About John Nash
Looking at the time-line for Nash in Ian Sherfield's book on East Cowes Castle it includes:
Born 1752, almost certainly in Lambeth
1758/9 Orphaned age 6 on death of father
1775 married to Jane Elizabeth Kerr, Newington, London
1782 Divorce proceedings
1783 declared bankrupt
1784 stripped of all property but a free man
1798 married Mary Anne Bradley, Hanover Square, London
13 May 1835 dies at East Cowes Castle
October 1834 made will naming Mrs Nash, George Henry Ward (of Northwood Park) and James Pennethorne (wife's 'cousin' to whom he'd resigned his London practice 1834) leaving whole of his estate to Mrs Nash. His executors finally managed to settle his debts in 1841
The Genius of John Nash The Cowes Regatta of 1815 was something special. That summer news had reached England of the final fall of Napoleon Bonaparte after the Battle of Waterloo. After 22 years of war people could at last celebrate peace and plan for the future. Of all the parties held at Cowes in that first week of August the greatest was put on at the Gothic mansion of East Cowes Castle, the home of the architect, John Nash. Nash always entertained generously during Cowes Regatta, providing free breakfasts and evening receptions. On this occasion two marquees were erected in the grounds of the house, with two sets of musicians to provide country dancing in one tent and court dancing in the other. As the 63-year-old Nash presided over the merry making he was at the height of his powers. As the favourite of the Prince Regent he was planning modern central London, and had just started on the extraordinary Brighton Pavilion.
John Nash was born in Lambeth, London in 1752. He was the third son of a Kentish millwright William Nash, and Anne who came from Wales. When John was just eight his father died, but William seems to have left sufficient funds to ensure his gifted son’s education. For around ten years John Nash trained in architecture with Sir Robert Taylor, from 1769 the “Surveyor of the King’s Works”.
In 1778 John’s uncle Thomas died. Thomas had made a fortune from calico printing and left £1,000 to his promising nephew. John tried speculating in property. His investments failed and John Nash was declared bankrupt in 1783.
He went to live with his mother in Wales and returned to architecture. His first known completed work was Carmarthen Gaol in 1789-92. He also repaired St David’s Cathedral and built a fine bridge at Aberystwyth. By the mid-1790s he was practising in London. There he formed an vital creative partnership with Humphry Repton, the man said to have coined the phrase “landscape garden”. Together they built highly praised country houses, Nash concentrating on the architecture and Repton on the landscaping. Together their work came to be seen as symbolic of the new “Picturesque Movement”.
It is probably through Repton that Nash met his future patron, George, Prince of Wales. Since 1760 Britain had been ruled by the mentally unstable King George III. He had raised his 13 children with miserly, moralistic, iron discipline. As his sons came of age they exploded into lifestyles of profligate scandal. George led the way drinking and gambling himself into oceans of debt. “The Prince of Pleasure” was also an enthusiastic womaniser and it seems likely that for this purpose he came to an arrangement with Nash.
In 1798 the 46 year-old Nash mysteriously became very wealthy at the same time as he married the relatively poor but beautiful 24 year-old Mary Anne Bradley. Nash acknowledged no children but Mary Anne acquired five mysterious infants, officially distant relatives with the family name of Pennethorne, born from the time of the marriage up to 1808. They were widely assumed to be among the Prince’s many illegitimate children. East Cowes Castle
Nash used his sudden wealth to complete and move into a stunning new London residence and the same year purchased 30 acres of farmland behind the harbour-side warehouses at East Cowes between what is now York Avenue and Old Road. Here he began construction of his personal masterpiece, the extraordinary “East Cowes Castle”, which would grow and change with its restless owner over the next 37 years. The castle boasted “Gothic” battlements, square, round and octagonal towers, pointed doors and windows and round arched conservatories. But the castle was also modern, with a Regency staircase, a Directoire (1790s French) drawing room, and a billiard room in the style of contemporary Sir John Soane. The long picture gallery was lit through a “cylindrical ceiling” and there was eventually a 150 foot conservatory stocked with exotic plants, decorated with statues and fountains. The dining room had curtains of red and gold and a black marble fire place. The drawing room fireplace was in white marble decorated with Egyptian figures.
Between 1800 and 1812 Nash designed about twenty more country houses in a stunning variety of styles, Classical, Gothic, Palladian, Tudor or Jacobean; with estate cottages built in the English, Italian and Swiss styles. This brought him funds for an extra floor on the Castle and the purchase of North Heathfield Farm at Whippingham, Hamstead Farm near Shalfleet and in 1806, neighbouring Ningwood Manor. All the time he entertained enthusiastically “…peers and bishops, admirals, politicians, soldiers and lawyers” were invited to the Castle where the entertainment was lavish and generous. One of his guests, Mrs. Arbuthnot, described her host as “a very clever, odd, amusing man… with a face like a monkey’s but civil and good humoured to the greatest degree”.
In 1811 Parliament accepted the King’s permanent insanity and made Prince George the “Prince Regent”. One of the first acts of the acting monarch was to ask three architects for the design of the countryside then known as Marylebone Park. The 59 year old Nash’s proposals were unlike anything yet seen, including a summer palace in verdant parkland watered by canalised rivers and lakes, in which white-walled neo-classical terraces, crescents and elegant villas appeared out of the trees; a garden city. The Regent was won over and Nash got the job of designing London from Charing Cross and St James’s Park over two miles north to what would become Regent’s Park. This was the “largest single piece of town planning that London has ever known.” This was a vast task. Nash could not complete all the designs himself so much of the detail was left in the hands of other architects and many of the most ambitious ideas had to be dropped, but enough remains to get an idea of the plan. Essential in its execution was the continuing support of the Regent, who finally succeeded his father as King George IV in 1820.
The first step of the project was to capture the River Tyburn and channel it into water features via the Regents Canal, the first part of which opened in 1816. Over the years Nash created many of the terraces and crescents around Regent’s Park, Regent’s Street and the junctions of Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus and the layout of Trafalgar Square. A significant stylistic innovation was to cover brick with hard plaster stucco, painted to look like stone. This allowed Nash an inexpensive way to create a variety of rich ornamental effects.
Naturally Nash’s huge canvass of innovative works was hugely controversial. In 1824 one of his church buildings, All Souls, at Langham Place, sparked a parliamentary debate. The design mixed a Gothic spire, a classical rotunda and Corinthian columns sporting cherub heads as designed by Michelangelo. Nash was lambasted for creating this “deplorable and horrible object”.
In the meantime, in 1815, the Regent commissioned Nash to rebuild his Ocean Pavilion at Brighton. Between 1815 and 1822 the most exotic of all British palaces rose over the fishermen’s cottages in the form of Indian domes, minarets, balconies and pagodas. Here Nash pioneered the use of cast iron frameworks to provide him with the required flexibility of design. This was to be copied by Victorian architects for their ever vaster buildings and remains current in the steel skeletal structure of modern skyscrapers.
Just as King George quickly lost interest in his stunning new Royal Pavilion, in 1825 he tired of his residence at Carlton House, calling it “antiquated, rundown, and decrepit”. He decided to rebuild Buckingham House as a new palace. Nash was now set to work demolishing Carlton House to rebuild Carlton House Terrace, (1827-1833) The Royal Mews (1825) the Mall, Marble Arch (originally at the head of the Mall) and the new palace. St James’s Park was converted from “a swampy meadow” into beautiful gardens. However Nash was now 73 and the Buckingham Palace project would prove that he was no longer up to the monumentally complex task that faced him. The palace costs ran wildly over budget and the work literally became bogged down, leading to loud public criticism.
In January 1830, after attending a funeral, Nash suffered a stroke. While he was convalescing his patron, King George IV, died. He was succeeded by his brother as William IV (1830-1837). Educated in the navy, William had no time for his brother’s fantastic schemes. In October Nash was dismissed from the palace project on the grounds of profligacy. The palace was completed in 1835 by Edward Blore.
Nash returned to East Cowes Castle to live out his last five years in relative retirement. In the summer of 1831 he had a significant visitor. The 12 year old Princess Victoria was brought to stay at nearby Norris Castle. The princess visited East Cowes Castle and in September laid the foundation stone of St James’ Church, the parish church of East Cowes that had been designed by Nash. This visit no doubt inspired her, 14 years later, to purchase the Georgian mansion at Osborne, that lay between the estates of Norris and East Cowes, and convert it into the Italianate palace of Osborne House.
Victoria was also the first monarch to occupy Buckingham Palace. Despite all the criticism she happily adopted it and it has remained the principal royal residence ever since. In 1851 the Nash palace was hidden from public view by the new fourth wing facing the Mall. This required the removal of the triumphal arch which was placed at the entrance to Hyde Park as the formal entrance to the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of that year. There it stayed. “Marble Arch” is now marooned on a traffic island.
John Nash died at East Cowes on the 13th May 1835 aged 83. He was buried in St James’s Church. To pay his debts almost all his property was sold. His wife and the Pennethorne children went to live at the lodge he had designed at Hamstead. Mrs Nash died in 1851 and the last Pennethorne resident died there in 1923.
East Cowes Castle was left a ruin after being occupied by the army in World War II (1939-45). By the 1950s it had lost its roof and in the 1960s it was demolished and the land used for new housing. However one item was saved. The tower clock was rescued and over many years of work at the IW College it was restored by lecturer Ifan Warner and is now in working order at Carisbrooke Castle Museum.
Although much of Nash’s Island legacy seems to have disappeared we are lucky to still have The Isle of Wight Club (1811) and the Guildhall (1814) in Newport and Northwood House and the tower of St Mary’s Church in Cowes.
Nash’s wider significance is his influence on the history of architecture. John Nash helped define the style of Regency art and architecture that set the model for the great achievements of Victorian architecture the world over.
John Nash's Timeline
Greater London, UK
May 13, 1835
East Cowes, Isle of Wight, UK
East Cowes, Isle of Wight, UK
London, Greater London, UK
Greater London, UK