Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilkins, William
WILKINS, WILLIAM (1778–1839), architect, eldest son of William Wilkins (1749–1819), an architect of Norwich, was born there on 31 Aug. 1778. His brother, George Wilkins (1785–1865) [q. v.], is noticed separately. His father, who built the museum of the Philosophical Society at York and restored Norwich Castle, was author of an ‘Essay towards a history of the Venta Icenorum of the Romans and of Norwich Castle …,’ printed in ‘Archæologia,’ xii. 132–80, and of various other antiquarian and astronomical papers (see Archæologia, General Index, and Gent. Mag. 1835, ii. 426).
The son received his early education at Norwich grammar school. He entered Caius College, Cambridge, as a scholar in 1796, graduated B.A. as sixth wrangler in 1800, and the next year, being one of West's travelling bachelors, started on a tour of four years in Greece, Asia Minor, and Italy, during which he was elected a fellow of Caius. In 1804 he began his architectural career by a Greek design for Downing College, portions of which, costing over 50,000l., he carried out between 1807 and 1811. In 1806 he both designed Haileybury College for the East India Company, and built or added to Osberton House, near Worksop. These works were followed in 1807 by the spire of Yarmouth church, which cost 1,890l., and was covered with tinned sheet copper, in 1808 by the Doric entrance to the Lower Assembly Rooms at Bath, and by a villa at North Berwick for Sir H. D. Hamilton. Grange Park, Hampshire, designed by Wilkins in 1809, was built on the site of a house by Inigo Jones, part of which was retained but altered. In 1814–17 Wilkins attempted the Gothic manner in Lord Rosebery's house, Dalmeny; in 1816 he began Lord Falmouth's seat, Tregothnan, near Truro, and in the same year he was again engaged at Cambridge in the alterations of the Perse school for the Fitzwilliam collection. The Nelson column on the sands at Gorleston, Great Yarmouth, was undertaken in 1817, probably from a design made in 1808 for a similar (unexecuted) monument at Dublin. In the same year Wilkins also began Bolhamsell church, Nottinghamshire, and obtained the premium for the national monument to the army, estimated to cost 200,000l.
A design which Wilkins prepared about 1815 for new buildings at Caius College was not carried out, but Cambridge again provided him employment in 1818, when he designed the bridge at King's, for which college in 1822 he obtained in competition the commission to erect the hall, provost's lodge, library, and stone screen towards Trumpington Street. These buildings, conceived in a bastard Gothic style, secured for their designer further instructions, happily unfulfilled, to gothicise James Gibbs's classic building on the west side of the court [see Gibbs, James].
Wilkins began in 1823 the king's court of Trinity, also an essay in Gothic, and started in the same year and in the same style the new buildings at Corpus Christi, including the chapel, since altered by Sir Arthur Blomfield. It is possible that in the design of these buildings the architect owed much to the taste and assistance of the Rev. T. Shelford, a fellow of the college. Wilkins was not always successful in his competitions for Cambridge buildings. In 1822 his design for the observatory was placed second only; in 1825 Messrs. Rickman & Hutchinson [see Rickman, Thomas] defeated him in a design for additions to St. John's College, and in 1829 he took part unsuccessfully in the competition for the extension of the University Library. This competition proceeded to a second stage in 1830, and again to a third in 1836. Wilkins, who was unsuccessful throughout, published his second design in 1831, and also an ‘Appeal to the Senate’ in its favour. The work was entrusted to and partly carried out by Charles Robert Cockerell [q. v.] Wilkins's latest design for the university was that submitted (1835) for the Fitzwilliam Museum. Twenty-seven architects competed, and George Basevi [q. v.] was selected. Meanwhile Wilkins had been carrying out important work in London and elsewhere. In 1822–6 he designed the United University Club House, Pall Mall East, in conjunction with P. J. Gandy-Deering, who also collaborated with him in a model of the proposed ‘Tower of Waterloo,’ 280 feet high, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1826.
The London University College, Gower Street, which is perhaps Wilkins's greatest work, was designed in 1827–8. Outwardly it is a building of great dignity, but its internal arrangements are ill considered. St. George's Hospital (remarkable for the use of square columns) followed in 1827–8 and the National Gallery in 1832–8. All these London works are of a severe classic type, successful and unpretentious. In the National Gallery, which was subsequently altered by Edward Middleton Barry [q. v.], Wilkins was hampered by the necessity for introducing the portico from Carlton House and by an alteration in the allotted site. The gallery, as originally designed, with a broad flight of steps down to the level of the fountains and with a group of ‘Venetian’ horses as the crowning feature, would no doubt, in spite of the vexatious conditions of the government (which included the provision of roadways through the building to give access to the barracks behind), have done greater justice to Wilkins than the façade which now exists. The price was restricted to 70,000l., and the building was set back wisely, though to the annoyance of the architect, to clear the view of St. Martin's Church. About 1828 Wilkins made alterations to the house of the East India Company in Leadenhall Street, having been appointed architect to the company in 1827. In 1828 he also reported on the central piers of Sherborne church, and designed the house at Bylaugh, Norfolk, for E. Lombe. In 1829 he added the portico to King Weston, Somerset. He competed in 1834 for the duke of York's column, and in 1836 for the Houses of Parliament. After the latter competition he attacked the plans of his rivals and the decision of the committee in a pamphlet signed ‘Phil-archimedes.’
He became in 1817 a member of the Society of Dilettanti, was elected associate of the Royal Academy in 1824, full member in 1826, and professor of architecture in 1837 in succession to Sir John Soane [q. v.] Wilkins, who lived for many years at 36 Weymouth Street, London, died on his birthday, 31 Aug. 1839, at his house ‘Lensfield’ at Cambridge, and was buried under the sacrarium of the chapel of Corpus Christi, which he had erected.
As a commentator on Vitruvius Wilkins has earned posthumous credit for his interpretation of the much vexed passage in book v. which treats of the Scamilli impares. He was wrong in the details of his interpretation, but was the first to express the view (ridiculed in Marini's ‘Vitruvius’) that they were a device for correcting an optical illusion, and the means adopted to secure the curvature subsequently confirmed by Pennethorne and Mr. F. C. Penrose [see Pennethorne, John].
Wilkins's published works were:
- ‘Antiquities of Magna Græcia,’ Cambridge, 1807, fol.
- ‘Atheniensia, or Remarks on the Buildings of Athens,’ 1812, 8vo; 1816, fol.
- 'The Civil Architecture of Vitruvius' (a translation, with plates), 1812, fol. and 1817.
- 'Prolusiones Architectoniæ' (essays on Greek and Roman architecture), 1827, and 1837, 4to.
He also wrote in 'Archæologia' (1801, xiv. 105) an account of the Prior's Chapel at Ely and in the ' Vetusta Monumenta' (vol. iv. Cambridge, 1809) a paper on John of Padua and the Porta Honoris.
[Architectural Publishing Society's Dict.; Gent. Mag. 1839, ii. 426-7; Athenæum, 1839, p. 685; Architect, 1886, pp. 138-9; Builder, 1864, xxii. 499; Willis and Clark's Archit. History of Cambridge; information from Rev. W. H. Wilkins.]