Great British Architects: John Nash

John Nash was one of the most fashionable and influential architects of the Regency period, a friend of the Prince Regent with a wide circle of landed and nouveau riche clients. He built up a successful country-house practice in collaboration with Humphry Repton, laid out Regent’s Park and improved much of central London, and designed some of the most lavish buildings of his day, including Brighton Pavilion and Buckingham Palace.

A ‘thick, squat figure with round head, snub nose, and little eyes’ as he described himself to Soane, he was quick-witted, amusing and live extravagantly. His business practices were a little shady, but he had a remarkable creative flair. A brilliant planner, he could adapt a wide variety of styles to suit the aspirations of his clients. Although criticised for poor detailing and quality of workmanship, Nash’s architecture achieved maximum scenic effect. He excelled at harmonising a building with its setting and enhancing the Picturesque character of a place. Through his stuccoed villas, which became the prototype for a new genre of middle-class suburban house, Nash made a significant contribution to the development of 19th-century British domestic architecture.

John Nash

The career of John Nash

The son of a millwright, John Nash worked in the office of the Palladian architect Robert Taylor before setting up independently in London in about 1767. In 1777–8, he built some of London’s first stucco-clad houses, but the Bloomsbury speculation resulted in bankruptcy, and he moved to the relative obscurity of Carmarthen. There, he continued to operate as an architect/builder and became well established, owning property and mixing with the local gentry. In 1787, he attempted to divorce his first wife for adultery. Nash’s first public building, Carmarthen Gaol, dates from 1788, and he went on to build two more gaols and a market hall, all in a severe neo-Classical style. By the 1790s, he was engaged in a number of commissions for unpretentious country houses with simple Classical detailing, such as Llanerchaeron, now owned by the National Trust.

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But the most significant legacy of Nash’s Welsh exile was the influence on his work of the Picturesque, for it was there that he met some of the original advocates of the movement, including Thomas Johnes of Hafod, Richard Payne Knight of Downton Castle, Uvedale Price, author of the Essay on the Picturesque (1796), and Repton, Nash’s exact contemporary and the most fashionable Picturesque landscape gardener of his day. In 1795, Nash and Repton formed a partnership and, before it ended in acrimony in 1800, they together forged a highly successful reputation as designers of elegant villas and small country seats in settings carefully landscaped to evoke the romantic qualities of nature untamed.

By 1797, Nash had re-established himself in London, where he lived glamorously, married again and built himself a handsome house in Dover Street and a weekend retreat on the Isle of Wight. With a clientele of nouveau riche bankers and merchants, as well as gentry and minor nobility, he built or remodelled some 40 houses, ranging from sophisticated Thames-side villas to Picturesque country seats. For these, he adopted a variety of styles, notably the ‘Regency castle’ manner of Luscombe in Devon and the slightly later, larger-scaled Caerhays in Cornwall and Knepp in Sussex. Although often poorly detailed, these houses were comfortable and cleverly planned, often with a single long axis of principal rooms disguised by the romantic asymmetry of the exterior. Nash also designed lodges, dairies, model farms and stables, and pretty cottages ornées, as at Blaise Hamlet in Somerset.

But in about 1812, this lucrative country-house practice was cut short by the consuming responsibilities of his new role as the Prince Regent’s favourite architect Brighton Pavilion being one result and the man behind the replanning of a great swathe of central London. From 1811, Nash developed his dramatic vision for the layout of Regent’s Park, with private villas set in a Reptonian landscape surrounded by palatial stuccoed terraces. From there, a great thoroughfare running north/south from Park Crescent, down Portland Place and Regent Street to the site of Carlton House, was conceived as a royal route linking the prince’s residence to Regent’s Park. Executed with much improvisation, it was a bold masterplan, which combined English elements derived from John Wood’s Bath with unprecedented French influences informed by the work of Ledoux.

Nash designed some of the grand façades, and, to disguise kinks in the route, created the Quadrant Piccadilly, and All Souls, Langham Place, all to highly Picturesque effect. There were other associated central London schemes, and, from 1823, he lived ‘like a prince’ in a pair of town houses he had built in Lower Regent Street. In 1829, he was accused of fraud. He was exonerated, but fell into deeper disgrace over the escalating costs of Buckingham Palace, the disastrous final commission that ended his career. He retired to the Isle of Wight in 1830 and, when he died four years later, was buried in East Cowes churchyard.