Chambers, Sir William (1723–96), architect and writer, was born 23 February 1723 in Gothenburg, Sweden, of Scottish parents, eldest among two sons and three daughters of John Chambers (d. 1752), a merchant who had settled in Sweden, and Sara Chambers (née Elphinstone). Educated in Ripon, Yorkshire, Chambers was subsequently employed (1739–49) by the Swedish East India Company. His various travels, extending to China, stimulated an interest in architecture, which he studied in Paris at the École des Arts (1749) and at the French Academy in Rome (1750–55), where he absorbed the ideas of French and Italian neo-classicism.
Returning to England (1755), he became one of the pioneers of English neo-classicism and is regarded as one of the finest architects of the century. He was appointed (1757) architect to Augusta, dowager princess of Wales, and architectural tutor to George, prince of Wales, who as George III appointed him joint architect (1761–9) and comptroller (1769–82). Chambers was greatly honoured by becoming the first holder of the combined post of comptroller and surveyor general (1782–96) of the office of works, in London. His best-known works are the royal gardens and ornamental buildings, including the Chinese Pagoda at Kew, Surrey (1757–63), and Somerset House, London (1776–96).
His first commission in Ireland (c.1757) was the completion of decorations for Castletown House, Co. Kildare, for Lady Louisa Conolly (qv), which included the gallery and probably other rooms including the print room and the red room. His greatest patron, after the king, was James Caulfeild (qv), 1st earl of Charlemont, in whose grounds at Marino House, Fairview, Co. Dublin, he designed a summer villa, the Casino (1758–76), an exquisite temple in the form of a Greek cross encircled by a Roman doric colonnade. Small in scale – though externally it suggests a single storey, it contains sixteen delightful rooms on three floors – it is perfectly proportioned and decorated with superb carvings. Chambers was fortunate in his patron, for Charlemont, whom he first met in Rome, was a friend and a great connoisseur, and gave Chambers the freedom to design this work of art. It is unlike any other building previously erected in Ireland and is considered one of the finest garden temples in Europe; Charlemont also employed Simon Vierpyl (qv), who as stonemason and sculptor executed the building, according to Chambers, with ‘great neatness and taste’ (Harris (1970), 43). Chambers also redecorated Marino House (demolished c.1861) and added a sculpture gallery.
Under Charlemont's patronage, Chambers was given his first opportunity to design a town house – having previously only made alterations to houses in London – when he designed Charlemont House in Rutland (Parnell) Square, Dublin. Built (1762–75) of brick with a limestone facade and curved sweeps at either end, it is one of Dublin's finest houses. He also added a pavilion at the end of the garden – linked to the house by a delightful corridor – to house Charlemont's collection of books and art, and furnished it, designing bronze candlesticks, sideboards, and a superb medal cabinet (preserved in Somerset House). It became the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in 1907 and was renamed in memory of Hugh Lane (qv) in 1975; the entrance hall, fireplace, and the elegant staircase remain intact but the library wing was demolished (1929).
For TCD, Chambers designed the Public Theatre (Examination Hall) and the chapel (1775–c.1797). Despite his aspirations, he was always too busy to visit Ireland and the buildings were executed by the college architect, Graham Myers (fl. 1777–85), and subsequently his son, Alexander. Identical temple-fronted buildings of great refinement on the north and south side of Parliament Square, they greatly add to its distinction. Other commissions in Ireland include the interior decoration in Leinster House, Dublin (1767), and alterations to Rathfarnham Castle (1770–71) and designs for the elevation of Lucan House (1773–5), both in Co. Dublin.
Highly esteemed in Ireland, he was urged (though unsuccessfully) by Charlemont to enter the Royal Exchange competition, by the revenue commissioners to design the Custom House, and by Andrew Caldwell (qv) to design the Blue Coat School. Indirectly he contributed to the distinction of Irish architecture, for Chambers greatly influenced his apprentice James Gandon (qv). In 1777 he recommended Gandon to Charlemont as ‘an old pupil of mine and very ingenious’ (Harris (1965), 71).
He published several books, beginning with the Book of Chinese designs (1757). His Treatise on civil architecture (1759) – his magnum opus and widely admired – was enlarged, dedicated to George III and reissued as Treatise on the decorative part of civil architecture (3rd ed. 1791); it reflects his scholarly approach to architecture, recommending the study of antiquity and the best of the moderns and forming ‘a style of your own in which [you] endeavour to avoid the faults and blend the perfections of all’ (McParland, 2).
He helped to found the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and was appointed by George III as its first treasurer (1768); created a knight of the Polar Star (1770) by Gustav III of Sweden, he was subsequently allowed to adopt the address of English knighthood by George III; he was elected FRS (1776).
He was portrayed by several artists; portraits by Joshua Reynolds (1723–92) are exhibited in London, in the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy (1779). In London he developed Berners St., and lived at no. 13. He died 10 March 1796 in London, and is buried in Westminster abbey. On hearing of his death, Charlemont composed a moving epitaph, describing him as ‘the best of men, and the first of English architects’ (Harris (1965), 72). Correspondence between Charlemont and Chambers is held in the RIA, Charlemont MS. Chambers married (24 March 1753) Catherine More (d. 1798); they had four daughters and three sons, of whom twin sons died in 1763.