Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham

LADY ELIZABETH WILBRAHAM 1632 -1705

The Architect of Mayfair & St James’s & first woman architect of the world.

©Tyne O’Connell

Tyne with luggage outside St James's Hotel

Tyne O’Connell outside St James’s Hotel

Mayfair is a unique village built in the later part of the 17th Century by one woman, for all women, as a feminine haven in which to pursue their intellectual, artistic and eccentric pursuits.
 

One particular woman, Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632–1705) not only designed the layout of  Mayfair St James’s but designed the grand houses, churches and buildings where the newly fashionable tea salons were held. Tea as a drink was first made popular in Mayfair St James’s by the Restoration’s Queen, Catherine of Braganza, Britain’s last Roman Catholic Queen. The early Bluestocking Salons were originally held in Mayfair by another of Mayfair’s Restoration doyens, Margaret Cavendish – the Duchess of Newcastle in her Mayfair house in the 1660’s.

 

Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham takes her place as one of the four central pillars of Mayfair. The other three being:
1. Lady Mary Davies (Lady Grosvenor) 1665-1730 owner of the land,
2. Margaret Cavendish Duchess of Newcastle 1623 – 15 December 1673, philosopher, writer and proto-feminist and famed for her Bluestocking Salons of Mayfair and finally,
3. Aphra Behn (1640 – 16 April 1689) spy, black slave rebellion leader, actress, Wit of the Restoration and prolific writer who first planted the idea of Mayfair as the centre of fashionable London in her play The Rover in 1677.

 

But it was the great architect, the young and very beautiful, Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632–1705), née Mytton who designed and built Mayfair, constructing the area of Mayfair St James under the supervision of King Charles II.
Elizabeth Wilbraham Mayfair Eccentric

Elizabeth Wilbraham Mayfair Eccentric

 

As a leading member of the aristocracy, Lady Wilbraham conspired with male architects of the time including her pet pupil the young Sir Christopher Wren to take the credit for her designs.  However it is important to note that Christopher Wren had not yet embarked on his study as an architect by the time most of the buildings he is credited with were designed, such as the great St James’s Church between Jermyn Street and Piccadilly.

 

Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham was the first woman architect in history and the greatest architect of her age, designing some 800 plus buildings from stately homes including Wooten House now owned by former prime minister Tony Blair, to 18 of London’s churches and most vitally, the newly fashionable area of Restoration London, Mayfair St James’s.

 

Elizabeth was already a keen amateur architect in 1651 when at 19 she married, Thomas Wilbraham a Baronet who seems to have been inordinately proud of his wife’s genius and together they embarked on an architectural honeymoon throughout Europe which was to last a good few years.
Wotton House darawings by Elizabeth Wilbraham

Wotton House drawings by Elizabeth Wilbraham

 

However while her husband fully supported his new wife’s zeal for architecture, her social position in the aristocracy meant that she could never openly lay claim to her designs and as such a veil of secrecy has shrouded her rightful place in history as one of the greatest architects of the world.

 

It was not until 2012 when the American historian, John Millar exposed the full extent of Wilbraham’s architectural impact on the world in his book, First Woman Architect that we began to question the role of Sir Christopher Wren in London’s history.
Lord Wilbraham agreed to extend their honeymoon in order that his new wife Elizabeth might study under Pieter Post, creator of the newly lauded Dutch Baroque style of architecture and considered the greatest architect of his age.

 

Lady Wilbraham  then went on to study the works of Palladio in Veneto, Italy and Stradtresidenz at Landshut, Germany. Post’s and Palladio’s influence in particular may be seen in many of Lady Wilbraham’s greatest buildings and churches of Mayfair St James’s though most of her 800 plus buildings have now sadly been destroyed.

 

Some of Elizabeth’s greatest buildings were destroyed in wars, others dismantled by philistines to make way for less splendid buildings or roads while some even found their way across the Atlantic into museums and rich men’s follies in North America.

 

One of Wilbraham’s Mayfair churches was completely dismantled and moved to a Winston Churchill Museum in Missouri, while one of her lavish carved staircases from a Hertfordshire estate fills a gallery at the Met in N.Y.

 

Elizabeth Wilbraham’s social position in the aristocracy meant that she could not be seen to be involved in construction, and so with the help of her male pupils this veil of secrecy shrouded her work and designs which were passed off as the work of popular male architects of the day such as Winde and Wren, while Elizabeth herself was promoted as a “grand patroness of architecture”.

 

In this furtive fashion, Lady Wilbraham managed to practise architecture more or less secretly, even going so far as to conceal her central  involvement in the design of up to a dozen houses for her own wealthy family.

 

What is truly shameful is that it has taken over three centuries before anyone sought to lift this veil that had shrouded Lady Elizabeth’s legacy as the greatest architect of Restoration England.

 

No one questioned Wren’s architectural credits when historical dates alone expose it as impossible that he could have had any part in Lady Wilbraham’s great architectural designs. He did not become a student of architecture until 1665 so it is ludicrous to suggest that he may have had a hand in the design of St Paul’s Cathedral in any way other than agreeing to let her falsify the design documents to add his name.

 

In fact it is now clear that Wren’s role was more that of construction site manager, overseeing the genius designs of his teacher Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham rather than designer in his own right. His own less grand buildings bear none of the Wilbraham hallmarks. But it was a ruse which worked well in Restoration England to maintain the secrecy of Lady Wilbraham’s hand in the design.  Wren was something of a pet student of whom Elizabeth seems to have been inordinately fond which perhaps explains why she so readily trusted him to keep her secret.
In 2012  American historian John Millar’s book, First Woman Architect finally created the case for  Lady Wilbraham as the first woman architect of history.

 

He writes: “In a century when it was inconceivable that any woman should openly pursue a profession, Wilbraham managed to practise architecture more or less secretly, and was centrally involved in the design of up to a dozen houses for her wealthy family.” Millar goes on to directly prove her design of 350 other buildings previously attributed to her young pupil Wren.

 

It seems through documents that she deliberately assisted her bright young pupil Sir Christopher Wren to openly take much of the credit for her buildings even though dates prove it is impossible that he could have had a hand in the design of most of the buildings that bear his name today as he had at that time even embarked on the study of architecture.

 

Wren had no time to learn architecture until he was 33. Of all the people who could have taught him – and there were very few architects in the UK in the early 1660s – after Cromwell’s tyranny against art and culture  – Wilbraham’s style is by far the closest to his, based on her documented buildings. The 18 City churches she designed for Wren to take credit for all share a number of the unusual design features of other documented Wilbraham designs – details that don’t show up on any of Wren’s other buildings.”

 

Miller further proves Lady Wibraham’s involvement in Weston Park, noting that unusual architectural details found at Weston Park later appeared in the original Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire; and the floor-plan of Buckingham House – which forms the core of Buckingham Palace and closely resembles Cliveden’s. Furthermore, Buckingham House’s construction was surpervised by William Winde, who was known to collude with Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham to take credit for many of her designs.
St Paul's Cathedral by Elizabeth Wilbraham

St Paul’s Cathedral by Elizabeth Wilbraham

Thanks to John Millar and the Royal Institute of British Architects’ president-elect, Angela Brady the truth of Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham’s place in Britain and the world’s architectural history is finally coming to light in the same way Madam Curie was able to finally admit that it was her rather than her brother who discovered radiation.  Angela Brady had  also launched a campaign to ensure architectural practices employ women designers as 50 per cent of their staff ( the figure is currently 19 per cent).

 

It is of great relief to women world wide that Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham’s enormous achievements are finally coming to the fore.  The misogyny that veiled Wilbraham’s place in architectural history is being lifted.

 

And while  it is true that her eager young pupil Sir Christopher Wren assisted his teacher in some of her later works, he was in fact merely her apprentice and more involved with overseeing the construction than any creative or technical skills involved in drawing the actual designs.

 

Historical documents show Wren would have had little if anything to do with the early designs and technical aspect of the great building project which King Charles II embarked upon when he was restored to the throne in 1660.

 

By the time the Great Fire of London razed the Old City of London behind the Roman Walls to the ground, King Charles II and Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham were already working tirelessly together in their project to build a modern city west of Covent Garden, an area which had been built by his father King Charles I some thirty years before.

 

By the time Elizabeth died in 1705, Queen Anne was on the throne and Lady Elizabeth Wibraham had worked with four different Stuart monarchs, King Charles II, his Roman Catholic brother King James II and his two daughters, Queen Mary and Queen Anne to create her lifetime achievement; the Mayfair St James’s we see today. A unique urban village built by a woman for women to pursue their intellectual, artistic and eccentric pursuits.

 

It is time to tear away the veil of secrecy and acknowledge the achievements of the world’s first woman architect. And one of the four extraordinary pillars of Mayfair St James’s.

 

If you would like to see statues erected to these four great women who shaped the Mayfair St James’s we enjoy today add your name here to the MayfairEccentric campaign to celebrate the Four Great Women, who Created Mayfair St James’s.

 

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