Henry Emlyn, an uncommon genius

Henry Emlyn, an uncommon genius

Henry Emlyn has been described as “an uncommon genius” to whom “posterity will be much indebited”. His restoration work on the chapel during the late 18th century blends seamlessly with the medieval, capturing the spirit of the original creators and enhancing the feel of light and grace. Yet these drawings held in the Chapel Archives show another side to the man, one who had a complete disregard for the architectural importance and unique character of the Lower Ward.

Emlyn was born in Cookham, Berkshire, in 1728/9. His father was a bricklayer, and Henry followed him into the building trade, being apprenticed to a carpenter in 1744. In 1761 he was employed by the Office of Works as a carpenter at Windsor Castle, and from 1773 onwards he was also employed by the Dean and Canons of Windsor. In 1784 he was appointed official Chapter carpenter, but his work was very varied and often ordinary, ranging from surveying estates, overseeing timber sales and general repairs to buildings.
However, his luck would change when he came to the attention of George III just at the time the King was intending to undertake major restoration work at St George’s Chapel. Emlyn was appointed to supervise these works, the majority of which would be funded by the Royal purse.

His great skill at incorporating aspects of fifteenth-century design into modern works can be best seen in the woodwork of the Quire. As part of George III’s reaffirmation of the role of the Chapel in the Order of the Garter, four new stalls were added to accommodate the members of the Royal Family recently appointed to the Order. Emlyn added new canopies, arm rests and doors, producing lively and detailed popeys and desk fronts, which even experienced men like Sir William St John Hope had difficulty in distinguishing from the original. Even entirely new creations such as the Coade stone organ loft show a keen desire to follow the Tudor gothic example, gaining inspiration from other elements in the Chapel so as to look as if it had always been there.

Yet despite this care and attention to maintaining the character of the Chapel, medievalism obviously did not inspire him. Two sets of drawings, dated 1786 and contemporary with his work on the Quire, show that he planned to destroy the entire medieval block of Chapel lodgings, consisting of the Deanery, Canons’ Cloister, Chapter Library and Horseshoe Cloister, instead to be replaced with a range of neo-Palladian buildings, described by Shelagh Bond as being “of extreme dullness”.

Presented to the Honourable John Harley, Dean of Windsor, on 12 March 1786, SGC P.78 shows the south elevation of the proposed new accommodation, with this section covering Canons’ Cloister moving across to the Deanery on the extreme right.

Incorporated in these designs was his great obsession, a design for a British Order of classical architecture, with columns inspired by the twin trees of Windsor Forest and decorated with motifs from the Order of the Garter, including the ostrich plumes and Garter star. This had occupied him for many years, with his Proposition for a New Order in Architecture first being published in 1781. It went through several different editions, but there was very little enthusiasm for it amongst architects.

It would seem that the Dean and Canons were equally unimpressed with the design for it was never executed. For that, St George’s has much to be thankful for as it means that the 14th century buildings of the College survive today.

Eleanor Cracknell, Assistant Archivist

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.