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King's College, Cambridge, designs for a chapel altar, new college buildings and a library, 1768-88, unexecuted (28)

Founded in January 1441, King’s College Cambridge was an ambitious project undertaken by Henry VI, a year after he had established Eton College. Working with master mason Reginald Ely, the King conceived an extensive scheme for his new college at Cambridge, with its extraordinary chapel at the centre. Begun in 1446, the intended scheme would have placed the Chapel along the north range of an enclosed court, but the project was only ever part executed. The Chapel, with its impressive fan vaulted ceiling was eventually completed in 1515, under the direction of John Wastrell and following additional funds supplied by Henry VII. It was to be the only section of the original scheme to be carried out.

In 1724 James Gibbs was employed to design the three remaining ranges surrounding the Chapel. As Bolton highlights, the 1720s formed the pinnacle of Gibbs’s career and his scheme for King’s College was ‘pure Palladian’ in form, a startling contrast to the medieval chapel. Gibbs describes his intended scheme in his Book of Architecture (1728):

‘King’s College at Cambridge is now building by the order of the Reverend Dr. Snape, Provost of the College, and of the Fellows there of. The Provost, then Vice-Chancellor, laid the First stone of this Fabric. It is built of Portland stone, and is detach’d from the Chapell as being a different kind of Building, and also to prevent damage by any accident of fire.’

However, as with the previous grand scheme, only a fraction of Gibbs’s intended design was ever executed. The west range was constructed and contained twenty-four, three-room apartments, but plans for the south and east wings were abandoned. As Bolton highlights, the absence of the south block, the principal feature of the Gibbs scheme, creates a fragmentary effect.

In 1784 the Adam office were approached to produce a scheme for King’s College, Cambridge. David King considers the finished design to be one of the most spectacular of Adam’s unbuilt schemes. The project required careful consideration, incorporating the College’s gothic Chapel alongside Gibbs' Palladian west range. As a result, Bolton considered Adam’s finished scheme little short of an ‘architectural masterpiece’.

The principal building of the proposed Adam scheme formed a new south range positioned alongside the older Gibbs building. Adam’s south range was three storeys in height, with a central porch in its north front leading to a vestibule beyond. King highlights the use of recessed, apsidal balconies in the scheme and compares this to the balconies employed in Adam’s designs for the clerks' building, Lincoln’s Inn and for the rear facade of Saint Hill House. Adam’s south block was designed to contain a circular dining hall, which rose through three storeys and was surmounted by a domed ceiling. The building was also intended to contain the Provost’s lodge, which was entered from the west, alongside lecture rooms and further accommodation principally formed of paired sitting rooms and bedrooms and single rooms with beds set into recesses.

Adam’s original design for the south range, dating to 1784, was richly decorated with a combination of fine friezes and statuary. However in 1787 an alternative design was submitted, devoid of ornamentation, produced with the intention of cutting costs. The drawings for this second, modified design are principally held at King’s College, but one drawing (SM Adam volume 31/5) survives within the Soane collection dating to this period. Adam gave an estimated cost of £7,450 for this final design and King highlights the architect’s ambition to see it executed when he states that the scheme had been:

‘estimated at the at the most moderate prices to show that I should be happy in doing everything I could to induce the College to execute a design that I have always felt as one of the best and most simple of my inventions’.

As part of the scheme Adam also proposed a number of alterations for the Gibbs building, to create a more complete design. The proposed work included raising of the centre bays and the creation of new, pedimented end bays, articulated by pilasters. Neither Adam’s designs for a south range or his proposed alterations to the Gibbs block were carried out.

In 1788 the Adam office also made proposals for a new, extensive library alongside a range of university offices. In 1721 James Gibbs had begun work on a scheme to the north of the Chapel, a range of buildings intended to include a library, consistory, register office and senate house. The scheme was begun in 1722, with the foundation stone of the Senate House laid on 22 June. The building materials for the project were supplied by Christopher Cass of London, who also supplied marble for the interiors. Carpenters Thomas Phillips and Benjamin Timbrell were employed to construct the roof, with James Essex Senior engaged to produce window sashes and interior panelling. By 1725 the plain plasterwork interiors were underway, overseen by G. Artari and J. Bagutti. The project was costly, amounting to £13,000 by the time of its completion. In May 1727 plans to execute the remainder of the Gibbs scheme were abandoned and the foundation trenches for the additional buildings were refilled. Three decades later, on the site of Gibbs’s intended west range, Stephen Wright built a university library.

Adam’s proposals of 1788 once again approached a problematic site which incorporated the fourteenth and fifteenth-century School buildings, alongside Gibbs’s Palladian Senate House and Wright’s thirty-year old library. In his scheme Adam proposed the removal of Wright’s library alongside the medieval School buildings, in effect opening up the views of the Chapel at King’s and also that of Clare Hall. The only building retained in Adam’s design was Gibbs’s Senate House which was to be imitated in a new wing to the west and altered with the addition of a dome.

The principal building of the design was to be Adam’s extensive library with its central rotunda, which Bolton compares in plan to his scheme for the Register House, Edinburgh. King notes three variants for this design, the first shown in the perspective view (SM Adam volume 31/13) featuring a square library with a central court and rotunda. A second variant design differs in the omission of the giant portico, which is replaces with a rusticated, ground floor arcade.

In 1791, following Adam’s unexecuted proposals, Sir John Soane also produced a scheme for the site, with a building designed to contain a museum, picture gallery and lecture room. In 1829, following a competition C.R. Cockerell won a commission to design the new university library. The project, designed in the Neo-Grecian style, was begun in 1837, but as with previous schemes, it was only ever part-executed. As a result Cockerell’s library was adjoined to the medieval school buildings. These fourteenth and fifteenth-century structures were extended in 1862 by Sir Gilbert Scott, with further additions and a restoration project undertaken by John L. Pearson in 1889.

Prior to the Adam schemes for a series of new buildings at King’s College Cambridge, the office produced two variant designs for an altar intended for the College Chapel. Designed by James Adam the first design was completed in 1768, after the office was approached to provide an alternative scheme to that presented by James Essex in November 1766. The College had decided to commission a new altar and, upon concluding that the gothic style would best suit its intended setting, they were advised by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart on the engagement of Essex. Recognised as the foremost gothic architect of his day, Essex’s design was well received, but at an estimated £1,550 his altar was considerably over the appointed £1,000 budget. As a result, in December 1767, Richard Potenger, Under-Secretary of State and Fellow of King’s College, approached the Adam office for an alternative design. Doig highlights a letter dated 24 December 1767 from Potenger to John Sumner, Provost of King’s in which he states:

‘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... 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.’

Following the commission James Adam travelled to Cambridge in March 1768, submitting his first design later that year. Executed in the classical style, it was instantly dismissed as inappropriate for the medieval chapel and further concerns were raised regarding the proportions of the design which, if executed, would have obscured the lower portion of the great east window. As a result James Adam submitted his second design in March 1769, an altar in the gothic style which was well received, particularly as the office gave a lower estimate of £1,097. 12s., if the piece were to be executed in wood. However concerns regarding the dimensions of the design in relation to the east window remained and, despite James Adam’s argument that the altar was designed to be viewed with the light effect behind, the scheme was rejected. Bolton noted that on 27 October 1769 Robert and James Adam were paid £79. 2s. ‘for two designs for an altarpiece for the Chappell’.

Subsequently the College commissioned James Essex for the piece, with final costs amounting to £2,018, double the intended budget. Doig highlights Essex’s £80 payment for his designs, made in December 1775, noting it to be only 18 shillings more than the Adam office were paid for the rejected designs of 1768/69.

James Gibbs, A Book of Architecture Containing Designs of Buildings and Ornaments, 1728, p. 9;
R. Willis and J. Clark, The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge, 1886, Volume I, p. 560; A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume I, p. 97; Volume II, pp. 173-179; Index , p. 6; 'University Buildings', An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Cambridge, 1959, pp. 9-25; A. Doig, 'James Adam, James Essex and an Altar-piece for King's College Chapel, Cambridge', 21, Architectural History, 1978, pp. 79-119; D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam & unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume II, pp. 28, 38-45, 53-54, 58, 66, 94, 107, 151, 170, pls. 47-51, 66; 'King's College Chapel: an architectural masterpiece and the man who told its story', December 2015, www.cam.ac.uk; 'Earliest College Buildings', www.kings.cam.au.uk; 'King's College', www.historicengland.org.uk; 'The Senate House'. www.historicengland.org.uk (accessed April 2021)

Anna McAlaney, 2021
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