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Architecture: the work of John Nash has often been overshadowed by that of his contemporary, John Soane. But his pragmatism, as well as his experiments with the picturesque, make him one of the most significant of all British architects.

Earlier this year, what may be one of the last blue plaques to be put up in London (given the regrettable curtailment of this long-established scheme by cash-strapped English Heritage) was unveiled on the stuccoed terraced house in Great Russell Street which the architect John Nash (1752-1835) had designed and built and, for a few years, inhabited. This accolade is surely not before time, for Nash did more to improve and beautify London than any other architect or town planner apart from, perhaps, Sir Christopher Wren. His legacy, after all, includes the laying out of Regent's Park and Regem Street, Trafalgar Square, Carlton House Terrace and Buckingham Palace. Yet posterity was not kind to Nash's memory: the Victorians despised his scenic and seemingly insubstantial terraces of painted stuccoed brick while the 20th century had more respect for the idiosyncratic architecture of his contemporary and rival, Sir John Soane (1753-1837).

Comparing Nash with Soane is indeed instructive. The latter became known for his rectitude and ability to keep to his estimates; he was a professional, and was honoured with a knighthood. Nash, in contrast, was a speculator as well as an architect and was suspected--rightly --of dodgy financial dealings. How he made his fortune, and how he lost it, remains opaque. Nash's reputation was also tarnished by his association with his extravagant and unpopular royal patron, King George IV, whose desire to reward his protege with a baronetcy was vetoed by the Duke of Wellington. Today, Soane is admired for the peculiar and original classical style he developed, and for the ingenuity of his interiors. Being versatile and accommodating about architectural style has often been regarded with suspicion, however, and Nash was wonderfully protean. He could handle Greek, Roman or Renaissance classicism; he also built gothic castles and at Blaise Hamlet experimented with the rustic vernacular with a sophistication that anticipated the Victorian 'Old English' style by half a century. And then, of course, there is the Brighton Pavilion, that brilliantly conceived, lush and licentious Oriental fantasy.

Hermann Muthesius once observed that 'the Anglo-Saxon race has been denied the gift of building cities'. But Nash was Welsh, and he planned new streets and spaces in London with an imaginative flair and a happy pragmatism that has never been approached, before or since, let alone equalled. Whereas a Frenchman, laying out a new street from the new Regent's Park to Westminster, might have drawn two parallel lines on the map and demolished everything in between, Nash--necessarily cognisant of property values and other constraints--created a new street full of incident and movement, a pioneering essay in the 'urban picturesque'. And it worked commercially. What is sad is that the buildings that lined the street eventually fell victim to the Ruskinian prejudice against painted stucco and in the 1920s were replaced by taller steel-framed structures faced in Portland stone.

The first proper biography of Nash, by John Summerson, was not published until 1935. Since then, several other studies--by Summerson and others--have appeared, though a much longer shelf is still needed for the literature on Soane. But an excellent new book, John Nash: Architect of the Picturesque (English Heritage), a collection of essays edited by Geoffrey Tyack, does full justice to the talent and versatility of this remarkable architect, and makes a powerful case for his importance--and greatness. Jonathan Clarke's essay explores Nash's pioneering ingenuity as a constructor, what with the ironwork threaded through the fabric of the Brighton Pavilion and the amazing tent-like roof of his Carlton House Rotunda, which now stands languishing in Woolwich (see Apollo, May 2009). But perhaps the most important attribute to emerge in these studies was one he shared with Wren, and which is essential for a successful designer: his pragmatism.

This is evident in his town planning. J. Mordaunt Crook demonstrates how the success of Regent's Park, with its peripheral theatrical backdrop of stuccoed palaces and its internal scattering of villas, was not Nash's original idea and resulted from his clever response to economic and political conditions. It is also evident in his greatest contribution to English architecture: his embrace of the picturesque. His early villas, although ingeniously planned, were invariably symmetrical. It was only when he met Uvedale Price (1747-1829), theorist of the picturesque, that he broke with the box and began to explore the possibilities of irregularity. Price commissioned a marine villa in Aberystwyth from Nash, in which the windows and some of the rooms had to be turned towards particular views, and the villa itself sited almost on top of the rocks over which the waves broke.

The result, Castle House (alas, long gone), was a vaguely gothic building on an ingenious triangular plan. After this, Nash went on to explore the possibilities of the picturesque in asymmetrical houses in a variety of styles, famously at Cronkhill (Fig. 2) but also in Park Village East, Blaise Hamlet and elsewhere--themes developed by the Victorians in countless suburbs, and still evident in the creations of commercial housebuilders today. It was his most potent legacy.

Soane, by contrast, had no followers, and his unique style was not to be revived until the early 20th century. His stature today is very much the result of the survival of his extraordinary and captivating house and museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Nash also created his own house and collection, and--when he had the money--lived rather more grandly than Soane. In Lower Regent Street he built a large double house (Fig. 3), in his half of which a 70-foot-long picture and sculpture gallery connected drawing and dining rooms. Schinkel, who visited in 1826, wrote that Nash lived 'like a prince'.

This house disappeared along with the rest of the first Regent Street; the collection and money had gone long before. East Cowes Castle, the asymmetrical gothic house Nash built for himself on the Isle of Wight and to which, facing bankruptcy, he retreated at the end of his long life, has also disappeared. But enough of his work survives today to testify to his extraordinary talent. Like Soane, he was an odd character (his private life was puzzlingly weird). But was he a greater architect than his strange, pernickety contemporary? Nash was certainly a much more accomplished town planner, and did much more for London. And despite Nash's often casual and slip-shod approach to detail, his work is much more responsive to its setting in both style and shape, more coherent, and more enjoyable. As Geofffey Tyack concludes, 'Few British architects have shown more sensitivity to the urban and rural environment than John Nash, and few have better understood the capacity of architecture to give pleasure.'
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Author:Stamp, Gavin
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2013
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