I was set off this week on a piece of detective work by the successive hand-written notes on the back of a framed drawing of an unidentified house. Various mysteries arose from my complete ignorance of my great great grandmother Caroline Collins Jennings’ family, but what became clear was that I am in some way related to Thomas Collins, whose house the building turned out to have been.
The house, now Woodhouse College in Finchley, is described online as the former home of “the well-known plasterer Thomas Collins,” so I’ve been digging to discover just how well-known he was. Quite well known, as it turns out. He wasn’t just some popular local tradesman who had a way with lath and lime; Thomas Collins was ornamental plasterer of choice for the great 18th century Scottish architect Sir William Chambers.
The Pagoda at Kew and The Pineapple at Dunmore, both 1761
Chambers built houses, mansions and follies for the highest in the land, and very often Collins decorated them. He spent some time in China, the inspiration for several fanciful buildings in London’s Kew Gardens. Kew may have inspired John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, to commission Chambers to design the eccentric Dunmore Pineapple near Falkirk in Scotland (now a Landmark Trust property which you can rent for holidays – I’ve slept there!).
Relatively nearby, and now engulfed by Edinburgh, stands Duddingston House, built in the 1760s for James Hamilton, 8th Earl of Abercorn and a surviving example of Chambers’ work with Collins. The building’s great glory is its central hall, whose Collins ceiling plasterwork has recently been restored by the owners.
Duddingston House –
hall ceiling by Thomas Collins
But most of Chambers’ work, and most of Collins’ too, was executed in London. In the 1760s Chambers undertook a massive extension of Buckingham Palace, adding two wings, three libraries and a riding house. I don’t know if he used Collins or not at the Royal residence, and none of his work there survives now. Many other buildings do survive, including his masterpiece – and fellow genealogists will understand the pleasure it gives me to be connected to this one – Somerset House.
Somerset House was home for many years to the Registrar General, on whom we researchers of ancestry rely so heavily. It has housed many great departments of state since construction of William Chambers’ design began in 1776, including the Admiralty and the one we all love to hate, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – the taxman.
The Strand Vestibule, Somerset House
by Sir William Chambers and Thomas Collins
Of the many parts of this sprawling building (which Chambers’ did not live to see completed), the Strand Block contained the entrance vestibule described by Chambers as “a general passage to every part of the whole design,” and rooms for various Learned Societies, intended for “the reception of useful learning and polite arts.” These were the parts of his design where he considered “specimens of elegance should at least be attempted;” and they are the parts where he employed Thomas Collins’ craftsmanship to its fullest extent.
A room in the Strand Block of Somerset House –
plasterwork by Thomas Collins, ceiling paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Collins also worked on his own behalf, sometimes in partnership with John White, another associate of Chambers. A number of houses in London’s prestigious Harley Street are their work. Collins was a skilled man, and his success allowed him (I think) to undertake the conversion of a row of three houses in Finchley into one dwelling, Woodhouse – the building of which I have inherited the faded pencil drawing which set me off on this trail of architectural investigation. I'm so proud of where it has led me.