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Oil painting - Sir William Chambers (1723-1796), RA

Sir William Chambers (1723-1796), RA

  • Object:

    Oil painting

  • Date:

    18th century (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on canvas

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by Rev.,Alexander Dyce

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    On display at Osterley Park House, London


18th century (painted)



Materials and Techniques

Oil on canvas


Height: 17 in estimate, Width: 16.75 in estimate

Object history note

Bequeathed by Rev. Alexander Dyce, 1869

Historical significance: This painting is an unfinished portrait by an anonymous British artist of the architect and writer Sir William Chambers (1723-1796). The son of a Scottish merchant trading in Sweden, Chambers was educated in Ripon, Yorkshire. He moved to Sweden in 1739 to train as a merchant in the country's East India Company and between 1740 and 1749 he made three voyages to the East. On these journeys he studied modern languages, fine arts and civil architecture. In 1749 Chambers went to Paris and studied at Jacques-François Blondel's Ecole des Arts. In 1750 he settled in Rome where he studied until moved to London in 1755. Chambers had previously worked on the House of Confucius in Kew Gardens for Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), whilst he was on the Continent. Following the death of the Prince of Wales Chambers had been employed to design the Prince's mausoleum. He was then engaged by Frederick's widow, the Dowager Princess Augusta (1719-1772), in 1756 to lay out Kew Gardens (completed in 1762). He also became tutor to George Prince of Wales, later King George III (1738-1820). Chambers would later use his connections with King George III to gain royal patronage and support for the Royal Academy. The Instrument of Foundation of the Royal Academy signed by King George III on 10 December 1768In 1759. Chambers published his Treatise on Civil Architecture, which has been called the finest architectural treatise since the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio's (1508-1580) I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture, published Venice, 1570). In fact Horace Walpole commented that Chamber's treatise was the 'most sensible book and the mose exempt from prejudices that ever was written on that science.' The project to build a set of public offices in what is now Somerset House (1776-96), London, was an opportunity for Chambers to use precepts laid down in his Treatise. Chambers' reputation as an architect never diminished and his high standards of architectural design continued to be revered throughout his lifetime.

The sitter is shown turning his head and looking up to the right corner of a painting. A column is placed on the right of the composition behind Chambers. Whilst this compositional tool occurs in many contemporary portraits here it can be seen as referring to the sitter's profession of architect.

Chambers is shown in a wig of natural coloured hair which is worn closely to his head and tied at the back. This hairstyle and comparison with other portraits of Chambers suggest that this was painted in the 1760s or 1770s (for example see the Reynolds Portrait, National Portrait Gallery, accession number NPG27 where the sitter looks younger). Although the coat waistcoat and stock have been painted in quite a sketchy manner they appear to date from the 1760s or 1770s.

The combination of the bust length portrait with the column in the back right of the composition is unusual. Such architectural elements normally feature in half or full length portraits. It suggests that the painting was possibly cut down from or was a study for a larger work.

Descriptive line

Oil painting, 'Sir William Chambers (1723-1796) RA', British School, 18th century


Oil paint; Canvas


Oil painting


Paintings; Portraits; Hair and hairstyles


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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