As London’s only Royal crescent finally emerges from an ambitious three-year office-to-resi transformation, we find out how it played a pivotal role in the architectural career and enduring fame of the great John Nash…
John Nash (1752 – 1835) was born in Lambeth, the son of a Welsh millwright. From young he displayed a skill for drawing, and between 1766 to 1776 he trained as an architect under Sir Robert Taylor. In 1777 he established his own architectural practice and early projects included a house in Bloomsbury Square and a church in Carmathen.
In 1792 he met landscaped designer Humphrey Repton and the two worked together on several grand country house estates with, in each case, Nash designing the main country house and Repton designing the gardens and landscaping.
From 1796 Nash decided he wanted to focus on building houses in London and in 1797 he opened architect studios for his company on Dover Street in Mayfair. His focus on London led to the ending of his country house partnership with Repton in 1800. In 1798 Nash married the extremely pretty and much admired 25 year old socialite Mary Anne Bradley who was to play a central role in his future career.
One of Nash’s country house clients was Charles James Fox, Leader of the House of Commons and later Secretary of State. Fox was a close friend and ally of Prince George, the Prince of Wales, playing a key role in Prince George being appointed as Prince Regent and Acting Head of State due to the illness of his father King George III.
Architect to the Royal household
Thanks to Charles James Fox’s recommendation to Prince George in 1806 Nash was appointed as architect to the Surveyor General of Royal Parks and Chases; effectively architect to the Royal Household. For the rest of his career Nash would largely work for the Prince and Royal family and would take on very few private commissions.
In 1811 Prince George was made Prince Regent and Acting Head of State and he decided that he wanted his own summer palace. He commissioned John Nash to create a masterplan for a Royal palace, surrounded by parkland, complete with a circus of grand townhouses providing palatial homes for the family and friends of the Regent. The new luxury development was located on the Crown Estate lands known as Marylebone Park (then renamed The Regent’s Park), which was originally the hunting chase of King Henry VIII.
The Prince Regent was delighted by the plans calling The Regent’s Park and its Royal crescent the ‘jewel in the crown’ of London and saying in 1811 that ‘Nash’s plans for London will quite eclipse Napoleon’.
Gossips and rivals of Nash said that he was only made Architect to the Royal Household and given the new Royal Palace commission because his pretty 25 year old wife Mary Anne had caught the eye of the Prince Regent and had become his secret mistress.
The Royal Crescent and Regent’s Park
Whether it was because the commission was for his own Palace or because Mary Anne was his secret mistress, the Prince Regent constantly reviewed and interfered in Nash’s plans for the Royal palace and the circus of townhouses.
The Prince Regent felt that his family and friends would want their homes looking directly onto the parkland and his palace so the final design was for a grand Royal crescent with cream stucco façade and tall sash windows, overlooking private gardens and the park.
Under the Prince Regent’s constant interference and changes the Royal crescent homes became larger, grander and more opulent, resulting in significant over-runs to the original budgets and delays to the designs and build programme.
The final design was for a grand ceremonial route from St James’s Park in the south to Regent’s Park in the north creating a new thoroughfare through the heart of London. There was a new Royal Mall running from Buckingham Palace through St James’s Park; linking to a grand new boulevard (now Regent’s Street), connecting to a wide tree lined two lane carriageway (now Portland Place) which provided a dramatic approach to the new Royal crescent and Regent’s Park.
The Royal crescent was built by Henry Peto between 1812-1820. However the new Palace in Regent’s Park was never built because in 1820 the Prince Regent became King George IV and moved into Buckingham Palace, so his planned Regent’s palace was shelved.
A Royal scandal
In 1820 a scandal broke when a cartoon was published showing a half dressed King George IV embracing Nash’s wife with a speech bubble coming from the King’s mouth containing the words “I have great pleasure in visiting this part of my dominions”. London’s high society took to calling Nash’s wife ‘Mrs Prince’ and Nash was publicly humiliated, but the King laughed off the scandal and the Royal household compensated Nash by giving him more work commissions.
Height of his fame
Nash was by now highly favoured by the Royal family. He had been commissioned to build a summer seaside palace – The Royal Pavilion – in Brighton, and he was commissioned to remodel Buckingham House to create Buckingham Palace (1825 – 1830), the Royal Mews (1822 – 1824) and Marble Arch (1828).
Disgrace, retirement and death
In 1830 King George IV died and Nash’s career took a deep and sudden downward turn. The King’s notorious extravagance and expensive building projects had generated much resentment with Parliament and Nash was now without his Royal protector.
The Treasury started to look closely at the costs and budget over-runs of the Royal Crescent in Regent’s Park, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and Buckingham Palace. It was also discovered that the state coach was too wide to fit through the gateway in Marble Arch and Parliament said that this was a clear example of Nash’s total incompetence.
Nash – rather than the late King – was blamed for all the cost over-runs on the three projects and in 1829 the Treasury accused him of fraud. He was later exonerated but fell into deep disgrace over the financial fallout from his expensive building projects.
Nash was stripped of his role as architect to the Surveyor General of Royal Parks and Chases and the controversy ensured that Nash would not receive any more official or private commissions. Nor was he awarded a long anticipated Knighthood that other contemporary architects such as Jeffrey Wyattville, John Soane and Robert Smirke received.
Perhaps not surprisingly Nash had something akin to a huge nervous breakdown and retired to his home on the Isle of Wight in total disgrace and professional ruin. His health declined and by 28 March 1835 family letters described him as “very poorly and faint’. He died at his home on 13 May 1835.
Perhaps feeling guilty for her role in some of his humiliations his widow Mary Anne Nash acted to clear his debts by selling his Isle of Wight home and possessions. Mary Anne then retired to a property Nash had bequeathed to her in Hampstead where she lived until her death in 1851, until the end a champion of her husband’s good name and reputation.
Take a tour of the new-look Park Crescent here
Images: Regent’s Park London from 1833 Schmollinger map (CC-BY-PD)
John Nash by Colin Smith (CC-BY-SA-2.0)
Park Crescent by Amazon Property