- Sir William Chambers: Architect to George III, and: Houghton Hall: The Prime Minister, The Empress and The Heritage
William Chambers, Architect to George III, was exhibited at the Chambers-designed Somerset House, London. Walking up the Royal Academy staircase that led to the introductory room of the exhibition provided viewers a fitting orientation to the exhibition to come. Here they could observe Chambers’ interest in design elements revealed in the details of the stair rails and in his spatial construction. The challenge to the exhibition organizers was to coordinate the two-dimensional images (of architectural, interior, and furniture designs) with the actual site and its elaborate architectural features. They succeeded and provided an opportunity to reevaluate Chambers’ career. Architectural exhibitions can become a dull compilation of drawings, but this one, on the contrary, illustrated a well-rounded artist with skills in varying media. The exhibition and accompanying text, edited by John Harris, who wrote the standard monograph on Chambers in 1970, and Michael Snodin, curator of design at the Victoria and Albert Museum, provided examples of Chambers’ multifarious works and greatly enhances our knowledge of Chambers’ works in the decorative arts, interiors, and as tutor to the future George III.
On Saturdays viewers at the exhibition were treated to further access to Somerset House including the Navy Stair and the Thames view from the terrace. Off the main gallery of the exhibition were small rooms with particular thematic foci. These rooms focused, respectively, on Chambers’ tutelage of the future George III, Kew Gardens, and a compilation of interior, furniture, and staircase design. This last room included limewood and birch models of the stairs at Gower House and York House, and the Navy Stair from Somerset House recreated at 1:24 scale by George Rome Innes. The models illustrate that Chambers’ stair for York House would not have been structurally possible on the basis of his 1759 drawing. The main gallery [End Page 235] included thematic areas that illustrated Chambers’ training in foreign countries, his work at Somerset House, his town houses, and his royal buildings. However, a central display of Chambers’ decorative works dominated the main gallery. Chambers has attracted little attention as a designer of interiors and ornaments, especially, as Snodin notes, compared with Robert Adam. This lack of attention to these decorative works is rectified by the prominent placement of the elaborately gilt Chambers-designed model of the state coach.
The accompanying catalog contains a collection of essays describing Chambers’ life and career—from beginnings in Sweden (Magnus Olausson), training on the continent (Janine Barrier), work with George III (Jane Roberts), to his text A Treatise on Civil Architecture (Robin Middleton). Harris contributes an essay on Kew Gardens, while Giles Worsley, Joseph Friedman, and John Newman address Chambers’ country houses, town houses, and public buildings respectively. Snodin, Hilary Young, and Hugh Roberts address the rarely considered contributions of Chambers’ interiors and ornamentation, silver, ormolu and ceramics, and furniture designs. Joan Coutu discusses his work with Joseph Wilton, and Worsley also takes up the topic of architectural draftsmanship. In conclusion, Nicholas Savage addresses issues of the Academy. Through its divisions the text mirrors the exhibition and allows the reader to focus on specific aspects of the architect’s career. This text is not a catalog in the true sense and is rather inconvenient in its lack of index and illustration listing. Nonetheless, it contains an extensive chronology and bibliography and is beautifully illustrated. Somerset House, one of Chambers’ masterpieces that features prominently in the exhibition, was the perfect setting for viewing Chambers’ career and accomplishments.
Houghton Hall: The Prime Minister, the Empress, and the Heritage, is another exhibition that features architecture. Sir Robert Walpole was the...