Respect for medieval architecture informs the thorough restoration scheme he drew up for the vestry of the abbey church of St Mary, Sherborne, in 1828, where he envisaged the installation of wrought-iron beams in the tower to ensure the conservation of the ancient fabric.

Non-professional interests

Midway through this productive period Wilkins sought to record his fortunate position. Over several weeks in 1824 A. E. Chalon painted his portrait and that of his wife of thirteen years, Alicia, surrounded by their children Henry Robert (b. 1813), Alicia (b. 1817), and William Bushby (b. 1822) in the drawing-room of his main residence at 36 Weymouth Street, London. (His sons would both enter the Anglican ministry, Henry after working as an architect, while Alicia married Ruskin's friend the Revd William Kingsley.) He could afford a fashionable address and to entertain quite lavishly, owing to his successful practice and also to the theatrical business he had inherited. This consisted of a chain of theatres in East Anglia, which remained profitable over much of the decade, as Wilkins stated in evidence before the 1832 parliamentary select committee on dramatic literature. The theatres included houses in Cambridge (designed with his father in 1814; remodelled), Great Yarmouth (reconstructed by Wilkins in 1816; dem.), Norwich (Theatre Royal, refurbished including a Greek Doric colonnade, 1825–6; des.), and the Bury St Edmunds Theatre (1818–19), which has been restored to its original neo-classical elegance. Wilkins engaged companies that presented plays by contemporary playwrights as well as Shakespeare, and attracted talented actors including Irving, Kean, and Macready. His taste for theatre and for art, each coloured by his fascination with cultural history, is evident in the Carolingian costumes in which he and his family are attired in the 1824 family portrait by Chalon. Behind them are displayed pictures from his collection of mainly Dutch and Italian painting with, most prominently, a copy of Raphael's Transfiguration. Besides indicating his relatively conventional connoisseurship (the catalogues of the sales of his collection at Christies in May 1830, April 1838, and May 1840 number several pictures subsequently identified as copies), the visual reference to Raphael's painting reflects a religious conviction, which, interwoven with stoicism, would course through the letters Wilkins wrote through the final months of his life.

From Cambridge to London

The enlargement of King's College was finished by 1828 but did not lead to further college commissions despite the expansion of both Cambridge and Oxford. The restrained style of Wilkins's designs was losing popularity, and his neo-Greek and neo-Gothic designs for the 1821–2 and 1825 competitions for a university observatory and new quadrangle for St John's College at Cambridge were placed second. His resulting frustration is evident in letters on redevelopment at Cambridge addressed to the editor of the Cambridge Chronicle (November 1826 and March 1828), followed by two surprisingly critical pamphlets, A Letter to the Members of the Senate of the University (February 1831) and An Appeal to the Senate on the Subject of the Plans for the University Library (April 1831). The pamphlets were composed after the double rejection, in 1829 and 1830, of a well-conceived neo-Greek design for the Cambridge University Library that was eclipsed by the more dynamically composed revivalism of C. R. Cockerell. The rejection of Wilkins's learned but moderate historicism signalled the decline of his career at Cambridge, though he did receive a large commission in 1825 to complete the reconstruction of East India House, London, started by Cockerell's father. Completed in 1830, this work coincided with less extensive additions to the company's military seminary at Addiscombe, Surrey (1825–7; both dem.).

The depth of Wilkins's disappointment in the library competitions derived from his erstwhile fame within Cambridge, where he maintained a home at Lensfield House, Lensfield Road (remodelled with a Greek Doric antis portico, 1811; dem.), and success elsewhere. Besides the prestigious East India House, however, he had recently finished the new St George's Hospital at Hyde Park Corner, London (1825–8; now redeveloped as the Lanesborough Hotel). He was also supervising realization of his impressive classical edifice for University College on Gower Street (1825–32), in which he was assisted by J. P. Gandy, and transforming a proposal to convert the old Royal Mews in Trafalgar Square into a design for a combined National Gallery and Royal Academy. Each of these commissions reflected the enlargement of Wilkins's understanding of architectural function and of the social space in which it operated, which had been stimulated by reading the works of John Howard, Jeremy Bentham, and continental Enlightenment authors. His growing awareness of the social distress and activism precipitated by post-war recession and reactionary politics had an impact on the design of the new Norfolk gaol and shire house in Norwich (1822–4) and the county gaol at Huntingdon (1826–8). Here Wilkins endeavoured to implement the improvements advocated by Howard in order to increase ventilation and sanitation but reduce communication between petty and hardened criminal. The Norfolk gaol was the most innovative, inserting a radial penitentiary within the castle walls alongside the historic keep. The penitentiary contained separate cells, categorized by gender and degree of criminality, central supervision of eating, worship, and exercise, together with a treadmill engineered by his friend the ironmaster T. J. Bramah. In the case of Huntingdon gaol Wilkins surely also came to appreciate the curtailing of professional opportunity experienced by his clerk of works, James Gallier. Within three years Gallier, lacking the connections to attract patronage, was forced to emigrate with many other British architects to North America.

The impact of industrial society similarly affected Wilkins's plans for St George's Hospital and University College, London. An ‘H’ plan layout, curtailed for the college, ensured ample ventilation and lighting, both to combat contagion in the former and nurture learning in the latter. His use of the simpler square columns of the Athenian choragic monument and Thrasyllus signified his acceptance of a more scientific functionalism paralleled by the adaptation of Bramah's structural ironwork and water closets, both incorporated at the college. It was the first non-sectarian and faculty-centred university in Britain. The neat disposition of internal space facilitated the provision of diverse departmental needs, later mirrored in miniature in the Yorkshire Philosophical Society Museum (1827–30; superintended by R. H. Sharp), where Greek ornamentation was combined with functional exhibition and study rooms supplied with gas lighting. Wilkins had intended a much grander urban presence for the university, with porticoed wings and a domed great hall projecting forward onto Gower Street, an intention which was curtailed by insufficient capital consequent upon strident conservative opposition. The elevated central portico, deriving from the Hadrianic Temple of Jupiter Olympus at Athens, was built, however, and remains a testament to his considerable powers of design. Breaking rank with several among his circle, not least Lord Aberdeen, Wilkins embraced liberal views in his lively Letter to Lord Viscount Goderich on the Patronage of the Arts by the English Government (1832), in which he advocated government support of the creative arts and more comprehensive state education. He maintained always a belief in the need for traditional academic training: in evidence to the 1836 parliamentary select committee on arts and manufactures he commended the study of pre-eminent ancient models. Such orthodoxy can also be discerned in the brief allusion to his proposed teaching strategies as professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, a post to which he was elected in 1837, in his last scholarly book, Prolusiones architectonical, or, Essays on subjects connected with Grecian and Roman architecture (1837).

Prolusiones was dedicated to the second Earl Grey who had supported Wilkins in the fulfilment of the gallery and academy commission (the academy opened in 1837 and the gallery in 1838). The constraints imposed by the government, and by the duke of Northumberland, who owned adjacent property, limited Wilkins's naturally unostentatious architectural vision. He was obliged to reuse the Corinthian columns from Carlton House, diminishing the scale of the façade, and to insert two public lanes through the building, partly to ensure rapid deployment in Trafalgar Square of troops from the extant barracks at the rear, for which he also had to supply further accommodation in the basement of the gallery wing. The consequence is an insufficiently imposing and fractured edifice, surmounted by an attenuated and inelegant drummed dome, that, despite surviving to become an icon of late twentieth-century international tourism, belittled Wilkins's contemporary reputation—although John Constable considered it ‘a very noble house’ (Constable's Correspondence, 37). The technical innovations of the Bramah-manufactured cast- and wrought-iron skylighting of the major galleries and the economical provision of diverse accommodation for both institutions did nothing to mitigate criticism of the exterior. Two competitive schemes he prepared in 1835 both foundered; one, now lost, was for the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and the other for the Houses of Parliament competition, was memorable for a ceremonial entrance court to the Thames and as the subject of his final polemic, An Apology for the Designs of the Houses of Parliament Marked Phil-Archiamedes (1836; repr. 1837).

Later years

By this date Wilkins was suffering from the early phase of his terminal kidney disease, first diagnosed as gout. The condition could have been precipitated by recent anxieties and obliged him to withdraw from the professorship of architecture at the Royal Academy and to return to Cambridge in late 1838. He endured an increasingly painful illness with surprising good humour, to judge by correspondence with his old friend Hudson Gurney and the accounts of visitors such as Joseph Romilly. He lived to finish a suitably studious essay on ‘The Lydo-Phrygian inscription’ for the 1834 volume of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom. He died at his Cambridge home, Lensfield House, on 31 August 1839, the sixty-first anniversary of his birth. He was buried under the sacrarium of the chapel at Corpus Christi College, and in his obituary in the Gentleman's Magazine prominence was given to a view expressed in The Athenaeum that though his works ‘bespeak taste and genius … the opinions as to the degree of merit to which these may be thought entitled are various’ and concludes that
perhaps of all his public buildings, none was so generally admired and approved of, and none upon which he prided himself more, than the College of Corpus Christi … it was in this work that he was left to the full scope of his genius, without restraint, his employers resting wholly upon the responsibility of his professional character. (GM, 426–7)
Wilkins's achievement as a scholar–architect continued to be undervalued until the revival of interest in Enlightenment and Romantic architecture that culminated in the 1972 Council of Europe exhibition The Age of Neo-Classicism, though the taint of calculation and copyism, summed up by James Elmes as ‘so much Greek, so much cold’ (Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal, 10, 1847, 382), still distorts recognition of his measured contribution to early nineteenth-century architecture and culture.

R. Windsor Liscombe


R. W. Liscombe, William Wilkins, 1778–1839 (1980) [with full bibliography] · Colvin, Archs. · J. M. Crook, The Greek revival: neo-classical attitudes in British architecture, 1760–1870 (1972) · D. Watkin, Thomas Hope, 1769–1831, and the neo-classical idea (1968) · D. Watkin, The triumph of the classical: Cambridge architecture, 1804–1834 (1977) · C. Sicca, C. Harpum, and E. Powell, Committed to classicism: the building of Downing College, Cambridge (1987) · GM, 2nd ser., 12 (1839), 426–7 · Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal, 2 (1839), 388–9 · Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal, 10 (1847), 382 · John Constable's correspondence, ed. R. B. Beckett, 5, Suffolk RS, 11 (1967) · private information (2004)


BL · BL OIOC · CCC Cam. · Church commissioners, London · Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Phoenix collection · CUL · Downing College, Cambridge · Gon. & Caius Cam. · King's Cam. · NL Ire. · priv. coll. · RA · RIBA · S. Antiquaries, Lond. · St Mary's Abbey, Sherborne · Suffolk RO, Bury St Edmunds, corresp. relating to Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds · Suffolk RO · TNA: PRO · Trinity Cam. · UCL · Yale U. CBA · Yorkshire Philosophical Society |  Norfolk RO, corresp. with Hudson Gurney and Gurney family relating to Keswick Hall


A. E. Chalon, group portrait, 1824, priv. coll. · E. H. Baily, marble bust, 1830, Trinity Cam.; on loan to FM Cam. [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£20,000–£30,000; £50 to wife; houses in London and Cambridge; theatre circuit; art collection: will, 1839, item 663, piece 1919