Colen Campbell

Unexecuted design for a church 'in the Vitruvian style' elevations, section and plan

RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collection
Copyright: RIBA Library Drawings Collection

Colen Campbell was born in Nairnshire, Scotland, in 1676. Initially he trained to be a lawyer, and it is not known why his attention turned to architecture.

Between 1715 and 1725 he produced the book 'Vitruvius Britannicus'. Comprising three volumes, beautifully illustrated, this became one of the most influential texts of eighteenth-century Neo-Palladianism.

This publication was essentially a catalogue of design, featuring work by prominent architects of the seventeenth century, such as Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, as well as contemporary buildings.

Campbell was heavily influenced by the architect James Smith, whom he described in 'Vitruvius Britannicus' as the 'most experienced architect' in Scotland.

However, it was Richard Boyle, the third  Lord Burlington who would ensure Campbell's success.

Once 'Vitruvius Britannicus' had brought Campbell to his attention, Burlington quickly employed the Scottish architect. He replaced James Gibbs as the architect of Burlington House, now the Royal Academy in London. And, in 1718, with Burlington's influential backing, Campbell was appointed deputy to the Surveyor General of the Royal Board of Works.

Some of Campbell's most important architectural commissions include:

  • Wanstead House, Essex (1714-20), designed for Sir Richard Child
  • Stourhead, Wiltshire (1720-4), built for London-based banker Henry Hoare
  • Mereworth Castle, Kent (1720-5), commissioned by the Honourable John Farn

Campbell died in 1729. Although his work as an architect was significant, 'Vitruvius Britannicus' remains Campbell's most influential contribution to architecture. Arguably, it was this book that established Neo-Palladianism as the dominant style of eighteenth-century Britain.