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Matthew Digby Wyatt

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Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877)


1877 Obituary [1]

SIR MATTHEW DlGBY WYATT, youngest son of the late Mr. Matthew Wyatt, Metropolitan Police Magistrate, was born near Devizes, on the 20th of July, 1820. His choice of a profession was probably, in the first instance, determined by the fact that his elder brother, Mr. T. H. Wyatt, Assoc. Inst. C.E., was an architect ; and in 1836, at the age of sixteen, he entered his brother’s office as a pupil.

In a spirit in every way honourable to him, the elder Wyatt determined to see that the young candidate for the profession should receive the most thorough education which he could bestow ; and probably few people have entered on the profession more fully trained and instructed in the subjects of study which belong to it than Digby Wyatt. This fraternal care, however, must have been well seconded from the first by the natural ability of the pupil, since it is on record that in the same year in which he was articled he gained the Architectural Society’s prize for an essay.

After going through his course of office study, he travelled for two years on the Continent, examining the principal buildings in France, Italy, and Germany, and brought home, among a large number of drawings, sufficient studies of the Mediaeval mosaic work of Italy and Sicily to form the subject of a large volume illustrative of "The Geometrical Mosaics of the Middle Ages,” which was his first publication of importance. His power of expression, both in writing and speaking, in regard to art-subjects, became developed at an early period of his life, and was no doubt one of the gifts to which he owed his ultimate success, of which at this time he was by no means sanguine.

In 1849 he was commissioned by the Council of the Society of Arts to report on the French “Exhibition of the Products of Industry,” which was then held in Paris. His report comprised not merely a description of the building in the CarrC! de Marigny, but a history of past exhibitions, and an investigation of the administrative arrangements. His observations on the last point are especially interesting, as they must have had no small influence upon the organisation of subsequent exhibitions. When the scheme of the Exhibition of 1851 was matured, Mr. Wyatt was appointed secretary to the Executive Committee, which consisted of Sir W. Reid and Messrs. Henry Pole, Dilke, Fuller, and Drew.

For his services he received a premium of 51,000 from the Royal Commissioners, and Prince Albert presented him with one of the special gold medals. He was likewise awarded prize medals for the excellence of the designs which he exhibited. In carrying out the duties he had undertaken in connection with this important and then novel enterprise he showed a great deal of administrative ability, and probably his conduct in this official position did much to confirm his after career, bringing him under the notice of, and in contact with, many who could appreciate his ability. Among the fellow-workers with whom he was a good deal allied at this time, were Isambard Brunel and Owen Jones.

His duties in connection with the preparations for the Exhibition did not so completely absorb his time as to cause him to neglect his favourite studies. A Paper by him on Italian wall decoration was read at the Institute of British Architects in 1850, and another on the construction of the Exhibition building was read before this Institution. It was well adapted to meet the taste of practical men, and a Telford medal was deservedly awarded for it. Those who might be inclined to consider Sir Digby Wyatt merely as an authority on vertu, and as being qualified to deal only with ornament and decoration, would be surprised with this Paper. The details of the construction of every part of the Exhibition building are described with an exactitude that shows how much interest the Author could take in such prosy matters as Paxton gutters, the joints of ironwork, painting by machinery, and the proving of girders.

Soon after the opening of the great Exhibition of 1851, Mr. Day, of the firm of Day and Son, the lithographers, called on Mr. Dighy Wyatt, stating their desire to undertake a work in chromolithography, illustrative of the best objects in the Exhibition, and offering the charge of the work to Mr. Wyatt. The noble volumes “The Industrial Arts of the Nineteenth Century” were the result, the descriptions of the plates became essays on the various branches of art, and the book remains one of the most interesting memorials of the Exhibition. When the work was finished, Mr. Wyatt duly acknowledged all the assistance he had received from others, including "his friend and pupil Mr. W. Burges,” who supplied fourteen articles.

While the re-erection of the Exhibition building as the Crystal Palace was in progress at Sydenham, Mr. Wyatt was superintendent of the Fine Arts Department, and he and his friend Owen Jones together designed those courts characteristic of different periods of art and architecture, which have always been among the chief attractions of the Sydenham Palace, and give it an artistic interest beyond that of a mere pleasure-place.

At the Exhibition of 1855 in Paris, Wyatt was a juror in connection with the British Government, by whom he was commissioned to report on furniture, carpets, paper-hangings and decoration. He was also employed by the French Government, in conjunction with M. Dieterle, to report on decoration, and was on this occasion created a Knight of the Legion of Honour. At the end of the same year he was appointed surveyor to the East India Company, with whom he had been previously connected, in assisting to arrange their department in the Paris Exhibition.

About this time he and his brother conjointly gained a Government premium for the best design for model cavalry barracks. His appointment as surveyor to the India Board was really the step which brought Mr. Wyatt most into notice, and led to his receiving the honour of knighthood, and also to the design of one of his principal works in London, the Court of the India Office.

In 1866 Sir Digby Wyatt was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, on an occasion when there had been some intention of a contest as to the claims of another candidate who had been named, but who withdrew his name rather than continue a discussion the result of which was probably not doubtful. It is noticeable that the feeling which gave the preponderance in favour of Wyatt on that occasion was not merely the consideration of his abilities, but also of his public spirit and readiness to be useful to his fellow-men. But an additional honour was paid to him, and one that he probably valued more highly than any he ever received, in his election to the first Professorship of Fine Arts in the University of Cambridge, when the Slade Chair was founded. At the same time the honorary degree of Master of Arts was conferred upon him by the University. The lectures which he delivered were printed, and they form one of the most useful and instructive essays of the many which he published on various subjects connected with the Fine Arts.

After the allotted term for holding the Slade Professorship of Fine Arts had expired, Sir Digby Wyatt did not offer himself as a candidate for re-election. It is to be feared that the disease of an overwrought brain, under which he sank, was then telling upon his nervous system, compelling him to leave the active career that he loved. It was principally with the object of seeking quiet that he gave up his house in town and took Dimland Castle,. near Cowbridge, South Wales, as a place where he might possibly recruit his health. But unhappily the precaution came too late, for he succumbed to the malady on the 21st of May, 1877, when. only fifty-seven years of age. He was buried at Usk, Monmouthshire.

Sir Digby Wyatt will be perhaps better remembered by his writings than as a constructive architect; but the following is a list of some of the principal works he carried out in the latter. capacity:- The Paddington Terminus of the Great Western railway (in conjunction with Mr. Brunel); the East India Museum ; the Fine Art Courts of the Crystal Palace (with Mr. Owen Jones and Sir J. Paxton) ; North Marston Church, Bucks, restored for the queen ; the New India Office (with Sir G. G. Scott); Restorations at Compton Wynyates, Warwickshire, and Isfield Place, Sussex ; the Mansions of Possingworth, Sussex; Newells, near Horsham ; the Mount at Norwood; the Ham, Glamorganshire; Mansions at Uckfield, Sussex, and Caterham, Surrey, and Alford House, Kensington. Reconstruction of Rrambridge, near Winchester ; reconstruction and decoration of the house of Mr. Alexander Collie, Kensington Palace Gardens ; Renaissance Saloon and Fernery at Ashridge, for the Earl of Brownlow ; Gardens and Conservatory Saloon to Northampton House, Piccadilly, and similar works ab Castle Ashby ; the Barracks Chapel and Hospital at Warley ; the Indian Government Stores, Lambeth ; Buildings, public and private, for Calcutta, Rangoon, Prince Edward’s Island, and the Azores; Business Premises in Oxford Street, for Messrs. Purdue and Cowlan, and in Gracechurch Street, for Messrs. Lloyd’s ; Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge ; the Crimean Memorial Arch, Chatham ; and the Mausoleum at Westham. With his brother; Mr. T. H. Wyatt, he built the Garrison Chapel, Woolwich.

An enumeration of all his writings would be beyond the scope of the present notice ; but the following may be mentioned as memoirs of a high class, involving a vast amount of toil:- Papers at the Institute of Architects on the "Decorations of the Church of Sta. Sophia, Constantinople” (Feb. 1855) ; on the “Sacred Grotto. at Subiaco” (May 1857) ; on the “Early Habitations of the Irish ” (Jan. 1858); on “Illuminated Manuscripts” (June 1860), likewise treated in an essay in Mr. Tymms’ book ; on “Pictorial Mosaic ” (March 1862) ; on the “Mahomedan Buildings at Ahmedabad ;” OB the “Foreign Artists employed in England during the Sixteenth CenturJr ” (May 1868) ; besides biographical notices of Sir Charles Barry and John Britton. A Paper on Sculpture in Ivory,” prepared for the Arundel Society, is acknowledged by other writers to be one of the best authorities on the subject. He tried to aid the same society by an excellent lecture which he delivered at Sydenham. He also read Papers before the Society of Arts on The Influence of Herbert Minton on English Ceramic Art” (1858), and on "The Present State of Art in Italy” (1862).

For trustworthiness no technical manuals surpass these essays and Papers. There is no resting on hearsay. When an object is described the Author saw it, and wherever it was practicable he was a witness of the processes that were employed in the construction.

It is to be hoped that such a demand may arise for these instructive writings as to induce a publisher to issue them in a collected form. The thirteen lectures he delivered in the first session of his Slade professorship have been printed, and they form the most complete body of instruction on Fine Art to be found in a single volume. Two years afterwards, in 1873, he published ‘L An Architect’s Note-book in Spain,” containing about one hundred autotypes of his drawings. This book is very valuable, not only as affording examples of his style of sketching, but from the importance of his remarks on Spanish art. The friendship of Sir Digby Wyatt for the late Owen Jones may be judged by the dedication:- “The last book I wrote I dedicated to my brother by blood: the present I dedicate to you-my brother in art. Let it be a record of the value I set upon all you have taught me, and upon your true friendship.” It was destined to be his last volume.

Sir Digby Wyatt’s connection with the Institution of Civil Engineers dates from 1850, in which year, on the 3rd of December, he was elected an Associate, and he served upon the Council during the Session 1857-58.


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