Robert Willis (1800-1875)  and the Foundation of Architectural History

Robert Willis (1800-1875) and the Foundation of Architectural History

Alexandrina Buchanan


Boydell Press



The first full-scale biography of Robert Willis, the "founding father" of architectural history.
WINNER of the Cambridge Association for Local History book award 2016

Robert Willis was the archetypal nineteenth-century polymath. Officially, as Jacksonian Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, he specialized in the study of mechanism, which he also taught at the Royal School of Mines in London. In the field of science he was an experimentalist, inventor and educational innovator. Meanwhile, in his spare time, he pursued his passion, pioneering the serious study of architectural history. Initially his work was aimed at architects - his role in providing an intellectual underpinning to the contemporary Gothic Revival was acknowledged by the award of the gold medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1862. However his main contribution was more historical. Starting with Canterbury, in 1844, over the course of his career, he investigated almost every English cathedral and developed an approach, combining documentary and archaeological research, which remains in use today. His studies culminated in the monumental Architectural History of the University of Cambridge, still the definitive account of its subject.
In this fascinating and lavishly illustrated intellectual biography, drawn from extensive archival and architectural research, the author sheds new light on the interconnections between Willis's varied fields of interest and his fundamental role in the creation of a discipline.

Alexandrina Buchanan is both an architectural historian and an archivist; her introduction to archives came through cataloguing the papers of Robert Willis at the Cambridge University Library. She is now Lecturer in Archive Studies at the University of Liverpool.


August 2013
49 black and white, 34 line illustrations
470 pages
24.4x17.2 cm
History of the University of Cambridge
ISBN: 9781843838005
Format: Hardback
Library eBook
Boydell Press
BISAC ARC005000, BIO006000
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Table of Contents

London and the Early Years
Cambridge and Scientific Work to 1841
Remarks on the Architecture of the Middle Ages and the Membrological Approach
Evidence and its Uses in Architectural History
The Cathedral Studies: 'Landmarks' of Architectural History
Public Scientist, Private Man
The Practice of Architecture: Willis as designer, arbiter and influence
'Architectural and Social History': Canterbury and Cambridge
Appendix: Willis on Restoration


A work of outstanding scholarship, comprehensive in its coverage of Willis's life and activities, elegantly written, eminently readable, well-illustrated and meticulously referenced.. (A) superbly scholarly volume of lasting value. It will not be superseded for several generations. ARCHAEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

(A) meticulous, well-crafted intellectual biography.... If Willis had anything to say about the matter, then this is the intellectual biography he would have wanted. THE BURLINGTON

An impressive work of scholarship about one of the superstars of the nineteenth-century architectural firmament. ... It is superbly researched and brings to the fore a major figure to whom all ecclesiologists and archaeologists have good reason to be grateful. ECCLESIOLOGY TODAY

This intelligent and well-researched book throws much new light on the career and influence of a remarkable Victorian scientist and scholar. THE VICTORIAN

(A) fascinating...richly illustrated volume. ... This comprehensive biographical work is a worthy and engaging read for anyone interested in architectural history, medieval architecture, ecclesiology, antiquarianism or the Gothic Revival. MEDIEVAL ARCHAEOLOGY

This book is a tremendous achievement and overdue chance to give (Willis) the recognition he deserves. SPAB MAGAZINE

A very rich book. SALON

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