The early nineteenth century was the heyday in England of artistic eccentrics – gifted men who pursued weird, grandiose, utopian or phantasmagoric schemes well outside the mainstream of art. Fuseli, Blake, Palmer and John Martin are well-known examples, but there were plenty of others who have disappeared without trace. Joseph Gandy is one who has hovered for a century on the verge of oblivion, but has now been rescued. I first learned about him from Sir John Summerson, the architectural historian. After lunching at the Beefsteak Club he would take me on meandering walks through passages and alleyways (now in many cases demolished, alas) back to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where he worked as curator of the Sir John Soane Museum, and I at the New Statesman in Great Turnstile. On the way he would treat me to learned discourses on buildings and aesthetics. One of his topics was Gandy, who had worked for Sir John Soane as his architectural draughtsman, producing huge and exquisite watercolours of Soane’s projects, and helping in the creation of the museum. Summerson rated Gandy a genius in his field and tried hard to boost his fame by publishing articles in learned journals. He did not exactly succeed, but one he inflamed was the American scholar Brian Lukacher, who devoted his PhD dissertation to Gandy, entitled ‘The Poetical Representation and Mythology of Architecture’, which was never published but can be seen on microfilm at Ann Arbor. He has now got Thames & Hudson to venture a full-scale and sumptuous book on Gandy, with over 200 illustrations, most in superb colour, and a text which gives us everything that can now be known about this peculiar man.
Gandy was born in 1771 and received little education, but he became an industrious autodidact and artist. At sixteen he was apprenticed to the architect James Wyatt, and two years later entered the Royal Academy Schools, where he won gold and silver medals. Thanks to a patron he went to