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Significant Scots
James Gibbs


GIBBS, JAMES, a celebrated architect, was born in Aberdeen, according to the most approved authority, in the year 1674, though Walpole and others place the date of his birth so late as 1683, a period which by no means accords with that of his advancement to fame in his profession. He was the only son (by his second wife) of Peter Gibbs of Footdeesmire, a merchant, and, as it would appear from his designation, a proprietor or feuar of a piece of ground along the shore at the mouth of the Dee, where his house, called "the white house in the Links," remains an evidence of the respectability and comparative wealth of the family. Old Gibbs retained during the stormy period in which he lived, the religion of his ancestors, and was a staunch non-juror. An anecdote is preserved by his fellow townsmen characteristic of the man, and of the times. The conflicting religious doctrines of presbyterian and episcopalian, and of course the political doctrines of whig and tory, found in Aberdeen a more equal balance than perhaps in any other part of Scotland; and history has shown, that in the event of a serious struggle, the influence of the Huntly family generally made the latter predominate; in these circumstances, it may easily be supposed that the city was a scene of perpetual petty jarring, and that pasquinades and abuse were liberally given and bitterly received. Gibbs being a Roman catholic, was the friend of neither party, and an object of peculiar antipathy to the presbyterians, who testified their sense of his importance and wickedness, by instructing the children in the neighbourhood to annoy the old gentleman in his premises, and hoot him on the streets. Gibbs, to show his respect for both parties, procured two fierce dogs for his personal protections and engraved on the collar of the one "Luther," and on that of the other "Calvin:" the compliment was understood by neither party; and the dogs and their master being summoned before the bailies to answer for their respective misdemeanours, the former were delivered over to the proper authorities, and executed according to law, at the cross, the public place of execution.

The subject of our memoir attended the usual course of instruction at the grammar school, and was afterwards sent to Marischal college, where he accepted of the easily acquired degree of master of arts. At that period, when the Scottish colleges were partly remnants of monastic institutions, partly schools for the instruction of boys, having the indolence of the Roman catholic age strangely mingled with their own poverty and the simplicity of presbyterian government, there were but two classes of persons at the universities,—the sons of the noblemen and gentlemen, living in a style superior to the citizens, and a poorer class who were supported by the bursaries, or even common charity; the two classes wore different dresses, and of course had little communication with each other, excepting such as might exist between master and servant. To which of these classes Gibbs may have belonged is not known; that it should have been the latter is not so improbable as it may appear, as custom, the master of every thing, made it by no means degrading to those of inferior rank; while a burgess, whatever might have been his wealth, would hardly in that age have been so daring as to have forced his son upon the company of the offspring of lairds. For some time after his father’s death, he was reared and educated by his uncle-in-law and aunt, Mr and Mrs Morrison, people in much the same respectable circumstances with his father; but destitute, perhaps from his religious principles, of influence sufficient to enable him to follow his father’s business with success, or more probably having a natural bent for more tasteful pursuits, Gibbs, at the early age of twenty, left his native town, nor did he ever return to a spot not very congenial to the pursuit of a profession which must be studied among the remains of ancient grandeur, and practised in the midst of luxury and profusion. From 1694 to 1700 he studied architecture and the, mathematics in Holland, under an architect to whom the biographers of Gibbs have given the merit of possessing reputation, while neither his own talents, nor the subsequent fame of his scholar has preserved his name from oblivion. Here the young architect made himself acquainted with the earl of Marr, then on a visit to the continent, who, according to the praiseworthy custom for which Scotsmen have received rather uncharitable commendation, of assisting their countrymen when they meet them in a foreign country, gave him recommendatory letters to influential friends, and money to enable him to pursue the study of his profession, for which it would appear the earl had a taste. After leaving Holland he spent ten years in Rome, where, according to Dallaway, he studied under P. F. Garroli, a sculptor and architect of considerable merit; and where, like many who have afterwards issued from the great manufactory of artists, to astonish and gratify the world, he probably spent his days in labour and unnoticed retirement.

In 1710, Gibbs returned to Britain, and by the influence of the earl of Marr, then secretary of state for Scotland, in queen Anne’s tory ministry, the means of exhibiting his knowledge to advantage, and gaining emolument, were amply provided. The renowned legislative measure, by which the metropolis was to be made religious by act of parliament, on the erection of fifty new churches, having been passed, the name of Gibbs was added by his generous patron to the list of those eminent architects who were to put the vast plan in execution. Previous, however, to commencing this undertaking, he completed the first of his architectural labours, the additional buildings to King’s college, Cambridge. It is generally allowed that this is a production on which the architect could not have founded much of his fame.— "The diminutive Doric portico," says Dallaway, "is certainly not a happy performance, either in the idea or the execution. Such an application of the order would not occur in a pure and classic instance." While, on the other hand, the historian of the university of Cambridge, remarks,—"It is built of white Portland stone, beautifully carved, with a grand portico in the centre; and contains three lofty floors above the vaults. The apartments, which are twenty-four in number, are exceedingly well fitted up, and in every respect correspond with the outward appearance, which equals that of any other building in the university."—The latter part of the sentence, in reference to the spot which contains King’s college chapel and Clare hall, is sufficiently complimentary for the architect’s best works. The truth appears to be, that those trammels which architects have had more reason to detest than any other class of artists, restrained the genius of Gibbs in this instance, and that being obliged to apply given form, size, and number of apartments, to given space, he had no opportunity of displaying the beauties which attend his other works. The first of "the fifty," which Gibbs completed, was St Martin’s in the Fields, a work which, with its calm tastefulness and simple grandeur, might have been honourable to the fame of the greatest architect the world ever saw. The west front of this building, surmounted by a light and neatly designed spire, is decorated with Corinthian columns, over which is a pediment, bearing the royal arms; the order is continued round the sides in pilasters, and there is a double series of windows in the inter-columniations, an unfortunate sacrifice of architectural effect to internal accommodation. The interior is divided into three unequal parts, by a range of four Corinthian columns and two pilasters on each side, standing on tall pedestals; the central space or nave being covered by a semi-elliptical ceiling, rising from the top of the entablature over each column, and is rich in moulding and ornament. The following plainly told, but judicious opinion of this building, is given by Ralph, in his "Critical Review of Public Buildings,"- "The portico is at once elegant and august, and the steeple above it ought to be considered as one of the most tolerable in town; if the steps arising from the street to the front could have been made regular, and on a line from end to end, it would have given it a very considerable grace: but, as the situation of the ground would not allow it, this is to be esteemed rather a misfortune than a fault. The round columns at each angle of the church are very well conceived, and have a very fine effect in the profile of the building: the east end is remarkably elegant, and very justly challenges particular applause. In short, if there is anything wanting in this fabric, it is a little more elevation, which I presume is apparently wanted within, and would create an additional beauty without."—"All the parts," says Allan Cunningham, "are nicely distributed, and nothing can be added, and nothing can be taken away. It is complete in itself; and refuses the admission of all other ornament." Much discussion seems to have been wasted on the portico of St Martin’s, some insisting that it is a mere model of the portico of the Pantheon, or some other production of classic art; others maintaining its equality in merit and design to the best specimens of Grecian architecture. A portico, to bear the name, must have basements, pillars, capitals, and an entablature, just as a house must have a roof and windows, and a bridge arches; so all that originality can possibly achieve in such a work, is the harmony of the proportions and ornaments with each other, and with the rest of the building; it is in having made the proportions and ornaments different from those of the Pantheon, and adapted them to a totally different building, that Gibbs has been original, and it is on the pleasure which the whole combination affords to the eye, that his merit depends; a merit, however, which cannot come in competition with that of the inventor of the portico. The next church of the fifty, undertaken by Gibbs, was St Mary’s in the Strand, a work on which, if we may judge from its appearance, he bestowed more labour with less effect. Instead of appearing like the effort of a single grand conception, forming a complete and harmonizing whole, it is like a number of efforts clustered together. Instead of being one design, the interstices in which are filled up by details, it is a number of details united together; in gazing on which, the mind, instead of absorbing the grandeur of the whole at one view, wanders from part to part, finding no common connexion by which the joint effect of all may be summoned before it at once.

Gibbs had just prepared the plans of the buildings we have described, and was in the high and palmy state of his fortunes, when his kind patron, having had his overtures to procure the allegiance of the Highland clans contumeliously rejected, and having been disgusted and thrown in fear by the impeachment of Oxford and Stafford, and the exile of Ormond and Bolingbroke, resolved to avenge his personal wrongs, by a recourse to the feudal fiction of the divine origin of hereditary right, to maintain the theoretic purity of which, a nation contented with its king was plunged in civil war, that the king they ought not to have been contented without, should be restored. Family ruin followed the rebellion of the earl; but the architect, fortified by the practice of a profession, the principles of which politics could not sway, and possessing knowledge which, unlike the art of governing, could not be deprived of its efficacy by the influence of the party in power, remained unmolested on the step to which he had advanced, and looked forward to the prospect of other honours.

The most magnificent, though perhaps not the purest of Gibbs’s works, is the Radcliffe Library at Oxford, on the completion of which, he received the degree of master of arts from that university. The Radcliffe Library is of a circular form, rising in the centre of an oblong square of 370 feet by 110, with a cupola 140 feet high and 100 feet in diameter. The lofty dome of this building raises itself in the centre of almost every prospect of Oxford, and gives a characteristic richness to the landscape. "The Radcliffe dome," says Allan Cunningham, "in fact conveys to every distant observer the idea of its being the air-hung crown of some gigantic cathedral or theatre. It is, perhaps, the grandest feature in the grandest of all English architectural landscapes; it rises wide and vast amid a thousand other fine buildings, interrupts the horizontal line, and materially increases the picturesque effect of Oxford;" on a nearer and more critical view, however, the spectator is disappointed to find that a want of proportion betwixt the cupola and the rest of the building, slight, but still very perceptible, deadens the effect of the magnificent whole, a mistake on the part of the architect, which has frequently turned the whole mass of taste and beauty, into an object of ridicule to the bitter critic. It may be in general questioned how far such a building, however much its swelling magnificence may serve to add dignity to a vast prospect without, or solemnity to an important pageant within, is suited for the more retired purposes of a library. The student seldom wishes to have his attention obstructed by the intrusion of a wide prospect upon his view , whenever he raises his eyes; and perhaps when extent and grandeur are desired, a more suitable method of accommodating them with comfortable retirement may be found in a corridor or gallery, where any one, if he is anxious, may indulge himself by standing at one end, and luxuriate in the perspective of the whole length, while he who wishes to study uninterrupted may retire into a niche, whence his view is bounded by the opposite side of the narrow gallery. In the completion of the quadrangle of All Souls, Gibbs had the great good fortune to receive a growl of uncharitable praise from Walpole. "Gibbs," says the imperious critic, "though he knew little of Gothic architecture, was fortunate in the quadrangle of All Souls, which he has blundered into a picturesque scenery not void of grandeur, especially if seen through the gate that leads from the schools. The assemblage of buildings in that quarter, though no single one is beautiful, always struck me with singular pleasure, as it conveys, such a vision of large edifices unbroken by private houses, as the mind is apt to entertain of renowned cities that exist no longer." Such is the opinion of one, whose taste in Gothic architecture, as represented by the straggling corridors, and grotesque and toyish mouldings of Strawberry Hill, would not, if curiosity thought it of sufficient importance to be inquired into, bear the test of a very scrutinizing posterity. A comparison of his various opinions of the different works of Gibbs are among the most amusing specimens of the construction of the noble critic’s mind. Where the architect has been tasteful and correct, he only shows that mere mechanical knowledge may avoid faults, without furnishing beauties, "and where he has been picturesque and not void of grandeur, the whole is the effect of chance and blunder." Among the other works of Gibbs are the monument of Holles, duke of Newcastle, in Westminster Abbey, the senate house at Cambridge, a very favourable specimen of his correct and tasteful mind, and some buildings in the palace of Stowe. The west church of St Nicholas in his native city, a very fine specimen, if we may believe the accounts of contemporaries, of Gothic taste, having fallen nearly to ruin, Gibbs presented the magistrates with a plan for a church that might reinstate it. In this production we look in vain for the mind which imagined the lofty pomp of the Radcliffe, or the eye that traced the chaste proportions of St Martin’s; and one might be inclined to question with what feelings the great architect made his donation. The outside is of no description of architecture under the sun "in particular;" it just consists of heavy freestone walls, with a roof, and plain Roman arched windows. The inside is a degree worse. Heavy groined arches, supported on heavier square pillars, overtop the gallery. There is in every corner all the gloom of the darkest Gothic, with square corners instead of florid mouldings, and square beams instead of clustered pillars; while the great arched windows of the Gothic piles, which send a broken and beautiful light into their farthest recesses, are specially avoided, a preference being given to wooden square glazed sashes, resembling those of a shop—in the whole, the building is one singularly repulsive to a correct taste.

Gibbs, in 1728, published a folio volume of designs, which have acquired more fame for the knowledge than for the genius displayed in them. By this work he gained the very considerable sum of 1900. Besides a set of plans of the Radcliffe Library, this forms his only published work: his other papers and manuscripts, along with his library, consisting of about 500 volumes, he left as a donation to the Radcliffe Library. After five years of suffering from a lingering and painful complaint, this able, persevering, and upright man died in London, in 1754, having continued in the faith of his ancestors, and unmarried. He made several bequests, some to public charities, others to individuals, one of which in particular must not be passed over. Remembering the benefactor who had assisted him in the days of his labour and adversity, he left 1000, the whole of his plate, and an estate of 280 a year to the only son of the earl of Marr; an uncommon act of gratitude, which, however party feeling may regret the circumstances which caused it, will in the minds of good and generous men, exceed in merit all that the intellect of the artist ever achieved.


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