The Downing College Chandeliers

Carlton Hobbs LLC

The present chandeliers were designed by architect Peter Bicknell (1907-1995) and were originally installed in the Hall at Downing College, Cambridge, during a remodeling in the 1960s.

In addition to his career as an architect, Bicknell was a mountaineer, author, curator and teacher of architecture and art history during his lifetime. After his retirement from teaching in 1981, he mounted the exhibition Beauty, Horror and Immensity at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. An architectural partnership with H.C. Hughes, which began in the early 1930s, led to the design of numerous educational institutions, notably the Cambridge colleges including Downing College at which Bicknell was a Fellow.

“Downing College,” Memorials of Cambridge 1847, F. Mackenzie & J. Le Keux.

Downing college was founded in 1800 by Sir George Downing, Third Baronet, whose will stated that his estates were to be used for a college if he or his heirs produced no issue. The first buildings were raised between 1807-1812, and the second group in 1818-1820, which included the Hall. Designed by William Wilkins, the neoclassical architecture comprises ionic columns, both inside and out, and was greatly informed by Wilkins’ travels in Greece.

The chandeliers are an interesting exercise in the fusion of English late classicism, as typified as the Regency style, and mid-20th century modernity. The classical references include a flaming urn, repeating anthemion decoration and applied with swan mounts. Whilst incorporating many of these elements of the classical repertoire, the chandelier is also imbued by a severe and angular quality, much in line with its time. Figure 1 depicts one of the chandeliers in situ in the Downing College Hall. The chandeliers were removed from the Hall in 2007 as part of a renovation project aimed at “restoring it to its original Georgian splendour.”

A chandelier in situ in the Downing College Hall.


Five-light Silvered Bronze and Wedgwood Porcelain Mounted Chandelier


English. Circa 1875.

The present chandelier is a rare example of a light mounted with high quality marked Wedgwood in the uncommon ground color of rosso antico. Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) is perhaps the most distinguished English potter, whose work spread throughout Europe and to the United States and Canada. Wedgwood was the youngest son in a family of potters of Burslem, Staffordshire. By 1749 he completed his apprenticeship with the family pottery works and went on to form partnerships with John Harrison and Thomas Alders at Cliff Bank, Stoke, between 1752 to 1754, and with Thomas Whieldon, another notable Staffordshire potter, from 1754-1759. In 1759, however, Wedgwood terminated this partnership in order to found his own pottery works.

Wedgwood built a large library of books on classical design of sculptures, pictures, and furniture representative of Grand Tour travels in Italy, and especially Rome. He based his pottery on such masterpieces, and when he “made a design taken from the Farnese Hercules or the Venus de Medici he knew that his customers appreciated and were familiar with the original.”

As another consequence of the newborn interest in classical antiquity, buildings subscribed to the Palladian ideal, and interiors were equally fitted. The great architect Robert Adam was responsible for many of these homes and for championing and classical ideal. Adam spent an extended Tour in Italy and, upon establishing his practice in England in 1758, began working in not only the classical Roman idiom, but that of ancient Greece.

Wedgwood was greatly influenced by Adam and the Etruscan style, going so far as to name his factory “Erturia.” He began interpreting those designs into pottery, at first directly using red figures in relief on black basalt background to simulate Etruscan vases, and developed a number of other stoneware bodies including jasper, black basalt, and rosso antico.  Bodies of rosso antico (antique red) could be further enhanced by the addition of black bas-relief decoration in the neoclassical style, as seen in the present chandelier.

His schemes were modeled to fall in line with the Adam style. “Architects and others used the jasper in every variety, both for internal and external purposes…[and] Wedgwood adapted his productions to the arts of the jeweler and the architect.” The wares, which were considered to be on par with porcelain for a time, ranged from dinner, tea and coffee ware to decorative objects such as vases and large decorative plaques, which could be incorporated into furniture and architectural elements.

The present chandelier is unusual in that the mounted vases are of rosso antico, rather than the more traditional blue and white jasper. An object of this type would most likely have been constructed specifically to fall in line with a particular Etruscan-style interior.

Wedgwood Stamp

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