American scholar John Millar believes that Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632-1705) was the prolific mystery architect behind some 400 buildings!
In 2007, David Gladstone, the owner of Wotton House in Buckinghamshire, wanted to know what evidence could be found for identifying an architect for the house, so he sponsored a conference in September 2007. Millar submitted a paper, asserting that Elizabeth Mytton, Lady Thomas Wilbraham (1632-1705) was the mystery architect.
In John Millar’s words: I have been researching the architecture of Elizabeth Wilbraham since 1959, when I was a schoolboy at Charterhouse in Surrey. When I was 14 years’ old, for no apparent reason, I suddenly became passionately interested in the architecture of Christopher Wren, and I quickly devoured every available book and article on the subject. It took only a short time before I found more than 100 buildings that any ordinary person would attribute to Wren.
When I discussed that list with experts, however, I was told that Wren did not design them, but no one knew who did. Nevertheless, I continued to add to the ‘Wren’ list, and eventually found over 350 buildings I could attribute to the anonymous architect. In the late 1960s, I encountered the late Oliver Hill and John Cornforth, and one of them told me to investigate Wilbraham further, as she was apparently much more active as an architect than anyone had previously suspected. I unfortunately failed to follow up on that advice for another 30 years.
Wilbraham, who was born the same year as Wren, became interested in architecture in her teens. Married at age 19 in 1651, she talked her husband into an extended honeymoon in the Netherlands and Italy, where she spent time studying architecture. She studied with Pieter Post in the Netherlands, and stopped at Landshut in Germany on her way to the Veneto and Rome; the Italian-designed Stadtresidenz at Landshut was the inspiration behind some of her most important buildings, including the 1662 Queen’s Gallery at Somerset House. While in the Veneto, she became acquainted with some of the works of Palladio, and she later purchased the 1663 Godfrey Richards edition of Palladio’s I Quattro Libri (volume I), a book that she annotated heavily over the years, and only one of many architectural books she is said to have owned.
With such training, it is not surprising that many of the 400 buildings attributed to Wilbraham show a strong familiarity with both Italian and Dutch architecture, which she synthesised into a sophisticated British style.
Women in her day were effectively barred from practicing architecture, so Wilbraham was careful not to leave behind much evidence of her involvement, other than the dozen fine buildings. Evidence shows that she was Wren’s principal architecture tutor, and he in turn had her design no fewer than 18 of his 52 London churches. It was one thing to design buildings, but supervising construction was definitely not for a woman, so Wilbraham engaged a series of men to do that for her, many of whom were erroneously thought to have been architects in their own right because they supervised her buildings.
Wotton has a pair of elegant dependency buildings with casement windows, and on each of these is found elaborate carved decoration around the central upstairs window position, which is very similar to several other houses attributed to Wilbraham (such as Hanbury).
The most obvious characteristics of both Wotton and Buckingham are the use of giant Corinthian pilasters on the front elevations. She seems to have employed the device frequently. Given the situation of a woman acting as an architect during a period in history when that was socially unacceptable, there will never be clear documentation of Wilbraham’s authorship of any building, other than for her family. However, I am convinced that what little evidence exists points to Wilbraham being the architect of Wotton.
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