William Wilkins' Grand Tour

After years of deliberation and several competing and rejected designs from other architects, William Wilkins was eventually appointed in 1806 to build the new Downing College on the basis of the ‘grandeur, simplicity and classical effect’ of his designs. These classical, Grecian-inspired designs were heavily influenced by Wilkins’ extensive travels across Greece, Sicily and Asia Minor undertaken after his graduation from Cambridge.

The idea of the ‘Grand Tour’ developed during the late seventeenth century and increasingly became an expected stage in a well-born young man’s social and cultural education. Visits to Paris, Rome and Venice were considered essential, but the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars made travel more difficult and so Greece, still under Turkish rule until the 1820s, gradually became established as a desired destination. William Wilkins graduated from Gonville and Caius College in 1800 as 6th Wrangler and was awarded the Worts Travelling Bachelorship in 1801. Over the next two years he travelled from Naples and Paestum to Sicily, Greece and Asia Minor studying the antiquities and gathering material for subsequent publications and inspiration for later architectural designs.

The College Library’s Rare Books collection includes an original edition of Wilkins’ pioneering study The Antiquities of Magna Graecia (1807). (Magna Graecia, or ‘Great Greece’, was the Roman name for Sicily and the southern coastal areas of Italy populated by Greek settlers in the 8th and 7th centuries BC). The book includes over sixty aquatint plates showing elevations and details of ancient monuments engraved from drawings by Wilkins and Italian landscape painter Agostino Aglio, who accompanied him from 1801 to 1802 (pictured here in one of the aquatints).

The list of Wilkins’ subscribers in the book significantly included Sir Busick Harwood, Downing’s first Professor of Medicine, and Thomas Hope, whose 1804 letter to Downing’s Master Francis Annesley, published as a pamphlet and also in the Rare Books collection, resoundingly tore apart the Roman Doric designs of James Wyatt for the new College in favour of ‘the purest style of the Greeks’. Interestingly, other supporters included Wilkins’ later competitors for the Downing College commission, architects George Byfield and William Porden, and also the Earl of Elgin, who, during this period, was famously indulging his own passion for Greek antiquities in Athens.

When Wilkins eventually reached Athens, Elgin’s artists were producing detailed drawings around the Acropolis intended for an authoritative publication on the subject. This explains the lack of illustrations in Wilkins’ own book ‘Atheniensia, or Remarks on the Topography and Buildings of Athens’ (1816), which was delayed in part due to the intervening publicity surrounding the sale of the Elgin marbles. The book contains only one plate, showing the Erechtheum, said to have been the inspiration for Wilkins’ porticoes on the Hall, Master’s Lodge and unbuilt South Range at Downing. (It also influenced the much later designs for Quinlan Terry’s Maitland Robinson Library).

On his return in the summer of 1803, Wilkins took up a Fellowship at Gonville and Caius and established himself as one of the leading figures in the English Greek Revival of the early 19th century. Sadly, Wilkins’ early designs for the Downing commission, submitted in competition with Lewis Wyatt, have not survived, although the Archive holds over 180 detailed plans and drawings showing Wilkins’ complete final scheme. Only two sides of his planned quadrangle design, the East and West Ranges, were completed but it is actually in the unbuilt South Range (the header image above) and plans for the North portico of the entrance gateway, or Propylea (below), based on the structure of the same name in Athens, that the significant influence of Wilkins’ Grand Tour on his designs and the striking similarity with his earlier drawings in ‘The Antiquities of Magna Graecia’ become apparent even to the untrained eye. Downing College undoubtedly owes much to William Wilkins’ Grand Tour and his publications on the subject and architectural designs for the College, preserved in its archive and rare books collections, provide a lasting reminder and resource for the future.


Wilkins’ South elevation of the South range (DCAR/1/2/2/1/1/2) Downing College Archives

Temple of Concord from William Wilkins, The Antiquities of Magna Graecia (1807)

The Erechtheum from William Wilkins, Atheniensia (1816)

Entrance to Downing College, drawn by R. B. Harraden and etched by E. Byrne, 1809 (DCAR/1/2/2/1/1/183) Downing College Archives