James Essex of Cambridge, Architect and Antiquarian

James Essex is a unique and intriguing character from eighteenth century architectural history. He was born in Cambridge in 1722, the son of a joiner also named James Essex. As an architect he worked on many Cambridge colleges as well as on Ely and Lincoln Cathedrals, and he was also a keen architectural historian. He died in 1784 and is buried in St Botolph's churchyard where there is an inscription to him and his family. This study, which is based on original unpublished documents in the British Library, concentrates on his historical studies which led to his discovery of the origins of the Gothic arch.

Yvonne Jerrold:  Architectural History Dissertation 1977

University Library, Cambridge    &
Architecture and History of Art Library, Cambridge University


      This dissertation examines the unpublished writings of James Essex with particular reference to the notes for his 'History of Gothic Architecture'. Essex's history was to be in two parts, first an introduction to demonstrate the derivation of all architecture from a common source, i.e. the tabernacle of the Israelites in the desert. This introduction is discussed in some detail with emphasis on Essex's reconstruction of the Hebrew tabernacle, as a clue to understanding his approach to architecture.  The second part of Essex's history derives the derivation of Gothic from ancient Roman architecture and its historical evolution since that time, with a detailed examination of Gothic construction and (his major achievement) Essex's own conclusions about the origins of the pointed arch.

      Since Essex's findings were so original in his own day, I have included an outline of some theories about Gothic current in the eighteenth  century, as well as discussing his investigations into Gothic arch and vault construction.  It was his methodical approach to architectural history in general and to the geometry of Gothic vaulting in particular that led to Essex's most important discovery, the evolution of the pointed arch - an hypothesis which was not appreciated during his lifetime, but was generally accepted several decades later.

Report by Dr. Robin Middleton
      This is an ambitious, carefully pursued and researched thesis which is to be highly commended. All the standard sources on Essex have been consulted and duly noted but no summary or paraphrasing of them has been attempted, for this study is based almost entirely on new research into documents in the British Museum, and the analysis and conclusions offered are thus entirely the author's own. She has done very well indeed. At times she has not followed up leads, she has herself made,  to the best advantage, so that much remains still to be explored - Essex's views on freemasonry for instance, which might prove to be of some importance in the context of eighteenth century architectural history. On other occasions she has not been aware of information relevant to her study - Wolfgang Hermann's article "Unknown designs for the Temple of Jerusalem by Claude Perrault" published in Essays in the History of Architecture presented to Rudolf Wittkower. Maddeningly, she does not seem to have glanced even at Philibert de L'Orme's book on architecture with its two chapters on the Gothic vault which she knows to have been a source of influence on Essex. Indeed the only real lapse in her whole study has been the lack of reference to French interpretations of Gothic vaulting  -  from Philibert de L'Orme in the 16th century to Frezient and Patte in the eighteenth century - all of which were no doubt of vital import to Essex. Nonetheless, her study is of the first sort, scholarly and accurate, and deserves a first.

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