Joseph Gandy: An Architectural Visionary in Georgian England By Brian Lukacher. Thames & Hudson, 2006. 224pp. £40
The east wall of the Picture Room in Sir John Soane's Museum is filled by William Hogarth's famous cycle of eight paintings entitled A Rake's Progress. The paintings illustrate the declining fortunes of a promising young man poisoned by the corruptions of society, who eventually finds himself in a debtor's prison and ends his life in a lunatic asylum.
The hinged walls to either side of A Rake's Progress swing open theatrically to reveal an astonishing display of the works of Joseph Gandy, a man whose career has distinct parallels with Hogarth's Rake. But for Gandy it was not gambling or social disgrace that plagued his tragic career, but his pathological and obsessive imagination.
Gandy was born in 1771, and at a young age was recognised as a brilliant draughtsman. At 16 he was apprenticed to James Wyatt, and he was awarded an RA Gold Medal at 19. But despite these promising beginnings, Gandy never fulfilled his potential. He designed only a handful of buildings, relying on painting commissions to maintain his practice; was twice imprisoned for unpaid debts; and died in 1843 in a lunatic asylum near Plymouth. A final irony is that, for an architect who spent much of his career fascinated by tombs and funerary monuments, there is no record of Gandy's place of burial.
Gandy's fame as an architectural illustrator largely rests on his association with Soane, whose designs he illustrated intermittently from 1798 until Soane's death in 1837. Each man clearly influenced the other. Gandy excelled at representing Soane's inventive vaulted interiors, subjects that tested his technical brilliance. Equally, Soane's placing of an alabaster sarcophagus in a mystical subterranean crypt in his own house, and the extraordinary lighting effect obtained by filling it with lit candles, was surely inspired by the effects that he admired in Gandy's visionary watercolours.
With Gandy's work we are never quite sure whether we are looking at the past or the future.
In one of his most famous works, an aerial view of Soane's Bank of England, the building could be read either as being under construction or as a ruin.
Similarly, the last work he ever exhibited at the RA in 1838, a Design for a Cast-Iron Necropolis, was at once archaic and futuristic. The ancient world, through Gandy's eyes, was reborn into a glorious and triumphant future.
Brian Lukacher's new monograph is the first to be published on Gandy, surprising when one considers the richness and attraction of the subjectmatter. The book is beautifully illustrated and immaculately researched, and places Gandy into the much wider cultural context of late-Georgian England, alongside such figures as Coleridge and Turner.
Together with the new exhibition of Gandy's work at the Soane Museum (until 12 August), this excellent book is sure to provoke wider interest in a fascinating and important figure.
George Saumarez Smith is an architect with Robert Adam Architects