Sir William Chambers RA, Design for a capital illustrating the origins of the Corinthian order, pen and washes on paper, c.1757-70.
© Royal Academy of Arts, London

Object of the Month - October 2016


Sir William Chambers RA, Design for a capital illustrating the origins of the Corinthian order, c.1757-70

This highly decorative design for a capital represents the Corinthian order: the last and most ornate of the three classical orders of ancient Greek and Roman architecture.

Sir William Chambers was not only a founder member of the Royal Academy in 1868, but as the former architectural tutor to the future King George III, and the leading architect in royal circles, he was the moving force behind the creation of the Academy becoming the first Treasurer.

This drawing is of significant importance in Chambers' influential theory on the origins of architecture. It represents the supposed birth of the Corinthian capital, based upon the ancient text of Vitruvius that Chambers discussed in his seminal work A Treatise on Architecture of 1759. Chambers may well not have fully swallowed the old wives' tale, but it did fit in neatly with his belief of the dawn of architecture in primitive building forms that he had derived from the French architectural theorist Abbe Laugier. Chambers recounts the story:

"A young girl of Corinth being dead, her nurse placed on her tomb a basket containing certain trinkets in which she delighted when alive, and covered it with a tyle to prevent the rain from spoiling them. The basket happened to be placed on a root of Acanthus, which in the spring, pushing forth its leaves and sprigs, covered the sides of it; and some of them, that were longer than the rest, being obstructed by the corners of the tyle, were forced downwards, and curled in the manner of Volutes. Callimachus, the Sculptor, passing near the tomb, saw the basket, and in what manner the leaves had encompassed it. This new form pleasing him infinitely, he imitated it on columns, which he afterwards made at Corinth, establishing and regulating, by this model, the manner and proportions of the Corinthian Order."

Chambers illustrated a similar basket with acanthus leaves as part of one of the printed book plates accompanying this charming account. However, the design in this pen and wash drawing is much more elaborate, ornamental and detailed, with the plant not only in blossom but rising over the basket lip turning into rosehip-like pods, which Chambers tinted red.

The inscription at the bottom of the drawing is in Chambers' hand and may either date from the time of the drawing or he may have added it afterwards. If this drawing was made around the period of his treatise, then it is about 1759. Or it might even date from a few years earlier as part of the manuscript he gave to his royal pupil which he entitled Corinthian Capital: illustration to a manuscript on 'The Origins of Buildings and Order' (in the collection of H.M. The Queen). However, if the inscription is contemporary with the drawing, then the sheet would have been made after 1770 because that was the year that Chambers was created a Knight of the Polar Star ('K.P.S' in his inscription) by King Gustav of Sweden by which King George III of England then allowed him to assume the rank and title of an English knight.

The Royal Academy collection includes eight works of art by Sir William Chambers including designs for Windsor Castle and Bleinheim Palace. The collection also includes Portrait of Sir William Chambers RA by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which is currently on display in the General Assembly Room at the Royal Academy of Arts. Sir William Chambers is featured in The Royal Academicians in General Assembly, 1795 by Henry Singleton.

Design for a Capital illustrating the origins of the Corinthian order will be on display in the print room at the Royal Academy as part of Origins by Ordinary Architecture from 15 October 2016 - 15 January 2017.