The Architecture of John Nash

By Terence Davis; John Summerson | Go to book overview

Introduction
BY SIR JOHN SUMMERSON

MR NASH is a very clever, odd, amusing man', wrote Mrs Arbuthnot after a visit to East Cowes Castle in 1824, 'with a face like a monkey's but civil and good humoured to the greatest degree.'1 Bits and pieces from other sources accord with this. Lawrence, in the portrait at Jesus College, Oxford, irradiates the Monkeyface with wisdom and charm; but Nash's own description of his 'thick, squat, dwarf figure, with round head, snub nose, and little eyes'2 is at once more truthful and more expressive of his own idea of himself as a tough old customer taking the world as he finds it, delighted with its rewards, uncomplaining of its kicks. He was amusing, as Mrs Arbuthnot says: his personal letters are spontaneous and racy. He was most phenomenally clever; and 'odd' perhaps in the sense that, living in a world where many of the more showy attributes of success were within his reach he retained a single-minded passion for one thing above all others -- architecture. Architecture as his own original creation; architecture as an artistic gamble; and, best of all, architecture achieved in highly speculative projects, with big money and sharp wit.

He had the defects of his merits. As a man of business, though he was no rogue, he moved sometimes a little too fast to be wholly respectable. As a designer he certainly moved much too fast to be respectable at all by the standards of the scholars and critics of his own or any other time. His detailing was terrible. And, what is worse, he knew that it was terrible and did not care. 'Never mind', he would say of some egregious misfit arising from one of his sketches, 'it won't be observed in the execution.'3 Of course is was and will continue to be observed. It cannot be helped; and any critic who attempts to reconstruct a Nash façade on orthodox lines will find to his dismay that the correction of minor faults merely leads to the exposure of major ambiguities and thus to the devaluation of the whole. Nash's broad scenic genius is a thing in itself.

Much of Nash's work, including every single house in his famous street, has been destroyed. But, ironically, the very first buildings he ever built in London -- buildings which represent an early and disastrous failure -- have survived. At the corner of Bloomsbury Square and Great Russell street is a big house {[183] formerly two houses), now the premises of the Pharmaceutical Society.4 This, with the row of smaller houses adjoining, was built or remodelled by Nash as a speculation in 1777-78 when he was twenty-five. He failed to sell the houses and in 1783 was declared bankrupt. He disappeared to Wales and only emerged to begin a new career after ten years of provincial oblivion, by which time the Bloomsbury episode had, for all practical purposes, been forgotten.

This early group of town houses, isolated in time from all Nash's other work, is most instructive. Without the assurance of documentary evidence one might date them a generation ahead of their time; yet in fact they belong virtually to the era of Portland Place and

-9-

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The Architecture of John Nash
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Preface 7
  • Introduction - BY SIR JOHN SUMMERSON 9
  • Country Houses and Castles 21
  • Small Houses, Collages and Follies 69
  • Public Buildings 89
  • Palaces, Town Houses And Metropolitan Developments 99
  • Index of Buildings Illustrated 137
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