200 years ago, one of Britain’s most talented designers was born. Today, his greatest legacy lies hidden in the heart of London. Soul City Wanderer salutes this somewhat forgotten genius, and reveals a rare opportunity to view his seldom seen masterpiece.
Ask any informed group of Londoners to list the city’s greatest architects and you can guarantee the household names that would make up the bulk of the pantheon: From the Stuart period, Inigo Jones, Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor. From the Georgian period Robert Adam, William Chambers, John Nash. From the Victorian period, Charles Barry, Augustus Pugin, George Gilbert-Scott. From the post-modern era, Nicholas Grimshaw, Norman Foster, Richard Rogers.
All these deserve a mention, as do many others of renown. However, it is unlikely that the name Matthew Digby Wyatt would crop up. It’s not that the Wyatt family name isn’t well-known to architecture. Extant legacies of James Wyatt, Philip Wyatt, Benjamin Dean Wyatt, Thomas Henry Wyatt and Jeffry Wyatville, are quite visible in London. But poor Matthew’s magnificent contribution is very rarely seen. Hence, he has a low profile which really doesn’t do him justice.
Matthew was born on July 28, 1820, in Rowde, Wiltshire. He trained under his elder brother, Thomas Henry, and endeavoured to become a prominent member of the Wyatt dynasty. Matthew was a multi-talented designer and draughtsman, comfortable blending a wide range of styles. As well as the softer interior aspects such as furniture, wallpaper and carpets, he was keen on the technical side of things, paying special attention to usually forgotten external features such as guttering, joints and girders. In this respect, he was similar to the famous Scottish architect Robert Adam a century before him.
Early in his career, Matthew assisted on the design of Paddington station, but his name on that project was submerged beneath the weight of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s. Then, in 1851, he was appointed executive secretary for the Great Exhibition. Essentially a showcase for British trade, this was Prince Albert’s hugely successful pet project, held at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. When this huge gig ended, Matthew helped oversee the relocation of the exhibition complex to Sydenham. As secretary, it was also Matthew’s role to produce a grand catalogue as a record of the exhibition. The gilded statue of Prince Albert holds a copy in the monument that sits opposite the Royal Albert Hall.
In 1855, his meteoric rise saw him appointed secretary of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). But his reach for the stars set him on a collision course with another stella figure of British Victorian architecture, George Gilbert Scott.
Scott had been given the responsibility for the design of a new government building in Whitehall. It would take the form of a courtyard surrounded by a quadrangle built to house four ministries. Scott was also responsible for the interiors of three of them: The Foreign Office, the Colonial Office and the Home Office.
The fourth ministry was the India Office. The fact that the sub-continent had a ministry of its own, not only demonstrated its position as the ‘jewel in the crown’, but also the government’s triumph in wresting power from the East India Company.
A century before, the EIC’s nabobs had begun taking control of India, first as a trade organisation, then through military strength. The British government was on the outside looking in, effectively powerless. In 1784, the India Act moved the EIC’s administrative base from Bengal to the City of London. In effect, under British law. After the civil uprising of 1857, the Government of India Act replaced the EIC with the new India Office. The Act also saw the administration of India symbolically moved from London’s commercial hub in the City to its political centre in Westminster. There was no doubt that the new headquarters in Whitehall would be a major focus of attention.
But the India Office did not want Scott to design their interior. He was associated with an Imperial Gothic style that symbolised colonialism. Matthew was specifically requested, as his style assimilated a modern outlook with respect for the past and an attention to detail – admirable attributes for the new Indian Civil Service seeking to distance itself from the excesses of the EIC. A difference of opinion ensued and an argument loomed. But in the end, a deal was struck whereby Scott agreed to design the exterior, as part of the quadrangle, while the India Office would have their own ‘inside man’, and Matthew was appointed.
In the design, Matthew linked the old with the new by having much of the interior of the EIC’s former city headquarters in Leadenhall Street transferred to Whitehall, including doors, furniture and the great marble chimneypiece from the former Director’s Room. Leading up to the council chamber was the magnificent Muses Staircase, adorned with marble statues representing Roman virtues. But most impressive was the sumptuous Durbar courtyard, a space of considerable height and size, lavishly gilded and decorated. The interior is seen as Matthew’s magnum opus. Clearly displaying his eclectic style, it was once described as: “a tour de force of Italian Renaissance architecture and Minton’s majolica.” The India Office was begun in 1861 and took seven years to complete. Matthew was knighted for his work.
Of course, the funding for such an opulent project had come from the exploitation of an entire subcontinent. From 1868, the whole of India was effectively run from this building by the Secretary of State and his council, until independence was achieved in 1947. Naturally, after that year, the building became redundant. Within a century of its completion, it was seen by the government as ‘Whitehall’s white elephant’, and in the 1960s they came close to demolishing it. However, it was saved by a public outcry and awarded grade 1 listed status. A long renovation project has since seen it restored to its former glory. The structure is still part of a working civil service building and access is restricted. However, once a year, Matthew’s masterpiece becomes a star attraction as part of the London Open House weekend.
Apart from The India Office, there are few remnants of Matthew’s architecture in central London. But many of his works are spread around the country, including hospitals, colleges, private residences, business premises, chapels, mausoleums and memorials.
There is much testimony to the esteem in which Matthew was held within the architectural profession. He was asked to serve as RIBA secretary by 18 leading architects of the time, including Sir Charles Barry and George Gilbert Scott. Scott wrote another glowing testimonial for Matthew in 1857, which at least shows there was little animosity between them.
By all accounts, Matthew was quite humble, and valued the respect of his peers. He was a talented painter and sculptor too, and as a well-respected art historian, he was appointed the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Cambridge.
Sadly, when he was in his prime, Wyatt contracted a debilitating nerve condition, which rendered him unable to work. He died at the age of 57 in 1877 and is buried in the quiet St Mary’s churchyard in Usk, Monmouthshire.
There is no blue plaque to Matthew at either of his residences at 54 Guildford Street or 37 Tavistock Place in Bloomsbury. Yet his brother Thomas Henry has one nearby in Great Russell Street.
In Britain, the artistically gifted are far less likely than the technically creative to be remembered in the lists of the great and the good. In the 2003 Poll of 100 Great Britons, engineers such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, George Stephenson and James Watt are well represented. But not a single architect, designer or artist, male or female, made it onto the podium. If I had my chance again, I might consider a vote for Matthew Digby Wyatt.
Matthew Digby Wyatt’s Durbar Court at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office will be open to public visits during the Open House weekend September 19-20, 2020. Lockdown permitting. Pre-bookings only.