James Adam, James Essex and an Altar-Piece for King's College Chapel, Cambridge

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  • SAHGB Publications Limited

    James Adam, James Essex and an Altar-Piece for King's College Chapel, CambridgeAuthor(s): Allan DoigSource: Architectural History, Vol. 21 (1978), pp. 79-82+118-119Published by: SAHGB Publications LimitedStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1568361 .Accessed: 16/06/2014 19:31

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  • James Adam, James Essex and an altar-piece for Kin 's College Chapel, Cambridge by ALLAN DOIG

    On 24 December 1767 Richard Potenger, Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and lately Under-Secretary of State, wrote to the Provost of King's, John Sumner, as

    follows: You will please to recollect, that at our last meeting, when the affair of the new altar to be built in our Chapel was under consideration, I took the liberty of mentioning Mr Adams as the architect, in my opinion, most proper to be employed for drawing the plan. I have therefore, in consequence of your permission and in concert with Dr Baker, talked with Mr Adams upon the subject, whom I find very ready and well-pleased to undertake the plan, which, I dare say, he will do with taste, and in a manner suitable to the grandeur of our Chapel.'

    Adam was by no means the first architect considered or approached to design a new altar-piece for King's College Chapel. Almost a decade earlier, in late 1758 or early 1759, Sir James Burrough was consulted by the College and in consequence submitted two plans, both of which, 'as it was to be a work of public view and of lasting use, Mr Upton, as was thought advisable, took with him to London for the opinion of those who might be competent judges in such a matter'.2 The judgement was not very favourable; all those consulted emphatically agreed that the altar must be gothic. 'Mr Stewart particularly is of this opinion, which I mention the rather as he is well known to disapprove entirely of the present fashionable taste for Gothic architecture.'3 From this remark it would appear that the 'Mr Stewart' consulted was in fact 'Athenian' Stuart, at that time back in England preparing his Antiquities of Athens for publication. In accordance with the advice, the College approached another architect, James Essex. Essex had at that time been working with Burrough and 'the Provost was lately in- formed that it was probable Mr Essex had assisted Sir James in drawing this plan, and

    upon enquiring of Mr Essex he finds that Mr Essex was the person who actually drew the plan under the direction of Sir James'.4

    Essex's own plan appears to have been much better received, since on i November 1766, with only one dissenting voice, the Provost and Seniors determined to invite him to produce an estimate. As it happened, when the Provost submitted the estimate to the Seniors on 2 November 1767 there was no question of the plan being adopted. The amount to be spent on the altar-piece, at that time invested in South Seas Annuities, was ?1,ooo; Essex's estimate of ?1,/55o was therefore entirely unacceptable. They agreed that Dr Baker and Mr Potenger were to consult with Mr Stuart 'that we may

    6*

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  • So ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY 21: 1978

    have his judgement and character for knowledge in such things - to justify us to the world',5 and the question was raised whether they should also see Adam (although which of the brothers was to be approached does not become clear until later in the documents). Stuart seems to have declined the invitation, but the two gentlemen, consulting with Adam, found him 'very ready and well-pleased to undertake the plan', as Potenger reported to the Provost.

    Adam made a journey to Cambridge with a clerk in March 1768 but it was not until Tuesday, 24 January 1769 that the design was in Potenger's hands, with the plan itself duly signed James Adam Architect 1768 (Pl. 22a).6 James must have anticipated the main objection. As well as the plan and elevation (still preserved in the College Muniment Room) the 1768 set also includes an elevation to a smaller scale (now in the collection of the Soane Museum) showing the relationship between the altar-piece and the great east window. Seven of the lower lights were almost entirely obscured. Potenger himself further objected 'to his exclusion of the Gothic Order',7 the use of which even Stuart had recommended. He was required to resubmit.

    On 25 March, when the plan and elevation of the second project (P1. 22b) arrived, Potenger considered them well worth the wait. Although the proportions were not significantly changed, leaving the east window quite as obscured as ever, his objections melted away: 'He thereupon has altered his plan, or more properly replaced it with another, which seems, in my poor judgement, to be in a superior taste, and much better accommodated to the style of building of the place, and, I hope, will meet with your and with general approbation, as it really does with mine'.8 His only reservation was that the cost would almost certainly be greater than the ?i,ooo originally agreed. Yet in fact James had merely taken the general layout of his original design, straightened the base- line of the screen, and applied a welter of gothick filigree. In the process the design had lost even its three-dimensionality, at best becoming a highly elaborate stage-set. It uses the same 'grammar' as Robert's design of 1760 for an interior at Alnwick Castle, although James's confection is somewhat more restrained even with its profusion of detail. While the altar-piece compares favourably with Robert's designs in a similar vein, and thus exonerates him to some extent from Fleming's criticism that Robert's gothic schemes were at least buildable and not 'mere day-dreams on paper, as were most of James's essays in the Gothic style', the project does fit nicely with the rest of Fleming's analysis of James. The elevated, not to say precious, nature of the commission in his hands would appeal to the young man who had made such progress in 'Literature and the Belles Lettres', who had a covert love of gothic fantasy, and at the same time such a commission would not be fraught with many of the more tedious and technical aspects of professional practice.9

    For all Potenger's praise of this second project, the Provost's reply of the following day must have dampened any enthusiasm he had. The Provost made it clear that, in the first place, the central issue was still the obstruction of the window, no mention being made of the use of the 'Gothic Order' at all, and secondly, that he would not be moved from his position by any of the usual arguments concerning necessary proportion. The College, for all its consultation with 'those who might be competent judges', obviously had a mind of its own. Potenger's reply accompanying the drawings was duly apologetic: 'Upon my mentioning this circumstance to him again, he defends himself

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  • AN ALTAR-PIECE FOR KING'S COLLEGE CHAPEL, CAMBRIDGE 81

    by saying that the pinnacles and battlements are to be in open work, and that the appearance of the painted glass thro' the interstices will have no bad effect.'1o Even so, the window would only be marginally more visible while the altar-piece itself would scarcely be a complement to the grandeur and dignity of the Chapel. James suggested the use of 'a composition made to resemble stone', but that being rejected, the estimate was drawn up for an altar-piece of wood painted in imitation of stone for ?I,o97. S12s. od., just more than the allotted money. The College remained unimpressed; Adam

    was to be paid for his trouble and dismissed. The final list of charges confirms that the work was from start to finish James's own

    project. Although the bill is payable 'To Robt & James Adam Archts', it is in James's hand and includes an entry: 'To my own time and a clerks, being three days at ?3.3 P. day.'l The debt of ?79.2 was discharged 27 October 1769.

    In a note concerning Adam's designs for the altar-piece, A. T. Bolton mentions that 'Walpole had been at King's'.12 If by this he means to imply that Horace Walpole was at all involved in the politics of the affair and influenced the final choice of Essex as architect, the claim would be hard to justify. While a fellow-commoner he seems to have enjoyed a minimum of involvement in the College and although he had extensive correspondence with William Cole, antiquarian and Kingsman at that time resident in

    Cambridge, this correspondence never mentions the project until after the conclusion of Adam's involvement. Walpole, however, certainly shared Cole's approval of Essex, and while Adam was preparing the designs for King's, Walpole had obtained a design for a gateway at Strawberry Hill from Essex. Cole emphasized in a letter dated 2 January 1771 to his friend Essex concerning the latter's projected publication on the Chapel, that 'as to King's College Chapel in particular, I should be very sorry to see that subject treated by anyone except yourself, whose judicious remarks for so many years and ingenious designs of the particular parts of it demonstrably show how able you are to have the whole management of it'.13

    Essex's introduction to an intended history of gothic architecture written in 1770, that is contemporary with his appointment at King's, further underscores his suitability for the job: There is no stile of architecture so little observed and less understood than that which we call Gothic though it is not by any means so barbarous and inelegant as is generally supposed, neither do the works of the Age we call Gothic deserve so much ridicule as the present Age are pleased to bestow upon them; for whoever considers their works with attention will find many of them judiciously designed and admirably executed; ... But this cannot be done on a cursory view of them, some time must be spent in measuring their parts comparing them with each other, and ascertaining the proportion they bear among themselves, by thus observ- ing the relation which the parts have to one and 'other and to the whole building we may trace out the theory of their art in designing.14

    As the drawing of his completed project shows (Pl. 23), it was Essex's intention and

    crowning accomplishment to enter into the spirit and practicality of the original gothic designers by an exacting study of their works, just as it was the intention and achieve- ment of the brothers Adam to recreate the grandeur and elegance of the Antique by equally precise study of its Grecian, Roman and cinquecento manifestations. Neither architect was intent on a rigorous and purely pedantic revival of the respective styles

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  • 82 ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY 21: 1978

    of their models. But when it came to the brothers' essays in the gothic taste, this scrupu- lous attention and study was absent, as is evident in James's second project. The rigour of Essex's approach provides the justification to the world which the Provost of King's sought for their altar-piece, and of the final cost of ?2,o018, almost five hundred pounds more than his rejected estimate of 1767. The official completion of the altar-piece was marked by the settlement of Essex's account of ?8o (only i8s. more than Adam's

    charges) on 8 December 1775.15

    NOTES

    i Letter in a folio of correspondence and memoranda, Altar-piece 1742-7y (hereafter referred to as AP), p. ii, in the Muniment Room of King's College, Cambridge. 2 R. Willis and J. W. Clark, The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, i886), p. 526. Undated Congregation memorandum in Provost Sumner's hand, AP, p. 3. 3 J. Upton, Fellow, in a letter of 6 March 1759 to Provost Sumner, AP, p. 7. 4 Undated Congregation memorandum in Provost Sumner's hand, AP, p. 3. 5 Congregation memorandum in Sumner's hand, dated i November 1766, AP, p. 9. See R. Willis and J. W. Clark, The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge (i886), i, p. 526 for a discussion of the altar money. 6 The design is attributed, without supporting evidence, to Robert Adam in A. T. Bolton, The Architecture of Robert and James Adam (i1922), 1, 97. 7 Richard Potenger in a letter of 25 March 1769 to the Provost, AP, p. 19. 8 Richard Potenger in a letter of 25 March 1769 to the Provost, AP, p. 19. 9 For Fleming's comparison of Robert's and James's gothic see John Fleming, Robert Adam and his Circle (1962), p. 91; for his discussion of James's character see pp. 86-90. io Richard Potenger in a letter of 18 April 1769 to the Provost, AP, p. 21. ii Bill from Robert and James Adam to the College, AP, p. 37- 12 Bolton, I1, 98, n. 29. 13 William Cole in a letter dated 2 January 1771 to Essex, BL Add. MS 6771, f. 213v. 14 James Essex, 'Plans and Heads of an Intended History of Gothic Architecture', 1770, BL Add. MS 6771, f. 2oo00r. 15 Willis and Clark, p. 527, give the final cost as ?1,6 52. 9s. 3d., but there is no mention of this figure in the Mundum Books 1770-71 to 1775-76. The total of the relevant entries under 'Reparaciones Novi Templi' (confirmed in AP, p. 35) is ?2,017. 2s. od., which includes Adam's charges but not those of Essex. I should like to thank Dr Philip Ford for checking the figures in the Mundum Books.

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    PI. 23 James Essex's Altar-piece in King's College Chapel, Cambridge, by R. P. Harraden, '797

    (opposite)

    Pl. 22a Altar-piece for King's College Chapel, Cambridge, by James Adam, i768

    PI. z22b 'Design of a Skreen for King's College Cambridge', by James Adam, 1769

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    Article Contentsp. [79]p. 80p. 81p. 82p. [118]p. [119]

    Issue Table of ContentsArchitectural History, Vol. 21 (1978), pp. 1-128Front MatterThe Retrochoir of Winchester Cathedral [pp. 1-17+97-103]The Development of Later Gothic Mouldings in England c. 1250-1400: Part I [pp. 18-57]The Designing of Five East Anglian Country Houses, 1505-1637 [pp. 58-67+104-107]Bernini, Mattia de Rossi and the Church of S. Bonaventura at Monterano [pp. 68-78+108-117]James Adam, James Essex and an Altar-Piece for King's College Chapel, Cambridge [pp. 79-82+118-119]W. J. Donthorn (1799-1859): Architecture with 'Great Hardness and Decision in the Edges' [pp. 83-92+120-127]Shorter NoticesAddenda to Stowe [p. 93]A Monument by Robert Adam [pp. 94+128]

    List of Illustrations [pp. 95-96]Back Matter