Arguably the greatest architect of Regency London, John Nash’s imprint can still be seen in numerous sites around the city, from the master-planning of Regent’s Park and Regent Street to the beautiful buildings of All Soul’s Church in Langham Place and Marble Arch on the edge of Hyde Park.
Born the son of a Welsh millwright in Lambeth, London, on 18th January, 1752, Nash – who went on to work in a range of different architectural styles – trained as a draughtsman under the tutelage of architect Sir Robert Taylor and in 1777 established his own business as a builder and surveyor.
But he certainly didn’t meet with immediate success and, following failure as a building speculator (he built properties in Bloomsbury Square and Great Russell Street but failed to make enough money from the venture – there’s a blue plaque on one of the houses, which he lived in, at 66 Great Russell Street), was declared bankrupt in 1783.
Meanwhile, his personal life was also in turmoil during these years – in 1775 he had married, Jane Kerr, the daughter of a Surrey surgeon, but separated from her in the early 1780s after various troubles including her eventually apparently having a child with a Welshman named Charles Charles, who is said to have died in prison after he was jailed for adultery.
Brought down by his misfortune, in the mid 1780s Nash moved to Carmarthen in Wales where he had family. Taking up work here, by the late 1780s he was designing prisons – the first was at Carmarthen – and worked on a number of other prominent buildings including St David’s Cathedral and various country houses.
Rising to prominence in Carmarthen society, by 1797, however, Nash was again working in London, initially in partnership with the renowned landscape architect Humphrey Repton with whom he had formed a business relationship some years earlier (although the partnership had soured over finances by 1800).
He built a substantial home at 29 Dover Street in Mayfair and in 1798, his first wife presumably dead, he married his second wife, Mary Anne Bradley, and soon started work on building a Gothic-inspired residence for them, known as East Cowes Castle, on the Isle of Wight. It was completed in 1802 but enlarged some years later.
Nash designed numerous country properties in the early 19th century, inspired by everything from castles to Italianate architecture, both in England and Ireland and soon came to the attention of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV (there was a rumour his wife was one of the prince’s discarded mistresses).
In 1806 he was officially made Deputy Surveyor General in the Office of Woods and Forests – the office which managed the Crown estate, and from 1815 on, he largely worked for the prince alone. Among the major London commissions from his royal patron were the design of Regent Street (he and his wife moved into number 14 in 1823) and the development of Regent’s Park on land formerly known as Marylebone Park and surrounding housing estates (for more on The Regent’s Park, see our earlier entry here). He also redeveloped St James’s Park.
In 1815, he was commissioned to develop the Prince Regent’s Marine Pavilion in Brighton and by 1822 had transformed the building into the spectacular Royal Pavilion which can be visited there today.
Nash was also involved in the development of The Regent’s Canal – which linked the Grand Union Canal in London’s west to the River Thames in London’s east and was completed in 1820 – and built many of the grand villas which still line it (for more on Regent’s Canal, see our earlier entry here).
Becoming an official architect to the Office of Works in 1813 (an appointment which only ended in 1832, three years before his death), Nash went on to design churches – including All Soul’s in Langham Place (he’s depicted above in a bust at the church) – as well as West End theatres including the Haymarket Theatre and the Royal Opera House (which burnt down in 1867) as well as the adjacent Royal Opera Arcade and residences including Carlton House Terrace and Clarence House (for more on this, see our earlier entry here).
Other major commissions included the redevelopment of Buckingham Palace (parts of the current building are his work but the main facade isn’t – for more on the palace history, see our earlier entry here) and the Royal Mews, and the creation of Marble Arch, originally envisaged as the main gateway to the palace (see our earlier entry here). Nash also designed a conservatory for Kew Gardens.
Nash’s close relationship with the Prince Regent (who become King George IV on 29th January, 1820), meant that when the king died in 1830, he found himself on the outer (and his reputation took many years to recover thanks to his association with the unpopular king). With no knighthood forthcoming for his efforts (unlike many of his contemporaries) and the chance of further work unlikely (his work on Buckingham Palace had been left unfinished due to concerns over rising costs), Nash retired to his house on the Isle of Wight.
He died there on 13th May, 1835, and was buried in the churchyard at St James’s Church in East Cowes. He was survived by his wife who, having settled his debts, retired to Hampstead.
For an in-depth study of Nash, try Geoffrey Tyack’s book, John Nash: Architect of the Picturesque.