Sir Robert Smirke
1 October 1780
|Died||18 April 1867 (aged 86)|
|Awards||Royal Gold Medal (1853)|
|Buildings||The British Museum|
Sir Robert Smirke (1 October 1780 – 18 April 1867) was an English architect, one of the leaders of Greek Revival architecture, though he also used other architectural styles. As architect to the Board of Works, he designed several major public buildings, including the main block and façade of the British Museum. He was a pioneer of the use of concrete foundations.
Smirke was born in London on 1 October 1780, the second son of the portrait painter Robert Smirke; he was one of twelve children. He attended Aspley School, Aspley Guise, Bedfordshire, where he studied Latin, Greek, French and drawing, and was made head boy at the age of 15. In May 1796 he began his study of architecture as a pupil of John Soane but left after only a few months in early 1797 due to a personality clash with his teacher. He wrote to his father:
He (Soane) was on Monday morning in one of his amiable Tempers. Everything was slovenly that I was doing. My drawing was slovenly because it was too great a scale, my scale, also, being too long, and he finished saying the whole of it was excessively slovenly, and that I should draw it out again on the back not to waste another sheet about it.
In 1796, he also began his studies at the Royal Academy winning the Silver Medal that year, also winning the same year the Silver Palette of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce. He was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Academy in 1799 for his design for a National Museum. After leaving Soane he depended on George Dance the Younger and a surveyor called Thomas Bush for his architectural training. In 1801, accompanied by his elder brother Richard he embarked on a Grand Tour which would last until 1805. His itinerary can be followed by the series of letters he wrote: Brussels, Paris (in order to visit which the brothers had to disguise themselves as Americans as Britain was at war with France at the time), Berlin, Potsdam, Prague, Dresden, Vienna. He visited Italy, including, Florence, Venice, Padua, Genoa, Vicenza, Rome, Naples, and Sicily, then went on to Greece, seeing Corinth, Athens, Delphi, Thebes and Olympia. From Athens Smirke wrote to his father:
How can I by description give you any idea of the great pleasure I enjoyed in the sight of these ancient buildings of Athens! How strongly were exemplified in them the grandeur and effect of simplicity in architecture! The Temple of Thesus (Temple of Hephaestus)... cannot but arrest the attention of everyone from its appropriate and dignified solemnity of appearance. The temple of Minerva (Parthenon)... strikes one in the same way with its grandeur and majesty. We were a month there. The impression made upon my mind... had not in that time in the least weakened by being frequently repeated and I could with pleasure spend a much longer time there, while those in Rome (with few exceptions) not only soon grow in some degree uninteresting but have now entirely sunk into disregard and contempt in my mind. All that I could do in Athens was to make some views of them...hoping that they will serve as a memorandum to me of what I think should always be a model.'
He drew most of the ancient buildings in Morea.
In 1805, Smirke became a member of the Society of Antiquaries of London and the Architects' Club. His first official appointment came in 1807 when he was made architect to the Royal Mint. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy on 7 November 1808, and a full Academician on 11 February 1811, his diploma work consisting of a drawing of a reconstruction of the Acropolis of Athens. He only ever exhibited five works at the Academy, the last in 1810.
Smirke's relations with Soane reached a new low after the latter, who had been appointed Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, heavily criticised Smirke's design for the Covent Garden Opera House in his fourth lecture on 29 January 1810. He said:
The practise of sacrificing everything to one front of a building is to be seen, not only in small houses where economy might in some degree apologize for the absurdity, but it is also apparent in large works of great expense ..... And these drawings of a more recent work (here two drawings of Covent Garden theatre were displayed) point out the glaring impropriety of this defect in a manner if possible still more forcible and more subversive of true taste. The public attention, from the largeness of the building, being particularly called to the contemplation of this national edifice
Together with John Nash and Sir John Soane, he became an official architect to the Office of Works in 1813 (an appointment he held until 1832) at a salary of £500 per annum, thereby reaching the height of the profession. In 1819 he was made surveyor of the Inner Temple. In 1819, he married Laura Freston, daughter of The Reverend Anthony Freston, the great-nephew of the architect Matthew Brettingham. The only child of the marriage was a daughter Laura. In 1820, he was made surveyor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and also in 1820 he became treasurer to the Royal Academy. He was knighted in 1832, and received the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1853. Smirke lived at 81 Charlotte Street, London. There is a blue plaque commemorating his residence on the outside of the building. He retired from practise in 1845, after which Robert Peel made him a member of the Commission for London Improvements. In 1859, he resigned from the Royal Academy and retired to Cheltenham, where he lived in Montpellier House, Suffolk Square. He died there on 18 April 1867 and was buried in the churchyard of St Peter's in Leckhampton. His estate was worth £90,000.
He is known to have designed or remodelled over twenty churches, more than fifty public buildings and more than sixty private houses. This productivity inspired James Planché's 1846 chorus in his burlesque of Aristophanes' The Birds:
The rapid rise of Smirke was due to political patronage. He was a Tory at a time when this party was in the ascendant. His friends at the Royal Academy such as Sir Thomas Lawrence, George Dance, Benjamin West and Joseph Farington were able to introduce him to patrons such as: John Hamilton, 1st Marquess of Abercorn; Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville; Sir George Beaumont, 7th Baronet; George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen; Francis Seymour-Conway, 3rd Marquess of Hertford; Henry Bathurst, 3rd Earl Bathurst; John 'Mad Jack' Fuller and William Lowther, 2nd Earl of Lonsdale. These politicians and aristocrats ensured his rapid advancement and several were to commission buildings from Smirke themselves. Thomas Leverton Donaldson described Smirke as able to please "Men whom it was proverbially impossible to please". His patron at Lowther Castle William Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale said he was "ingenious, modest and gentlemanly in his manners".
Smirke's first major work, the rebuilt Covent Garden Theatre, was the first Greek Doric building in London.John Summerson described the design as demonstrating "how a plain mass of building could be endowed with a sense of gravity by comparatively simple means". During the early part of his career Smirke was, along with William Wilkins, the leading figure in the Greek Revival in England. At the General Post Office in London in the mid-1820s he was still using the giant order of columns with a certain restraint, but by the time he came to design the main front of the British Museum, probably not planned until the 1830s, all such moderation was gone and he used it lavishly, wrapping an imposing colonnade around whole facade.
Smirke, in the view of Charles Locke Eastlake, came third in importance amongst the Gothic Revival architects of his generation, after John Nash and James Wyatt, but criticised his work for its theatrical impracticability. He said that his Eastnor Castle (1808-15), a massive, gloomy building with watch towers and a keep, "might have made a tolerable fort before the invention of gunpowder, but as a residence it was a picturesque mistake".
Smirke was a pioneer of using both concrete and cast iron. A critic writing in 1828 in the Athenaeum said "Mr. Smirke, is pre-eminent in construction: in this respect he has not his superior in the United Kingdom". James Fergusson, writing in 1849, said "He was a first class builder architect ... no building of his ever showed a flaw or failing and ... he was often called upon to remedy the defects of his brother artist."
Projects in which he used concrete foundations included the Millbank Penitentiary, the rebuilding of the London Custom House and the British Museum. At the first two he was called in when work overseen by previous architects had proved unstable. The prison at Millbank  (1812-21; demolished c. 1890) had been designed by an architect called William Williams but his plan was then revised by Thomas Hardwick. The largest prison in Europe, it consisted of a hexagonal central courtyard with an elongated pentagonal courtyard on each outer wall of the central courtyard; the three outer corners of the pentagonal courtyards each had a tower one storey higher than the three floors of the rest of the building. Work had started under Hardwick in late 1812, but when the boundary wall it reached a height of about six feet high it began to tilt and crack. After 18 months, with £26,000 spent, Hardwick resigned. Work continued and by February 1816 the first prisoners were admitted, but the building creaked and several windows spontaneously shattered. Smirke and the engineer John Rennie the Elder were called in, and they recommended demolition of three of the towers and the underpinning of the entire building with concrete foundations: the first known use of this material for foundations in Britain since the Roman Empire. The work cost £70,000, bringing the total cost of the building to £458,000.
In 1825-27 Smirke rebuilt the centre of the Custom House in the City of London, following the failure of its foundations. The building had been erected from 1813 to the designs of David Laing. The building is 488 feet long, the central 200 feet being Smirke's work.
He used large cast iron beams to support the floors of the upper galleries at the British Museum; these had to span 41 feet.
In 1806 he published the first and only volume of an intended series of books Specimens of Continental Architecture. Smirke started to write a treatise on architecture in about 1815 and although he worked on it for about 10 years never completed it. In it he made his admiration for the architecture of ancient Greece plain. He described it as "the noblest", "simple, grand, magnificent", "with its other merits it has a kind of primal simplicity". This he contrasted with the Architecture of ancient Rome which he described as "corrupt Roman taste", "An excess of ornament is in all cases a sympton [sic] of a vulgar or degenerate taste". Of Gothic architecture he described as '"till its despicable remains were almost everywhere superseded by that singular and mysterious compound of styles".
His pupils included Lewis Vulliamy, William Burn, Charles Robert Cockerell, Henry Jones Underwood, Henry Roberts, and his own brother Sydney, best known for the circular reading room at the British Museum. Another brother, Edward Smirke, was a lawyer and antiquarian. Their sister Mary Smirke was a noted painter and translator.
The former Royal Mint, Tower Hill (1807-12). The main building was designed by the previous architect to the Mint James Johnson, but the design was modified by Smirke, who oversaw its execution. The long stone facade with a ground floor of channelled rustication, the two upper floors have a broad pediment containing The Royal Arms supported by six Roman Doric attached columns. The end bays are marked by four Doric pilasters; the Greek Doric frieze and lodges are probably by Smirke. The building contained an apartment for the Deputy Master of the Mint, the Assay Master, and Provost of the Moneyers as well as bullion stores and Mint Office.
The second incarnation of the Covent Garden Theatre (now the Royal Opera House), built in ten months in 1808-1809. It had a symmetrical facade with a tetrastyle portico in the centre, and was the first building in London to use the Greek Doric order. The portico was flanked by four bays, the end bays being marked by pilasters with a statue in a niche between. The three bays on each side of the portico had arches on the ground floor and windows above these and a single carved relief above designed by John Flaxman. The main entrance hall, behind the three doors in the portico, was divided into three aisles by square Doric piers. To the south was the grand staircase, rising between walls, the flight was divided into two sections by a landing, the upper floor had four Ionic columns each side of the staircase that supported a barrel vault over it. The horseshoe shaped auditorium was on five levels, and seated 2,800 people, not including those in the many private boxes. The building was destroyed by fire in 1857.
The General Post Office building in St Martins-le-Grand in the City of London (1825-29; demolished c. 1912). This was England's first purpose built post office. Its main facade had a central hexastyle Greek Ionic portico with pediment, and two tetrastyle porticoes, without pediments, at each end. The main interior space was the large letter-carriers room, with an elegant iron gallery and a spiral staircase.
The main block and facade of the British Museum, Bloomsbury (1823-46). This is Smirke's largest and best known building. In 1820, in his role as architect to the Office of Works, Smirke was invited to redesign the museum, although the complete design dates from 1823, and was for a building surrounding a large central courtyard with a grand south front, given the limited funds the work was divided into phases. It is built of brick with the visible facades cased in Portland stone. The first part to be constructed was the "King's Library" of 1823-1828, which forms the east wing. The north section of the west wing, the "Egyptian Galleries" followed 1825-1834. The north wing, housing the library and reading rooms, was built in 1833-1838. The west wing and south front were built in 1842-1846.
The main feature of the south front is the great colonnade of 44 Greek Ionic columns. The columns are 45 feet high and five feet in diameter; their capitals are loosely based on those of the temple of Athena Polias at Priene and the bases on those of the temple of Dionysus at Teos. At the centre of the colonnade is an octastyle portico, two columns deep; the colonnade continues for three more columns before embracing the two wings to either side. Beyond the facade Smirke built two smaller wings, with Doric pilasters, containing houses, the western one for the Director of the museum. The major surviving interiors are the entrance hall with the Great Stair - in the form of an Imperial staircase- rising to the west, and the "King's Library". This, built to house 65,000 books, is 300 feet long, 41 feet wide and 31 feet high, the centre section being slightly wider, with four great granite Corinthian columns. The only major interior to survive in the north wing is the "Arched Room" at the west end. The "Egyptian Gallery" matches the "King's Library" but is much plainer in decoration.
Smirke's works at the Inner Temple included his only Gothic buildings in London. They included the library (1827-8) and the remodelling of the Great Hall in 1819 (which burnt down and was rebuilt by Sydney Smirke in 1868). Nearly all Smirke's work was destroyed in the London blitz in 1940-1941 and has been rebuilt to a completely different design, the only major survival being the Paper Buildings of 1838, in a simple classical style.
The Royal College of Physicians and Union Club building (1824-27) in Trafalgar Square (now Canada House) The building is much altered, the north front though retains Smirke's hexastyle Ionic portico, and the east front (to Trafalgar Square) still has his portico in antis. The building is of Bath Stone. There were several extensions and remodellings during the 20th century.
Smirke was first involved with the design of Lancaster House in 1825, was dismissed and then brought back in 1832. He added the top floor, and designed the interiors apart from the State Rooms. His involvement ceased in 1840.
The east wing of Somerset House, and the adjacent King's (formerly Smirke) Building of King's College London, on the Strand (1829-31). The Thames front follows the design of the original architect Sir William Chambers being a mirror image of the west wing, the building stretches back toward the Strand by 25 bays of two and half stories, the centre five bays with giant attached Corinthian columns and end three bays are of three full stories and also the end bays have Corinthian pilasters, and general being plainer than the facades by Chambers.
Carlton Club (1833-6) was rebuilt 1854-1856 by Sydney Smirke, bombed in 1940 and later demolished.
The Oxford and Cambridge Club building in Pall Mall (1835-38). It is of seven bays, the ground floor is rusticated with round headed windows, the first floor is of banded rustication and the windows framed with square or half pillars, the building is of brick covered with stucco. The first floor windows have carved relieves above them, the entrance porch is of a single storey with Corinthian columns. The interiors are in Smirke's usual restrained Greek revival style.
For Smirke's London churches see Church Architecture below.
His public buildings outside London include:
In the classical style:
Smirke used the Elizabethan Style at:
His Gothic Revival domestic buildings include:
A rare use of Norman Revival Architecture is:
He advised the Parliamentary Commissioners on the building of new churches from 1818 onwards, contributing seven himself, six were in the Greek revival style, the exception being the church at Tyldesley that is in the Gothic revival style:
Smirke also designed churches for clients other than the commissioners, these included:
Smirke was involved in Building restoration, several commissions coming to him via his post in the Office of Works:
Both Smirke's buildings and Robert Smirke himself play a major role throughout the plot of the fictional podcast, The Magnus Archives.