James Pennethorne, who was born in Worcester, was a second cousin of John Nash's second wife Mary Anne Bradley. The rumour that he was a much closer relative — that he and his siblings were, in fact, the new Mrs Nash's illegitimate children by the Prince Regent — has never been confirmed. Whatever the truth, he is often described as Nash's "adopted son" (Halliday 82) ) or at least "favourite pupil" (White 32); and, says Reginald Turnor, "[t]here was something in the Regent-Nash-Mrs Nash-Pennethorne liaison which resulted in the transformation of a large part of London" (16).
The first Pennethorne to become a clerk in Nash's practice was James's elder brother Thomas, but soon after Thomas died James replaced him. He was taught drawing by Pugin and generally groomed to be Nash's successor. In 1828, he became Nash's chief assistant, and so was involved in several of his grand projects for central London; for example, in the early 1830s he completed Nash's work on Park Village West, off Albany Street close to Regent's Park. He became the architect and surveyor to the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, later called simply Commissioners of Works, in 1834. This was an important position, as John Halliday explains in relation to Nash, who had held the position before him: it made the holder, "in effect, chief architect to the Government" (Halliday 14). In 1839, therefore, he was entrusted (until 1845 together with Thomas Chawner) with planning "metropolitan improvements" — in the main, slum clearance schemes. This resulted in his taking a new road called New Oxford Street through the dreadful "Rookery" area around St Giles, and another called Commercial Way through the docklands, as a new artery for dockland traffic. Pennethorne's reports on these areas, before demolition work began, make gruelling reading: for example, "I have seen the place [Rose Lane, which was duly demolished] completely flooded with blood from the slaughter-house" (qtd. in White 33). There appears to have been little sympathy for the uprooted residents of these parts, though, and Dickens was angered by their plights: "Thus, we make our New Oxford Streets, and our other new streets, never heeding, never asking, where the wretches whom we clear out, crowd" (written 14 June 1851; qtd. in White 32).
From 1845, Pennethorne was the sole surveyor of the crown estate in London. Less controversial works followed, though he was dogged by restrictions on funding and government interventions, and many of his schemes had to be abandoned. Amongst these were his plans for the new Foreign Office, which eventually went to George Gilbert Scott). Over the years, some of the buildings he did complete have been demolished. Perhaps the biggest loss was his Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street, Piccadilly, which can be seen outside the Victorian Web here. This museum seems to have been particularly striking, and very different from his Gothic-influenced Public Record Office in Chancery Lane. Some of his more notable surviving works are listed below.
A quiet and conscientious man, whose wife Frances was herself distantly connected to the Nash family, Pennethorne had eight children. In 1857 he received a Gold Medal from RIBA (The Royal Institute of British Architects) for his completion of Somerset House on the Strand; he received another one from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1865, and was knighted in 1870, the year in which he retired. Although he seems to have been eclipsed by Nash, and did not make his mark as a park landscaper, he is still an important figure. According to Geoffrey Tyack, Beresford Hope credited him "in no small degree" with "the revival of art conscience on the part of our rulers." Tyack adds his own praise to this: "He was one of the most accomplished classical architects of his age and, as a designer of new streets and parks, he played a crucial role in the shaping of mid-Victorian London." He has not been forgotten there. There is a Pennethorne Gallery at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace; Pennethorne Road, near Commercial Way, and Pennethorne Close, off Victoria Park Road, are both named after him.
Halliday, Stephen. Making of the Metropolis: Creators of Victoria's London. Derby: Breedon, 2003.
Lewis, David. Walks Through History: Liverpool. Derby: Breedon, 2007.
Turnor, Reginald. Nineteenth Century Architecture in Britain. London: Batsford, 1950.
Tyack, Geoffrey. "Sir James Pennethorne (1801-1871)." The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 27 Nov. 2007.
Weinreb, Ben and Christopher Hibbert, eds. The London Encyclopaedia. London: Macmillan, rev. ed. 1992.
White, Jerry. London in the Nineteenth Century: "A Human Awful Wonder of God." London: Cape, 2007.
Last modified 11 October 2011