William Wilkins Junior was one of the foremost architects of the purest phase of the Greek Revival, which was fashionable in Britain in the latter part of the C18 and first half of the C19. The style sought to reproduce Classical forms and was ideally suited to the period after the Battle of Waterloo when numerous monumental buildings were erected throughout the country. Although the Greek Revival was a relatively short-lived architectural trend, it left a legacy of sober, dignified buildings of which Wilkins’ Downing College is one of the nation’s best examples.

Wilkins was born in St Giles, Norwich on 31 August 1739. His father, also William, was, amongst other things, a self-taught architect who had initially followed his father’s trade of plasterer and worked with some of the leading architects of his generation. He also built and managed a string of theatres, of which the Cambridge theatre in Newmarket road was one.

In 1780, the Wilkins family moved to Cambridge so that his father could develop his business. They lived at first next to the Theatre and then at Newnham Cottage, on Queen’s Road. Wilkins senior was quick to teach his eldest son and in 1800 the younger William graduated after reading mathematics at Gonville and Caius College. In the following year he won a travelling scholarship, which gave him the opportunity to travel through Italy, Greece and Asia Minor. Such ‘Grand Tours’ were seen as an essential part of the architect’s training at the time and the influence on Wilkins’ later building designs was obvious.

Wilkins returned to Cambridge in the summer of 1803 having been elected a fellow of Gonville and Caius and he began work on his first serious publication Magna Graecia. In the following year he was appointed Master of the Perse School, a post that he held until 1806.

In March 1806, Wilkins beat James Wyatt in a competition to design a new Cambridge College, to be built with a bequest from Sir George Downing. Thomas Hope, a wealthy enthusiastic amateur architect produced a pamphlet urging the adoption of the Greek style for Downing. Wilkins, who seems to have been in regular contact with Hope, duly obliged and the College is amongst his most scholarly Classical designs and one of the first ‘campus-style’ educational buildings in the country. The Ionic Order he used was based on the Erechtheum in Athens and such faithful Classical reproductions would be a feature of many of his commissions from Haileybury College (1806) and Grange Park (1809) right up to his later commissions in the capital such as the St George’s Hospital (1827) and the University College (1827-8).

Wilkins had married in 1811 and consequently re-fashioned a large house named Lensfield on the edge of Cambridge’s historic centre. Perhaps not surprisingly he added a Greek Doric porch. Wilkins lived in the house until his death in 1839 though unfortunately the house was demolished in the 1950s to allow for the construction of the University’s Chemistry Faculty. The Blue Plaque to William Wilkins is attached close to the building’s north-west corner.

Wilkins’ father had leased Norwich Theatre and rebuilt the theatre in Colchester in 1810. In 1814, the year before his father’s death, Wilkins helped him rebuild the old wooden theatre in Barnwell in Cambridge. Whilst the new exterior was plain, the inside was lavish with tiers of stalls in a horseshoe pattern and a proscenium arch with images of Apollo and Minerva. When Wilkins Senior died in 1815, he left his son the management of the Theatre Royal in Norwich together with a controlling interest in the theatres at Yarmouth, Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich, Colchester and Cambridge.

Wilkins’ career flourished and he was responsible for a number of churches, country houses, public buildings and monuments from Cornwall to Scotland and Yarmouth to Dublin. Despite also having a house in London, he was very active in Cambridge. The buildings at Downing occupied him until at least 1820, and he also designed a new bridge at King’s College in 1818, New Court at Trinity from 1821-3 and New Court at Corpus Christi from 1823-7. Although the King’s College bridge adapted the Greek Ionic style used at Downing College, his later buildings were all Gothic. Like the majority of architects of his generation, Wilkins was less comfortable designing in the Gothic style and such buildings of this period are often repetitive and symmetrical, based on Classical precedents. Despite this, his highly picturesque screen and Porters’ Lodge at King’s College (built 1822-4) remains one of the most endearing and most photographed images of Cambridge.

In common with his contemporaries, Wilkins frequently had to attempt to win commissions through often ill-managed architectural competitions. His success in the competition for the design of the combined National Gallery and Royal Academy in London 1832 should have been the highpoint of his career. His design however, although executed in his favourite Greek revival style, was highly repetitive for such a large building and demonstrated that he was finding it hard to adapt to the freer and more ornamental Classical forms which the Victorian age would shortly demand.

By the 1830s the best years of his career were over and a new generation of architects was better suited to adapt to the changing architectural scene. Almost simultaneously his theatrical business collapsed and sickness caused by gout and a kidney disease left him weak.

Sixty-one years to the day after his birth, Wilkins died at Lensfield, surrounded by his family. He was buried in the Chapel of Corpus Christi College, his favourite of all his Cambridge buildings.

William Wilkins was perhaps the principal exponent of the Greek Revival during early C19 Britain. It is in his adopted hometown of Cambridge that his legacy can be best appreciated however. The dignified austerity of Downing College and the picturesque Gothic of the King’s College screen are two of the architectural gems in a city of riches. Both demonstrate an attention to scholarly detail befitting a university town and continue to enrich the lives of townsfolk and visitors alike.