Joseph Michael Gandy

By Howard Spencer, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 16, 2007

In July 2006 a blue plaque was put up by English Heritage on 58 Grove Park Terrace, Chiswick W4. This article offers a brief insight into the life and career of this famous Chiswick resident, whose mercurial artistic talent shone brightly and briefly in the early years of the 19th century.

Joseph Michael Gandy was born in 1771, the son of Thomas Gandy, a wine merchant and sometime employee of White’s Club, St James’s. When the architect James Wyatt rebuilt the clubhouse in 1787-8, he was shown some of the younger Gandy’s sketches and, duly impressed, took him into his office. Gandy was a promising student at the Royal Academy School (1788-90), winning its Gold Medal, and travelled in Italy from 1794 to 1797. On his return to England, he found work as a draughtsman for the architect Sir John Soane, with whom he was associated for the rest of his life: a recent study has described their professional relationship as ‘symbiotic’ and as being central to the prosperous path of Soane’s career.

In 1801, Gandy started his own architectural practice, but  –  partly because of a general down-turn in building commissions  –  it never flourished. His only buildings of note were the Phoenix Fire and Pelican Life Insurance Offices in Charing Cross (1804-5: demolished c 1820) and Doric House, Sion Hill, Bath (1816-18). In 1801 he married Eleanor Webb; they had a family of nine children, a responsibility that led him to take on more drawing work for Soane. It is these pieces of architectural perspectivism  –  lavish, fantastic watercolours, which represent Soane’s spatially complex architecture with consummate skill  –  for which Gandy is best known. His work is notable for its rich use of colour and contrast, and its employment of dramatic cut-away views and exaggerated perspective. It features backgrounds of twilight and stormy weather that contrast with the pale blue cloudy skies associated with traditional architectural views.

Perspective for rebuilding Pitzhanger Manor, drawn in 1800 by J M Gandy (Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum)

Gandy was impover-
ished but indefatigable. Between 1789 and 1838, there were only three years when the Royal Academy catalogue cites no entries under his name; he was elected an associate of the Academy in 1803. This was despite his having been twice confined in a debtors’ prison, after ignoring Soane’s advice to declare himself bankrupt; even in these unpropitious surroundings, Gandy worked steadily. However, a move to Liverpool in 1809 to link up with the sculptor and modeller George Bullock did not prove successful and he returned to London 2 years later. Gandy is thought to have had a hand in the design of two remarkable churches, St George’s, Everton (1813-14) and St Michael’s, in St Michael’s Hamlet, Merseyside (1813-15), both of which use cast iron extensively  in their construction.

Apart from his Soane commissions, Gandy’s notable drawings included Pandemonium (1805) and The Tomb of Merlin (1815; termed by the architectural historian John Summerson a ‘tour de force in water-colour’), Jupiter Pluvius (1819) and a series of fantastic views of an Imperial Palace for Sovereigns of the British Empire (1824). He also published books of cottage designs, such as The Rural Architect (1806) and executed illustrations for antiquarian and topographical books: for example, John Britton’s Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain (1807-14).

In 1836, Gandy  –  for whom poverty of ambition, at least, was never a problem  –  announced his intention of producing a thousand illustrations for a comparative history of world architecture. Unfortunately, only one survives of the five that he managed to complete: Architectural Composition to Show the Comparative Characteristics of Thirteen Selected Styles of Architecture (exhibited 1836). Gandy exhibited his last work at the RA in 1838, the year of Soane’s death. By 1841 he was a patient at an asylum at Plympton Erie, Devon, where he died on Christmas Day 1843, leaving a personal estate valued at just £200.

Gandy’s career undoubtedly suffered from his distaste for submitting to patronage. This can be linked to his early espousal of radical politics  –  though it was sheer irascibility too that held him back, to the extent that, latterly, Soane was almost alone in tolerating him. Posterity, which has had to contend only with his genius and not with his difficult personality, has been more generous: Summerson wrote that ‘in his own particular kingdom  –  the kingdom of architectural fantasy  –  he reigns absolute’. Since the 1940s there has been a steady stream of articles about Gandy’s life and work, and a major exhibition was held in 1982. Many examples of his work are preserved at the Soane Museum, the V&A and the RIBA, and he is the subject of Brian Lukacher’s Joseph Gandy: an Architectural Visionary in Georgian England (2006).

Gandy and Chiswick
Gandy’s hand-to-mouth existence saw him move fairly frequently between addresses, mostly within the districts now known as Soho and Fitzrovia. The early 1830s saw him living at 47 Foley Street, W1, which has since been rebuilt. A similar fate has befallen the central London address where he stayed by far the longest – number 61 (formerly 58) Greek Street, which lay at the intersection with Soho Square on the western side – where Gandy lived from about 1811 to 1825. The only one of his central London residences known to survive is 15 Percy Street, just off Tottenham Court Road, where Gandy seems to have lived from 1815 to 1820. The top floor flat in the house was later occupied by the actors Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester: a blue plaque to the former now adorns the London stock brick frontage.

In 1833 Gandy moved to what was then 9 Grove Terrace, Strand-on-the-Green, Chiswick (now 58 Grove Park Terrace). It appears that he continued to use the Foley Street address for business purposes, in order to save on postage. He last appears in Chiswick rate books in 1838: when he died in 1843, he was described as ‘late of Plymouth and Plympton’, implying that he may have had further addresses in the south-west before he was committed.

Number 58 Grove Park Terrace was one of a terrace of ten houses built in the late 1820s on a corner of the Duke of Devonshire’s Chiswick estate that was sold for development. The house is of brick and slate construction, and is listed Grade II.

‘I wish you could enjoy the pure vital air of some place like this’, Gandy wrote to Soane from the house in May 1836, adding a dark warning that ‘the smoke of London and mephitic impurities inhaled by life and vegetation within its vortex, suffocates or dwindles away the most robust constitutions’. Not only did Gandy seemingly find a measure of quietude at the address but, as the multiple entries in the RA exhibition catalogue show, it was also a fruitful time for him professionally. It was while living here that Gandy produced his ambitious works of comparative architecture, of which the surviving remnant has been chosen to illustrate his Grove Dictionary of Art entry.

Roslyn Chapel, part of the south side, engraved from a drawing by Joseph Gandy (Layton Collection)

A local tradition has existed that Joseph Gandy’s house at 9 Grove Terrace trans-lated to the present 54 Grove Park Terrace. This has evidently arisen from it being the ninth house in the original Georgian terrace, counting from the northern end. The evidence is clear, however, that from its first construction until about 1890, when the road was renamed and renumbered, the Terrace was numbered 3-12 from north to south. The reason for this numbering system is not immediately obvious, though it may be that numbers 1 and 2 were held in reserve for building that never took place, or were applied to buildings further to the north, set back from the road, that appear on contemporary maps.

The evidence for this comes from comparing local directories before and after the renumbering took place, drawing links between the names common to both. This was backed up by documents and maps pertaining to the purchase by the London and South Western Railway Company of numbers 5-8 Grove Terrace before the line to Windsor was cut; some of this material dates back to 1837, when Gandy was actually in residence. (What effect the knowledge of the imminent arrival of the railway had on the sensitive Gandy can only be guessed at.) There is also documentary evidence from the sale of the present number 58 by the Tollemache family in 1848: it was from the ‘Hon A Tolmash’ – almost certainly Arthur Caesar Tollemache (1797-1848) – that Gandy rented his property ten years earlier. The connection of the Tollemache property with the present number 58 can also be traced through rate books.

The case was a most interesting one to work on – both from the angle of Gandy’s fascinating personality and career, and for the challenge it set in establishing the identity of his Chiswick residence. It provides a salutary illustration of the pitfalls that can lie in street renaming and renumbering  –  a common phenomenon in London and beyond it  –  and of the care that must be taken in researching and selecting buildings for this type of commemoration.

Howard Spencer is a Blue Plaques Historian at English Heritage, and formerly worked as an editor at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He is among the authors of Lived in London, a compendium of London blue plaques to be published next year. The author would like to thank Mrs Elizabeth Phillips, the current owner of number 54 who proposed the erection of the blue plaque, for sharing her research into the history and ownership of the properties in Grove Park Terrace, and Mrs Carolyn Hammond, the former Chiswick Local Studies librarian.

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