Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gibbs, James (1682-1754)

GIBBS, JAMES (1682–1754), architect, son of Peter Gibbs, a Roman catholic merchant, and Isabel Farquhar, his second wife, was born 23 Dec. 1682, at his father's house of Footdeesmire, in the Links of Aberdeen. A son by the first wife was the only other surviving child. Gibbs was educated at the grammar school and the Marischal College of Aberdeen, where he took the degree of M.A. His father and mother both dying, he studied for some time in Aberdeen, living with his aunt, Elspeth Farquhar, and her husband, Peter Morison. He afterwards resolved to seek his fortune abroad, and in Holland made the acquaintance of John Erskine, eleventh earl of Mar [q. v.] Mar supplied him with letters and money, enabling him to travel to Rome and study architecture under Carolo Fontana, surveyor-general to Pope Clement XI, and architect to St. Peter's. The illness of his only brother induced him to return in 1709. His brother was already dead, and, after settling his affairs in Scotland, he went to London, where he was patronised by Mar and by John, second duke of Argyll. The first public building upon which he was employed after his arrival from Italy was St. Mary-le-Strand, one of fifty new churches. The foundation-stone was laid 15 Feb. 1714, and the building consecrated 1 Jan. 1723. The steeple was substituted for a campanile, when a column with a statue of Queen Anne was abandoned in consequence of her death. The base of the campanile having been already built, he was obliged to make the plan of the steeple oblong instead of square. The consequent shallowness of the steeple, as seen from the north or south side, is the only serious defect in the design of this building. Although one of Gibbs's very finest works, it can scarcely be called truly distinctive of him, as its delicate beauty suggests the influence of Wren. In 1719 Gibbs added the steeple and the two upper stages to the tower of Wren's church of St. Clement Danes in the Strand. His next church was ‘Marybone Chapel,’ better known as St Peter's, Vere Street, begun in 1721 by Harley, earl of Oxford. He designed about this time the monument in Westminster Abbey to Matthew Prior, who died 18 Sept. 1721. In the following year was commenced the most famous of his buildings, St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Gibbs prepared several plans, and among them ‘two Designs made for a Round Church, which were approved by the Commissioners, but were laid aside on account of the expensiveness of executing them, though they were more capacious and convenient than what they pitch'd upon.’ The first stone was laid on 19 March 1722, and the church consecrated in 1726. The east end of the interior of this church shows very markedly the influence of his Roman studies. In June 1722 he began the Senate House at Cambridge. This was but one wing in a large scheme never completed. A wing to the south was to have contained ‘the consistory and Register office,’ and one on the west ‘the Royal Library.’ Sir James Burrough [q. v.] had some share in the original design. The large church of Allhallows in Derby, his next undertaking, was commenced in 1723, and finished in 1725. The fifteenth-century tower remains, joined to Gibbs's work. In 1723 was erected the monument to John Holles, duke of Newcastle, in Westminster Abbey, executed, from Gibbs's designs, by Francis Bird [q. v.], and the most sumptuous of all the many monuments designed by him. The other monuments in the abbey by Gibbs are those to Mrs. Katherina Bovey, 1727; John Smith, 1718; John Freind, M.D., 1728; the monument erected in 1723 by James, marquis of Annandale, to his mother and younger brother; and the monument to Ben Jonson in Poets' Corner. King's College, Cambridge, was another of his designs commenced about this time. The west side of the great quadrangle was begun in 1724, and was still unfinished in 1731 owing to the poverty of the college. It was completed in 1749. Gibbs intended to erect a similar block on the site now occupied by the screen, and a hall and provost's lodge on the south side.

In 1728 he published ‘A Book of Architecture, containing Designs of Buildings and Ornament.’ It contains drawings for all the buildings hitherto erected by him, with some alternative designs. His next important work was the quadrangle of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, begun in 1730, for which Gibbs gave all his drawings, time, and attendance ‘out of Charity to ye poor.’ He published in 1732 his ‘Rules for Drawing the several Parts of Architecture in a More exact and easy manner than has been hitherto practised, by which all Fractions, in dividing the principal Numbers and their Parts, are avoided.’ On 11 June 1737 were laid the foundations of his greatest work, the Radcliffe Library at Oxford. Nicholas Hawkesmore had made several designs for this library in 1713, and Gibbs himself made more than one design. In 1747, the year of its completion, he published the full drawings for this library in a thin folio, entitled ‘Bibliotheca Radcliviana: or, a short description of the Radcliffe Library at Oxford.’ Towards the end of his life Gibbs was afflicted with the stone, and went to Spa in 1749. It was probably to soothe his tedium that he now made his well-written translation of the ‘De rebus Emanuelis’ of Osorio da Fonseca, published in 1752, and entitled ‘The History of the Portuguese during the Reign of Emmanuel. Written originally in Latin by Jerome Osorio, Bishop of Sylvis.’ His last architectural work seems to have been the church of St. Nicholas, Aberdeen. Some years before his death he sent to the magistrates of Aberdeen, as a testimony of his regard for his native place, a plan for the new fabric, which was begun in 1752. This church was still unfinished when he died, 5 Aug. 1754, aged 71. He was buried, by his own wish, within the old church, now the parish chapel, of Marylebone, where, on the north wall below the gallery, is yet remaining a simple marble tablet to his memory. He died a bachelor, and with few relations; and by his will, dated 9 May 1754, left the bulk of his fortune, valued at 14,000l. or 15,000l., to the son of his old patron, the Earl of Mar, with bequests to some other friends, to St. Bartholomew's and the Foundling Hospitals, and his printed books, drawings, &c., to the Radcliffe Library. These books and drawings are now preserved in the museum at Oxford. The books include some fine editions of the classics and many early Italian works on architecture. There are also many of his designs. Gibbs was a Roman catholic, like his father, but ‘justly esteemed by men of all persuasions.’ His portraits and busts indicate thoughtfulness, penetration, and self-control, but scarcely great power. His architecture shows fine discernment rather than fine invention. His reverence for classic architecture led him to an excessive respect for tradition, but his work is lifted far above the level of mere imitation, and has a distinctive style of its own. He never fell into the vagaries of some of his contemporaries, and made no attempt at Gothic. His good taste may be attributed to his Italian training, which also narrowed his art to the mere consideration of fine composition and proportion. Although, as Walpole says, his designs want the harmonious simplicity of the greatest masters of classic architecture, he deserves higher praise than Walpole gave, and is now regarded as perhaps the most considerable master of English architecture since Wren.

There are several engraved portraits of him; the most important are by M'Ardell after Hogarth, m'Ardell after S. Williams, and P. Pelham after H. Hysing. There are also busts of him at the Radcliffe Library, Oxford, and in the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

[‘A short Accompt of Mr. James Gibbs, Architect,’ contained in a manuscript volume in the Soane Museum, entitled ‘A few short Cursory Remarks on some of the finest Antient and Modern Buildings in Rome, and other parts of Italy, by Mr. Gibbs,’ &c.; The Scots Magazine, September 1760; A Book of Architecture, by James Gibbs, 1728; Wornum's edition of Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting in England, 1849; Willis and Clark's Architectural History of Cambridge, i. 560, iii. 445, 535–6.]