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Reassessing Joseph Bonomi the Elder: The Hawksmoor Prize Essay 2021

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 November 2022


In the early nineteenth century, Joseph Bonomi the Elder (1739–1808) was one of the best-known architects in Britain — so much so that he figured in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) — but his reputation subsequently declined and diminished to the extent that, in the current literature on British architecture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, he is little more than a footnote. In a circular process, this excision directly contributed to the demolition of some of his most important work — above all, Rosneath House in Dunbartonshire — on the grounds that it was designed by an architect of little importance, which in turn makes it all the harder to recapture and appraise his architecture. The article explores both the reasons for the excision and the nature of Bonomi’s work. Drawing on the limited available evidence as well as hitherto unused construction drawings of Rosneath, the article repositions Bonomi as an Italian architect working in London — first for the Adam brothers and then on his own account — and examines the qualities of his designs and the factors that led to him being excluded from the inner circle of the artistic establishment, most notably the Royal Academy. In doing so, it sheds new light both on developments in neoclassicism in the period, specifically the ‘stripped down’ style that Bonomi espoused, and on the xenophobic and anti-Catholic currents in London at the time, which appear to have continued to influence his posthumous reputation.

Research Article
© The Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain 2022

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The Society’s Hawksmoor Essay Medal aims to encourage new and unpublished entrants to the field of architectural history. The medal is awarded annually to the author of the best essay submitted in competition by a PhD student or early career researcher. It is international in scope and there is no geographical restriction <>.