Written By Ken Smith, Library Volunteer
"Salisbury Cathedral” by Francis Price - James 'The Destroyer' Wyatt's own copy
The reason that this book caught my eye in the Cathedral Library collection is a signature on a flyleaf. It is that of James Wyatt who famously (or perhaps infamously) carried out changes to the Cathedral and its environs in the late 18th century. Clues that the book did indeed belong to Wyatt, the architect, are given by pencilled notes, on several pages, together with a short statement and some architectural sketches with measurements.
First published in 1753, “A description of that admirable structure the cathedral church of Salisbury” by Francis Price had a second edition, which appeared in 1774. The later edition differs from the 1753 one in that it includes a description of the chapels, monuments and gravestones in the Cathedral. There is also an account of Old Sarum as a prefix. This volume contains a number of copperplate engravings of the structure, including a cut-away of the top of the spire.
The book's rather shabby binding
James Wyatt's signature
Even over two centuries later, Wyatt’s name still excites strong opinions in Salisbury and, perhaps, in other places where he worked. How did a fashionable Georgian architect come to deserve such opprobrium?
Born in 1746, as a young man Wyatt studied architecture in Italy in both Venice and Rome. In Rome he recalled making measured drawings of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica “…being under the necessity of lying on his back on a ladder slung horizontally, without cradle or side-rail, over a frightful void of 300 feet….”. He made his name as an architect in England with his design for the Pantheon or “Winter Ranelagh” in Oxford Street. When the building was opened in 1772, Horace Walpole, no less, pronounced it “..the most beautiful edifice in England”. Although externally unremarkable, its classicising domed hall, galleried aisles and apsidal ends was something new in assembly rooms and brought Wyatt immediate celebrity.
The fashionable young architect went on to design country houses, such as Heaton Hall and Castle Coole, in the neoclassical style. So many commissions came his way he was sometimes unable to give clients the attention they deserved. In spite of this, he produced designs for such prestigious places as Oriel College, Oxford and Windsor Castle. In 1796, Wyatt became Surveyor General and comptroller of the Works.
Wyatt had plenty of ideas but was not above using others’ work if it would enhance his own. He has been described as a “brilliant but facile designer whose work is not marked by any markedly individual style”.
He copied the interior design ideas of the Adam brothers so slavishly that they accused him of plagiarism. It was only towards the end of his life that Wyatt developed a more individual classical style, perhaps under the influence of his brother Samuel, with whom he often worked.
As a government architect, we might expect to see his designs in some great public building. However, the Napoleonic wars and his premature death, in 1813, meant that he never had the chance to participate in the metropolitan improvements of the reign of George IV.
In spite of this, Wyatt’s reputation as a celebrity architect was enhanced by his famous design for Fonthill Abbey. This structure, much painted by Turner, amongst others, was not the first “Gothic” design. However, Wyatt, utilising the picturesque qualities of medieval architecture, went further than earlier architects did.
Wyatt came to Salisbury to “restore” the Cathedral. His ideas and designs, however controversial, must have been acceptable to the Cathedral Dean and Chapter who employed him. Wyatt believed that a medieval church “...ought to be homogenous in style and unencumbered by screens, monuments and other obtrusive relics of the past...” To this end, his designs demanded the removal of the 13th century choir screen, much stained glass, together with the destruction of chantry chapels and the re-ordering of tombs. While some observers at the time applauded his vision, many more branded it as vandalism. Wyatt’s work resulted in some of his contemporaries labelling him “The Destroyer”. The celebrated long view down the Cathedral nave, that we now see, did indeed come at a high cost.
Perhaps it was Wyatt’s removal of the dilapidated bell-tower and the levelling, draining and ordering of the churchyard from a “…boggy cow-common...” to a gracious green surround, that can be regarded as a more positive legacy.
To return to Wyatt’s copy of “Salisbury Cathedral”, the book has an interesting provenance. There are annotations on the flyleaf explaining that it was acquired at the sale of Wyatt’s goods in 1814. This might have been when Lord Masham, whose bookplate adorns the front pastedown, purchased it. There is also a letter in the book, dated December 1944, from Captain Kelsey of HMS “Warspite”. In it, he offered the book to the Dean having found it in his late father’s effects. The Captain said that the Dean might consign the book to “salvage” if it were of no interest. Fortunately, that Worthy passed it on to the Cathedral library.
This seems to me to be a most fitting resting place for this fascinating volume.
A bookplate of a previous owner and inscription recording its purchase in 1814
A faint pencil sketch believed to be by Jame Wyatt, at the back of the book