William Benson

William Benson

:"For the noted U.S.N. admiral, see William S. Benson"

William Benson (1682—2 February 1754) was a talented amateur architect and an ambitious and self-serving Whig place-holder in the government of George I. In 1718, Benson arranged to displace the aged Sir Christopher Wren as Surveyor General of the Royal Works, a project in which he had the assistance of John Aislabie, according to Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was deprived of his double post to provide places for Benson's brother. [Hawksmoor's letter to Lord Carlisle (1725), noted in Kerry Downes, "Hawksmoor" (1959:245).]

Benson was the eldest son of Sir William Benson, Sheriff of London in 1706-07. He made a Grand Tour as a young man, which was extended to a prolonged visit to Hanover, the seat of the Elector, who was next in line to the British throne, where Benson paid assiduous court, and to Stockholm, far from the usual beaten track. In London he published a Whig tract, that offered a warning against Jacobitism and a polemic against Divine Right of kingship in a "Letter to Sir J [acob] B [ankes] "; it reached its eleventh edition in 1711 and was translated into French. [Mary Ransome, "The Press in the General Election of 1710" "Cambridge Historical Journal" 6.2 (1939, pp. 209-221) p.214, note 31.]

Benson's interests extended to hydraulics (Colvin 1993). He carried out a project to bring piped water to Shaftesbury; according to a memoir of the hydraulics engineer John Theophilus Desaguliers, [Desaguliers, "A Course in Experimental Philosophy" (London, 1763), quoted in Carole Fry, "Spanning the Political Divide: Neo-Palladianism and the Early Eighteenth-Century Landscape" "Garden History" 31.2 (Winter 2003, pp. 180-192) p. 181.] it was actually the invention of Mr Holland, the modest curate of Shaftesbury, but Benson took the credit, which resulted in his election as Whig Member of Parliament in 1716. With the "Water Engine" plans in hand, he gave directions for waterworks to be built for the Elector George at Herrenhausen, Hanover, borrowing Mr Holland's smith and foreman; they resulted in the largest fountain in the gardens. The main jet, expected to rise a hundred feet, merely spurted a disappointing ten. Benson ingratiated himself with the Elector and his mother the Electress Sophia at the time of his visit in 1704-06, pressing unwanted gifts upon the Electress. [Fry 2003:181.]

Returning to London with the fresh impressions of innovative neo-Palladian constructions currently afoot at Herrenhausen, [Notably in the Orangery.] in 1707 he married a wealthy heiress from Bristol and received from his father purchases of land in Wiltshire to the value of £5000. The following February he rented the classical Caroline Amesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, then attributed to Inigo Jones, [It is the masterpiece of Jones' assistant, John Webb.] on a twenty-one-year lease, and in 1709 he set to work designing Wilbury House for himself on a neighboring property, which he purchased that year from Hon. John Fiennes [Fiennes was the father of Celia Fiennes (Fry 2003:191, note 13).] Wilbury, the very earliest example of neo-Palladianism in England, [Fry 2003:181ff.] was a modest villa of one storey, nine bays in length, with a pedimented portico over the three central bays. Above the simply framed windows isolated bas-relief tablets were inserted in the wall. Small windows in a low rusticated basement lit service areas. Chimney stacks stood at the ends of the angled roofs. A central balustraded belvedere with a dome raised on columns crowned the elevation. In this manner Wilbury was illustrated in Colen Campbell's first volume of "Vitruvius Britannicus" (1715, plates 51-52), credited to Benson as inventor and builder. [Both Wilbury and Amesbury have been extensively altered.] As Surveyor, Benson appointed the professional Campbell Deputy Surveyor and Chief Clerk. [Howard E. Stutchbury, "The Architecture of Colen Campbell" (Cambridge: Harvard University Press/Manchester:Manchester University Press) 1967:]

As Surveyor, Benson's months in office proved disastrous for the professional staff. Howard Colvin noted [Colvin, "A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840" 3rd ed. (Yale University Press) 1995, s.v. "William Benson".] that "Benson's surveyorship lasted for fifteen months, in the course of which he sacked his ablest subordinates, declared war on his closest colleagues, infuriated the Treasury [Benson informed the Treasury Lords that a certain Acres was to replace Henry Wise and his partner as King's Gardener. Benson was summoned and his peremptory letter was burned in his presence. (Quoted by W. R. Ward in a review of "Calendar of Treasury Books, Vol. xxxii: 1718" in"The English Historical Review" 74 No. 291 (April 1959:358).] and finally brought down upon himself the wrath of the House of Lords for falsely insisting that their Chamber was in imminent danger of collapse." The only lasting work produced under Benson's Surveyorship was the suite of state rooms at Kensington Palace.

After he was relieved of his position in July 1719, in a flurry of satirical pamphlets, Benson involved himself in the creation of Stourhead, designed by Campbell for Benson's brother-in-law, Henry Hoare. Alexander Pope later ridiculed him in "The Dunciad" (III.321, IV.111-12) for having erected a monument to John Milton in Westminster Abbey, 1737, then having turned and honored with a bust by Michael Rysbrack, a distinctly minor writer of Latin verses, Dr Arthur Johnston ((1587-1641); in the elaborate procession attending the Goddess Dulness, Benson appeared: "On two unequal crutches propt he came, Milton's on this, on that one Johnston's name" ("Dunciad" IV.111-12).

In 1734 Benson sold Wilbury to his nephew Henry II Hoare and retired to a house in Wimbledon. A product of Benson's retirement was "Letters concerning Poetical Translations, and Virgil's and Milton's Arts of Verse &c." (1739), where his unlucky pronouncement (page 61) that "the principal Advantage "Virgil" has over "Milton" is "Virgil's" Rhyme", [Quoted in George Sherburn, "The Early Popularity of Milton's Minor Poems." "Modern Philology" 17.5 (September 1919), p 263] can hardly have failed to catch Pope's eye, if the volume fell into his hands while he was revising his "Dunciad".



*Colvin, Howard. "A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840" 3rd ed. (Yale University Press) 1995.

Further reading

*Bold, John and John Reeves. "Wilton House and English Palladianism: Some Wiltshire Houses" (London: H.M.S.O.) 1998.

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