Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867) was an English architect, one of the leaders of Greek Revival architecture, though he also designed using other architectural styles. Smirke designed the main block and facade of the British Museum, perhaps his best-known work.
Background and training
Smirke was born in London on 1 October 1780, the second son of portrait painter Robert Smirke; he was one of twelve children. He attended Aspley School, Aspley Guise, Bedfordshire, where he studied Latin, Greek, French and drawing he was made head boy at age 15, and studied architecture as a pupil of classical architect John Soane from May 1796 but left after a few months in early 1797 due to a personality clash with Soane.
In 1796 he began his studies at the Royal Academy winning the Silver Medal that year, also winning the same year the Silver Palette of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Academy in 1799 for his design for a National Museum. After leaving Soane he depended on George Dance the Younger and a surveyor called Thomas Bush for his training. From 1801 to 1805 he embarked on the Grand Tour, he studied architecture in southern Europe. Accompanied by his elder brother Richard, his itinerary can be followed by the series of letters he wrote, Brussels, as Britain was at war, in order to visit Paris they disguised themselves as Americans, Berlin, Potsdam, Prague, Dresden, Vienna. Visiting Italy, including, Florence, Venice, Padua, Genoa, Vicenza, Rome, Naples, and Sicily then on to Greece, visiting Corinth, Athens, Delphi, Thebes and Olympia.
In 1805 he joined the Society of Antiquaries of London and the Architects' Club. Smirke's first official appointment came in 1807 when he was made architect to the Royal Mint. He was elected a A.R.A. (Associate of the Royal Academy) on 7 November 1808, an R.A. (Royal Academician) on 11 February 1811, his diploma work consisting of a drawing of a reconstruction of the Acropolis of Athens.
Smirke's relations with Soane reached a low point after Soane who had been appointed Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy delivered his 4th lecture on 29 January 1810 in which he heavily criticised Smirke's design of the Covent Garden Opera House.
Together with John Nash and Sir John Soane, he became an official architect to the Office of Works in 1813 (the appointment ended in 1832) at a salary of PS500 per annum, thereby reaching the height of the profession. In 1819 he was made surveyor of the Inner Temple. In 1819 he married Laura Freston, daughter of The Reverend Anthony Freston the great-nephew of the architect Matthew Brettingham. The only child of the marriage was a daughter Laura. In 1820 he was made surveyor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and also in 1820 he became treasurer to the Royal Academy. He was knighted in 1832, and received the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1853. Smirke lived at 81 Charlotte Street, London. A blue plaque commemorating his residence is on the outside of the building. He retired from practise in 1845, after which Robert Peel made him a member of the Commission for London Improvements. .In 1859 he resigned from the Royal Academy and retired to Cheltenham, living in Montpellier House, Suffolk Square, where he died on 18 April 1867, he is buried in the churchyard at St Peter's Church, Leckhampton. His estate was worth PS90,000. He is known to have designed or remodelled over twenty churches, more than fifty public buildings and more than sixty private houses. This led to James Planche's 1846 chorus in his burlesque of Aristophanes The Birds:
Go to work, rival SmirkeMake a dash, A la NashSomething try at, worthy WyattPlans out carry, great as Barry
Innovations and writings
Smirke was a pioneer of using both concrete and cast iron. Examples of his buildings in which he used concrete foundations include: Millbank Penitentiary, the rebuilding of the London Custom House and the British Museum. Also he used large cast iron beams to support the floors of the upper galleries at the British Museum, these had to span 41 feet. A critic writing in 1828 in The Athenaeum stated "Mr. Smirke, is pre-eminent in construction: in this respect he has not his superior in the United Kingdom". James Fergusson writing in 1849 said "He was a first class builder architect, ....no building of his ever showed a flaw or failing and ....he was often called upon to remedy the defects of his brother artist."
Another area where Smirke was an innovator was the use of Quantity surveyors to rationalise the various eighteenth-century systems of estimating and measuring building work.
In 1806 he published the first and only volume of an intended series of books Specimens of Continental Architecture. Smirke started to write a treatise on architecture c. 1815 and although he worked on it for about 10 years never completed it. In it he made his admiration for the architecture of ancient Greece plain. He described it as "the noblest", "simple, grand, magnificent", "with its other merits it has a kind of primal simplicity". This he contrasted with the Architecture of ancient Rome which he described as "corrupt Roman taste", "An excess of ornament is in all cases a sympton [Sic] of a vulgar or degenerate taste". Of Gothic architecture he described as '"till its despicable remains were almost everywhere superseded by that singular and mysterious compound of styles".
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