John Nash (18 January 1752 – 13 May 1835) was a British architect responsible for much of the layout of Regency London under the patronage of the Prince Regent, and during his reign as George IV. Nash was also a pioneer in the use of the Picturesque in architecture. His best known buildings are the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, and Buckingham Palace (though the facade to the mall is not Nash’s work).
Background and Early Career
Born during 1752 in Lambeth, London, the son of a Welsh millwright also called John (1714-1772). From 1766 or 67, John Nash trained with the architect Sir Robert Taylor, the apprentiship was completed in 1775 or 1776.
On the 28 April 1775, at the now demolished church of St Mary Newington, Nash married his first wife Jane Elizabeth Kerr, daughter of a surgeon. Initially he seemed to have pursued a career as a surveyor, builder and carpenter. This gave him an income of around £300 a year. The couple set up home at Royal Row Lambeth. He established his own architectural practice in 1777 as well as being in partnership with a timber merchant, Richard Heaviside. The couple had two children, both were baptised at St Mary-at-Lambeth, John on 9 June 1776 and Hugh on the 28 April 1778.
In June 1778 “By the ill conduct of his wife found it necessary to send her into Wales in order to work a reformation on her,” the cause of this appears to have been the claim that Jane Nash “Had imposed two spurious children on him as his and her own, notwithstanding she had then never had any child” and she had contracted several debts unknown to her husband, including one for milliners’ bills of £300. The claim that Jane had faked her pregnancies and then passed babies she had acquired off as her own was brought before the Consistory court of the Bishop of London.
His wife was sent to Aberavon to lodge with Nash’s cousin Ann Morgan, but she developed a relationship with a local man Charles Charles. In an attempt at reconciliation, Jane returned to London in June 1779, but she continued to act extravagantly so Nash sent her to another cousin Thomas Edwards of Neath, but Mrs Nash gave birth just after Christmas, and acknowledged Charles Charles as the father. In 1781 Nash instigated action against Jane for separation on grounds of adultery; the case was tried at Hereford in 1782. Charles who was found guilty was unable to pay the damages of £76 and subsequently died in prison. The divorce was finally read 26 January 1787.
Nash’s career was initially unsuccessful and short-lived. After inheriting £1000 in 1778 from his uncle Thomas, he invested the money in building his first known independent works, 15-17 Bloomsbury Square and 66-71 Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury. But the property failed to let, and he was declared bankrupt on 30 September 1783. His debts were £5000, including £2000 he had been lent by Robert Adam and his brothers.
Nash left London in 1784 to live in Carmarthen, to where his mother had retired, her family being from the area. In 1785, he and a local man Samuel Simon Saxon reroofed the town’s church for 600 Guineas. Later, Nash and Saxon worked as building contractors and suppliers of building materials. Nash’s London buildings had been standard Georgian terrace houses, and it was in Wales he matured as an architect. His first major work in the area was the first of three prisons he would design, Carmarthen 1789-92; this prison was planned by the penal reformer John Howard, and Nash developed this plan into the finished building. He went on to design the prisons at Cardigan (1791–96) and Hereford (1792–96). It was at Hereford that Nash met Richard Payne Knight, whose theories on the picturesque as applies to architecture and landscape would influence Nash. The commission for Hereford Gaol came after the death of William Blackburn, who was to have designed the building, Nash’s design was accepted after James Wyatt approved of the design.
By 1789, St David’s Cathedral was suffering from structural problems, the west front was leaning forward by one foot, Nash was called in to survey the structure and develop a plan to save the building; his solution completed in 1791 was to demolish the upper part of the facade and rebuild it with two large but inelegant flying buttresses.
In 1790, Nash met Uvedale Price, whose theories of the Picturesque would have a major future influence on Nash’s town planning. In the short term, Price would commission Nash to design Castle House Aberystwyth (1795); its plan took the form of a rightangled triangle, with an octagonal tower at each corner, sited on the very edge of the sea. This marked a new and more imaginative approach to design in Nash’s work.
One of Nash’s most important developments were a series of medium-sized country houses that he designed in Wales; these developed the villa designs of his teacher Sir Robert Taylor. Most of these villas consist of a roughly square plan with a small entrance hall with a staircase offset in the middle to one side, around which are placed the main rooms; there is then a less prominent Servants’ quarters in a wing attached to one side of the villa. The buildings are usually only two floors in height; the elevations of the main block are usually symmetrical. One of the finest of these villas is Llanerchaeron, at least a dozen villas were designed throughout south Wales.
He met Humphry Repton at Stoke Edith in 1792 and formed a successful partnership with the landscape garden designer. One of their early commissions was at Corsham Court in 1795-6. The pair would collaborate to carefully place the Nash-designed building in grounds designed by Repton. The partnership ended in 1800 under recriminations, Repton accusing Nash of exploiting their partnership to his own advantage.
As Nash developed his architectural practice, it became necessary to employ draughtsmen: the first in the early 1790s was Augustus Charles Pugin, then a bit later in 1795 John Adey Repton son of Humphry.
In 1796, Nash spent most of his time working in London, this was a prelude to his return to the capital in 1797.
Return to London
Nash’s final home in London was No.14 Regent Street that he designed and built 1819–23, No. 16 was built at the same time the home of Nash’s cousin John Edwards, a lawyer who handled all of Nash’s legal affairs. Located in Lower Regent Street, near Waterloo Place, both houses formed a single design around an open courtyard. Nash’s drawing office was on the ground floor, on the first floor was the finest room in the house, the 70-foot-long picture and sculpture gallery; it linked the drawing room at the front of the building with the dining room at the rear. The house was sold in 1834, and the gallery interior moved to East Cowes Castle.
The finest of the dozen country houses that Nash designed as picturesque castles include the relatively small Luscombe Castle Devon (1800–04), Ravensworth Castle (Tyne and Wear) begun 1807 only finally completed in 1846, was one of the largest houses by Nash, Caerhays Castle in Cornwall (1808–10), Shanbally Castle, County Tipperary (1818–1819) was the last of these castles to be built. These buildings all represented Nash’s continuing development of an asymmetrical and picturesque architectural style, that had begun during his years in Wales, at both Castle House Aberystwyth and his alterations to Hafod Uchtryd. This process would be extended by Nash in planning groups of buildings, the first example being Blaise Hamlet (1810–1811); there a group of nine asymmetrical cottages was laid out around a village green. Nikolaus Pevsner described the hamlet as “the ne plus ultra of the Picturesque movement.” Nash developed the asymmetry of his castles in his Italianate villas; his first such exercise was Cronkhill (1802), others included Sandridge Park (1805) and Southborough Place, Surbiton, (1808).
He advised on work to the buildings of Jesus College, Oxford in 1815, for which he required no fee but asked that the college should commission a portrait of him from Sir Thomas Lawrence to hang in the college hall.
Architect to the Prince Regent
Nash was a dedicated Whig and was a friend of Charles James Fox through whom Nash probably came to the attention of the Prince Regent (later King George IV). In 1806 Nash was appointed architect to the Surveyor General of Woods, Forests, Parks, and Chases. From 1810 Nash would take very few private commissions and for the rest of his career he would largely work for the Prince.
The terraces that Nash designed around Regent’s park though conforming to the earlier form of appearing as a single building, as developed by John Wood, the Elder, are unlike earlier examples set in gardens and are not orthoganal in their placing to each other. This was part of Nash’s development of planning, this found it is most extreme example when he set out Park Village East and Park Village West (1823–34) to the north-east of Regent’s Park, here a mixture of detached villas, semi-detached houses, both symmetrical and assymmetrical in their design are set out in private gardens railed off from the street, the roads loop and the buildings are both classical and gothic in style. No two buildings were the same, and or even in line with their neighbours. The park Villages can be seen as the prototype for the Victorian suburbs.
The Royal Pavilion Brighton
Nash was employed by the Prince from 1815 to develop his Marine Pavilion in Brighton, originally designed by Henry Holland. By 1822 Nash had finished his work on the Marine Pavilion, which was now transformed into the Royal Pavilion. The exterior was based on Mughal architecture, giving the building its exotic form, the Chinoiserie style interiors are largely the work of Frederick Crace.
Nash was also a director of the Regent’s Canal Company set up in 1812 to provide a canal link from west London to the River Thames in the east. Nash’s masterplan provided for the canal to run around the northern edge of Regent’s Park; as with other projects, he left its execution to one of his assistants, in this case James Morgan. The first phase of the Regent’s Canal was completed in 1816 and finally completed in 1820.
Together with Robert Smirke and Sir John Soane, he became an official architect to the Office of Works in 1813, (the appointment ended in 1832) at a salary of £500 per annum, following the death in September of that year of James Wyatt, this marked the high point in his professional life. As part of Nash’s new position he was invited to advise the Parliamentary Commissioners on the building of new churches from 1818 onwards.
Nash produced ten church designs, each estimated to cost around £10,000 with seating for 2000 people, the style of the buildings were both classical and gothic. In the end Nash only built two churches for the Commission, the classical All Souls Church, Langham Place (1822–24) terminating the northern end of Regent Street, and the gothic St. Mary’s Haggerston (1825–27), bombed during The Blitz in 1941.
Nash was involved in the design of two of London’s theatres, both in Haymarket. The King’s Opera House (now rebuilt as Her Majesty’s Theatre) (1816–1818) where he and George Repton remodelled the theatre, with arcades and shops around three sides of the building, the fourth being the still surviving Royal Opera Arcade.
The other theatre was the Theatre Royal Haymarket (1821), with its fine hexastyle Corinthian order portico, which still survives, facing down Charles II Street to St. James’s Square, Nash’s interior nolonger survives (the interior now dates from 1904).
In 1820 a scandal broke, when a cartoon was published showing a half dressed King George IV embracing Nash’s wife with a speech bubble coming from the King’s mouth containing the words “I have great pleasure in visiting this part of my dominions.” Whether this was based on just a rumour put about by people who resented Nash’s success or if there is substance behind is not known.Further London commissions for Nash followed, including the remodelling of Buckingham House to create Buckingham Palace (1825–1830), and for the Royal Mews (1822–24) and Marble Arch (1828) The arch was originally designed as a triumphal arch to stand at the entrance to Buckingham Palace. It was moved when the east wing of the palace designed by Edward Blore was built, at the request of Queen Victoria whose growing family required additional domestic space. Marble Arch became the entrance to Hyde Park and The Great Exhibition.
Retirement and Death
Nash’s career effectively ended with the death of George IV in 1830. The King’s notorious extravagance had generated much resentment and Nash was now without a protector. The Treasury started to look closely at the cost of Buckingham Palace. Nash’s original estimate of the building’s cost had been £252,690, but this had risen to £496,169 in 1829, the actual cost was £613,269 and the building was still unfinished. This controversy ensured that Nash would not receive any more official commissions nor would he be awarded the Knighthood that other contemporary architects such as Jeffry Wyattville, John Soane and Robert Smirke received. Nash retired to the Isle of Wight to his home, East Cowes Castle.
On 28 March 1835 Nash was described as “very poorly and faint.” This was the beginning of the end. On 1 May Nash’s solicitor John Wittet Lyon was summonsed to East Cowes Castle to finalise his will. By 6 May he was described as ‘very ill indeed all day’, he died at his home on 13 May 1835. His funeral took place at St. James’s Church, East Cowes on 20 May, where he was buried in the churchyard, where the monument takes the form of a stone sarcophagus.
His widow acted to clear Nash’s debts (some £15,000), she held a sale of the Castle’s contents, including three paintings by J. M. W. Turner painted on the Isle of Wight, two by Benjamin West and several copies of old master paintings by Richard Evans. These artworks were sold at Christie’s on 11 July 1835 for £1,061. His books, medals, drawings and engravings were bought by a bookseller named Evans for £1,423 on 15 July. The Castle itself was sold for a reported figure of £20,000 to Richard Boyle, 4th Earl of Shannon within the year.
Nash’s widow retired to a property Nash had bequeathed to her in Hampstead where she lived until her death in 1851; she was buried with her husband on the Isle of Wight.
Assistants and Pupils
Nash had many pupils and assistants including Humphry Repton’s sons, John Adey Repton and George Stanley Repton, as well as Anthony Salvin, John Foulon (1772–1842), Augustus Charles Pugin, F.H. Greenway, James Morgan, James Pennethorne, the brothers Henry, James and George Pain.