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Sir William Chambers RA (1723 - 1796)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

Sir William Chambers was the architectural advisor to King George III and a Founder member of the Royal Academy. He served as the RA’s first Treasurer and designed its first purpose-built home, Somerset House.

William Chambers was born to Scottish parents in Gothenberg, Sweden, where his father was working as a merchant. He was educated in England before beginning a mercantile career as a teenager, joining the Swedish East India Company. He travelled to Bengal and twice to China in the 1740s, where he had enough time to study mathematics and make many studies of local buildings he saw there. Returning to Europe, he studied architecture in Paris and Italy before settling in London in 1755 and establishing his own practice.

In 1757 Chambers was appointed as architectural tutor to the 19-year old Prince of Wales, later George III and also published a book Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, etc. , illustrated with his own detailed drawings from his time in the country. In the same year he began work with Queen Augusta, the Prince’s mother to lay out the gardens around her house at Kew. Chambers’s ten-storey Great Pagoda, which still sits at the centre of the gardens, fascinated contemporary visitors and provided one of the first bird’s-eye views of London.

In 1759 Chambers published A Treatise on Civil Architecture, an illustrated book which became the standard English treatise of the use of the Orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, etc.) and their decorations and cemented his position as a leading British architect. When his royal pupil became King George III in 1760, Chambers gained even more influence at court and was instrumental in persuading the King to support the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. Chambers served as the Academy’s first Treasurer. In 1770, he was made a Knight of the Polar Star by Sweden’s King Gustav, and was allowed by King George III to assume the rank of Knight in British society as well.

Apart from remodelling Buckingham Palace for George III, Chambers’s best-known project was closely linked to the Royal Academy. He was the architect for Somerset House, which became the Academy’s first official home in 1780. Begun in 1776, Chambers worked on the project for 20 years, and it was eventually finished just after his death in 1796. Chambers is buried in Westminster Abbey.

RA Collections Decolonial Research Project - Extended Case Study

As a young man, Chambers served in the Swedish East India Company between 1740 and 1749 on three separate voyages. The first (1740-42) was to Bengal, India, while the second (departing 1743) and third (1748-49) were both to China. On the voyages to China, Chambers acted as an assistant supercargo (responsible for managing and selling the cargo and buying and receiving goods for the return voyage). This role was extremely lucrative, and Chambers would have profited handsomely from these ventures. It was during these trips that Chambers was able to benefit from first-hand observation of Chinese architecture, making drawings that led to great renown in European circles when published years later in Designs for Chinese Buildings (1757).

At the height of his career, Chambers was also the architect, comptroller and surveyor-general to King George III – essentially the King’s official architect – and designed numerous buildings under royal patronage. George III was inconsistent in his views on enslavement. Although his reign saw the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, he himself sought to preserve the dominance of Britain’s economic position through transatlantic trade of commodities by strengthening control of the British colonies, particularly in the Caribbean, which meant maintaining the institution of exploiting the labour of the enslaved (see Notes, 1 and 2).

In 1778, Chambers’ youngest daughter Selina married William Innes, a plantation owner and merchant in Jamaica. Chambers opposed the marriage for unknown reasons and in his wife’s will (declared in 1798, two years after Chambers’ death) Selina was instructed to return to England from the Caribbean within two years or otherwise be disinherited (see Notes, 3). On the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, Selina assigned her claim for compensation for plantations to Peter Cherry, a London hotelier. However, it is unclear if the plantations which were claimed were those formerly owned by Innes, as before 1808 he had assigned his Williamsfield plantation in a transaction aimed to settle his outstanding debts (see Notes, 4).

Notes

  1. https://heritagecollections.parliament.uk/stories/the-transatlantic-slave-trade/ (accessed 2 March 2022).

  2. John L. Bullion, ‘George III on Empire, 1783’, The William and Mary Quarterly (1994), vol. 51, no. 2, pp. 305-310; https://www-jstor-org.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/stable/pdf/2946866.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A76538dc7e96ccdbf6dec660247379614&ab_segments=&origin= (accessed 2 March 2022).

  3. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146633095 (accessed 2 March 2022).

  4. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/2146653045 (accessed 2 March 2022).

Relevant ODNB entries

Harris, John. “Chambers, Sir William (1722–1796), architect.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sep. 2004; Accessed 2 Mar. 2022. https://www-oxforddnb-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-5083

Profile

Royal Academician

Foundation Member

Born: 23 February 1723 in Göteborg, Sweden

Died: 8 March 1796

Nationality: British

Elected RA: 10 December 1768

Treasurer: 10 December 1768 - 8 March 1796

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Architecture, Interior design, and Furniture design

Works by Sir William Chambers in the RA Collection

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Works after Sir William Chambers in the RA Collection

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Works associated with Sir William Chambers in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

58 results