Book Review: John Nash: Architect of the Picturesque

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John Nash:
Architect of the Picturesque
Edited by Geoffrey Tyack (English Heritage, £60, *£54)

Earlier this spring, through the particular labours of the editor of this book, a Blue Plaque was unveiled to one of most celebrated architects of the Regency, John Nash (1752-1835). This book is a fulsome explanation of why Nash deserves such a memorial: the spectrum of his work is extraordinary, from Gothic castles to Italianate villas, from Brighton Pavilion to Buckingham Palace, and from the shopping mall of Regent’s Street to the rus in urb of Regent’s Park. And so much of it confounds expectation in terms of detailing, massing and setting. No wonder one 1950s scholar, confronted with the task of cataloguing Nash’s architecture, considered such unorthodox headings as ‘Bizarre’, ‘Scholarly’, ‘Gloomy’ and ‘Inventive’.

Yet for all the variety, ambition and bravura that characterises so much of Nash’s work, his plaque hangs on a relatively unremarkable stuccoed terrace opposite the British Museum. This building, erected in 1777-78, was part of Nash’s first major London development and was briefly his home. Such might have been his output, but for his bankruptcy in 1783. With financial difficulties compounded by the scandal of a divorce, Nash was forced that year to leave the capital and remove to Carmarthen.

Curiously, this ignominious departure was to lay the foundation of his future career. Rebuilding his reputation through solid county work, including prisons, bridges and rural villas, he was introduced to three of the leading advocates of the Picturesque movement: Uvedale Price, Richard Payne Knight and Humphry Repton. These connections were to help transform his practice.

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Nash re-established himself as a cosmopolitan architect-returning to London in 1797-and entered into a brilliantly successful career. By his 60th birthday in 1812, he was also beginning to enjoy the fruits of government employment and his first project for the Prince Regent, a cottage ornée in Windsor Great Park, followed a year later. Government employment gave Nash his greatest opportunities, but the close of his career was overshadowed by financial difficulties and his dismissal from official employment in 1831.

One of the great achievements of this book is to give a coherent account of Nash’s complex life and career through a series of nine independently written essays. The first of these, by Richard Suggett, looks at Nash’s early life and the collapse of his business, which drove him into provincial practice. David Whitehead then tells how he rebuilt his career in Herefordshire during the 1790s.

The next five essays (by Geoffrey Tyack, twice, Rosemary Yallop, J. Mordaunt Crook and M. H. Port) look at different strands of Nash’s work-respectively, his Gothic houses, his Italianate villas, the genesis of Regent’s Park, the redevelopment of the West End and the palaces built for George IV as Prince Regent and King.

Finally, Jonathan Clarke considers Nash as a structural innovator and David Watkin dis-cusses the response of European contemporaries to his work. The volume is well illustrated throughout, but the section on the West End is particularly well treated and includes numerous early photographs with discursive captions. Underpinned with a great deal of new research, this book offers a refreshing reappraisal of Nash and authoritatively sets out his impressive architectural achievement.

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