His works and commissions are universally recognisable, and he is classed as one of the most important architects of the late 18th and early 19th Century Britain. John Nash, a clever yet troubled man, left an indelible mark on London.
So why, with regal designs for Buckingham Palace and Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, would a sorrowful demise see him end life penniless?
There is debate over Nash’s actual place of birth. Born on 18 January 1752, his family connections link him strongly to Wales, although some have suggested he was also perhaps born in South London. His father was a Welsh millwright, but it was clear from a young age that John would not follow in his footsteps. At the age of 14, Nash began an apprenticeship under the architect Sir Robert Taylor which would last for around 10 years.
At the end of his apprenticeship, he married Jane Elizabeth Kerr, at the Church of St Mary Newington, which has now been demolished. Kerr, the daughter of a surgeon, lived with Nash on Royal Row in Lambeth with their two children, John and Hugh, born in June 1776 and April 1778, respectively.
In 1777, Nash had established his own architectural business and, having already worked as a surveyor and builder in the city of London, was successful. He secured a partnership with Richard Heaviside, a timber merchant based at Landguard Fort in Felixstowe, Suffolk and made around £300 per year (roughly £32,400 today).
By 1778, however, his marriage was beginning to show signs of trouble. Jane had run up huge debts, unbeknown to Nash, including a milliner’s bill for over £300.
She was sent, by Nash, to one of his cousins, Ann Morgan, in Aberavon. It was hoped that the Welsh seaside town would help calm her financial trigger-finger however, it did little to aid matter. Jane and a local man, Charles Charles, began a relationship shortly afterward.
Jane returned to London in June 1779, despite her affair, to try to rekindle the romance between her and her husband. Her lavish habits had not changed, however, and Nash sent his wife away to Wales again, this time to another cousin, Thomas Edwards of Neath.
In 1781, two years later, the affair with Charles hadn’t ended and Jane had given birth to a child. She acknowledged that Charles was the father and it was the final straw for Nash. Bringing action for divorce against Jane on the grounds of adultery, the case was heard at Hereford in 1782. Charles was fined and, unable to settle the damages, later died in prison.
Nash would shortly leave for a career interlude in Wales himself. By 1778, he had inherited £1,000 from his uncle Thomas and decided to risk investing the money in property. It would not be a wise move. Nash’s first independent works in Bloomsbury, 15 – 17 Bloomsbury Square and 66 – 71 Great Russell Street, failed to let and he was declared bankrupt in 1783.
Having left the capital behind, Nash moved to Carmarthen in Wales. It was here that he really began to mature as an architect. Alongside Samuel Simon Saxon, he re-roofed the town church and then went on to design the prisons at Carmarthen, Cardigan and Hereford.
His architectural expertise was also called upon to help solve a structural problem at St David’s Cathedral. The west front was beginning to lean forward by a foot and, after two years of planning and deliberating, his advice would see the upper façade demolished and replaced with two large buttresses.
Nash’s intermission in Wales allowed him to develop his inspirations and influences. Thomas Johnes, for whom Nash designed an octagonal library at Hafod Uchdryd, and Sir Uvedale Price would become major figures in nurturing Nash’s architectural ideas. For Price, he built the Aberystwyth villa of Castle House and his fascination with the picturesque would eventually make him synonymous with the style.
After Castle House, Nash began to build large country houses across Wales. His finest construction of the period is Llanerchaeron, which was built on the River Avon for Major (later Colonel) William Lewis.
After his success in Wales, Nash decided to return to London and, in 1797, he moved back to Dover Street into a house that of his own creation. He married his second wife, Mary Ann Bradley, at St George’s Church, just off Hanover Square, a year later.
It was whilst Nash was in London that he came to the attention of the then Prince Regent (later King George IV). Nash was a dedicated Whig party supporter and through a mutual friends, Charles Edward Fox, became acquainted with the Prince.
It was clear the see that the Prince was impressed with Nash’s work. In 1806 was appointed Surveyor General of Woods, Forests and Parks and, from 1810 onwards, most of his work was for the Prince and he took on very little in terms of private commissions.
In 1811, the Prince asked three architects, including Nash, for their ideas on developing the area surrounding Marylebone Park.
Ever the ambitious individual, Nash put forward plans which included a ‘garden city’ and, drawing on his picturesque influences, a variety of villas, terraced houses, crescents, a canal, and lakes.
At the time, the Prince Regent was in residence at Carlton House on the Mall and the main focus of the development was a proposed avenue from here to Regent’s Park. The area covered by Nash’s plans include the present Regent’s Park, Trafalgar Square, Regent Street and St James’s Park. Nash would re-landscape the latter and give the park its present form including turning the-then canal into today’s lake.
Lavish and hedonistic, the Prince Regent threw his support behind the idea and, perhaps more importantly, his money. Nash would be made official architect to the Office of Works in 1813, alongside Robert Smirke and John Soane and would be paid a salary of £500 per year.
The position meant Nash would consult the Parliamentary Commission for new church buildings and would build All Soul’s Church on Langham Place (near the BBC’s modern Headquarters at Broadcasting House) and St Mary’s Haggerston, which was bombed during the World War Two Blitz in 1941.
By 1815, Nash was called upon by the Prince to develop the Marine Pavilion in Brighton. Originally designed by Henry Holland, Nash had transformed it into the Royal Pavilion by 1822 and had used Mughal architecture as a key source of inspiration for its exterior.
The following years saw his hand in designing two of London’s West End theatres; Theatre Royal Haymarket and The King’s Opera House, the latter of which is now known as Her Majesty’s Theatre. By 1825, the Prince Regent had succeeded his father, King George III, and was now King George IV. In the same year, Nash was commissioned to remodel Buckingham House, as it was then known, to form a Palace.
The iconic façade of Buckingham Palace facing The Mall was not one of Nash’s inventions, however. Throughout his time building the Palace, Nash erected and demolished various wings and all that remains today of his work is the West Front. Behind the Palace, Nash also worked on the Royal Mews and Marble Arch, which was originally intended as an entrance way to the Palace.
Later, at the request of Queen Victoria, it would become the entrance to Hyde Park as The Queen wanted additional living space at the Palace.
So far, Nash had experience a good run of commissions but his lucky soon began to run out. King George IV had become resented for his extravagance and lavish spending, both as Prince Regent and as monarch. In 1830, when he died, Nash lost his patronage and with it the royal protection it granted.
The remodelling of Buckingham Palace had cost upwards of £600,000 (millions in today’s currency) and the building was still unfinished when the King passed. Nash was removed from the project and the financial controversy ruined his career.
His contemporaries, Robert Smirke and John Soane, were awarded Knighthoods, but the honour was never intended to Nash and he would receive no more official commissions.
Moreover, Nash himself was in debt. He owed approximately £15,000 and he retired, in a sorry state, to his official residence on the Isle of Wight; East Cowes Castle. As the beginning of May 1835 came around, Nash’s health began to deteriorate and, less than a week after finalising his will, he passed away on the 13th May 1835.
His widow, Mary, was forced to sell most of his assets in order to clear his debts. Three paintings by Turner, along with several other masters were sold at Christie’s for over £1,000, and Nash’s books, medals and drawings were sold to a tune of almost £1,500.
Eventually, East Cowes Castle had to go and, after receiving around £20,000 from the sale, Mary retired to the Hampstead residence that Nash had left her in his will.
An architectural mastermind, Nash was simultaneously gifted and cursed. His work helped to define the British Regency but, like so many before him, he sacrificed his own happiness in an impatient drive for perfection.
Featured Image: Matt Brown