Nash was born in 1752 at Lambeth, the son of a Welsh millwright also called John.. From 1766 or 67, John Nash trained with the architect Sir Robert Taylor; the apprenticeship was completed in 1775 or 1776. Initially he seems to have pursued a career as a surveyor, builder and carpenter. This gave him an income of around £300 a year. He established his own architectural practice in 1777 as well as being in partnership with a local timber merchant
On 28 April 1775, Nash married his first wife Jane Elizabeth Kerr, daughter of a surgeon. The couple set up home at Royal Row Lambeth. The couple had two children, John, on 9 June 1776 and Hugh on 28 April 1778. However In June 1778 he sent her to Wales because he claimed Jane had faked her pregnancies and then passed babies she had acquired off as her own. His wife however developed a relationship with a local man Charles Charles. In an attempt at reconciliation Jane returned to London in June 1779, but she continued to act extravagantly and was send back to another Welsh cousin where she gave birth just after Christmas, and acknowledged Charles Charles as the child’s father. Nash instigated and gained a divorce in 1787.
His career was initially unsuccessful and short-lived. After inheriting £1000 in 1778 from his uncle he invested the money in building his first known independent works; 15–17 Bloomsbury Square and 66–71 Great Russell Street. However the property failed to let and he was declared bankrupt on 30 September 1783 with debts of £5000 that included £2000 he had been lent by Robert Adam and his brothers.
Nash left London in 1784 to live in Carmarthan to where his mother had retired, her family being from the area. In 1785 he and a local man re-roofed the town’s church for 600 Guineas. Nash and Saxon seem to have worked as building contractors and suppliers of building materials. Nash’s London buildings had been standard Georgian terrace houses, and it was in Wales that he matured as an architect. His first major work in the area was the first of three prisons he would design, Carmarthen 1789–92; planned with John Howard the penal reformer and followed by Cardigan and Hereford. It was at Hereford that Nash met Richard Payne Knight whose theories on the picturesque as applies to architecture and landscape would influence Nash.
By 1789 St David’s Cathedral was suffering from structural problems, the west front was leaning forward by one foot, Nash was called in to survey the structure and developed a plan to save the building.
Work came Nash’s way and one of Nash’s most important developments were a series of medium-sized country houses that he designed in Wales based on the villa designs of his teacher Sir Robert Taylor. Most of these villas consist of a roughly square plan with a small entrance hall with a staircase offset in the middle to one side, around which are placed the main rooms, there is then a less prominent Servants quarters in a wing attached to one side of the villa. The buildings are usually only two floors in height, the elevations of the main block are usually symmetrical.
He met Humphrey Repton at Stoke Edith in 1792 and formed a successful partnership with the landscape garden designer. The pair would collaborate to carefully place the Nash-designed building in grounds designed by Repton. The partnership ended in 1800 under recriminations, Repton accusing Nash of exploiting their partnership to his own advantage.
Nash returned to London in 1797. He married 25-year-old Mary Ann Bradley on 17 December 1798 at St George’s Hanover Square. In 1798, he purchased a plot of land of 30 acres at East Cowes on which he erected 1798–1802 East Cowes Castle as his residence. It was the first of a series of picturesque Gothic castles that he would design and which were built in various parts of the country.
Nash was a dedicated Whig and was a friend of Charles James Fox through whom Nash probably came to the attention of the Prince Regent). In 1806 Nash was appointed architect to the Surveyor General of Woods, Forests, Parks and Chases. From 1810 Nash would take very few private commissions and for the rest of his career he would largely work for the Prince.
His first major commissions in (1809–1826)[ from the Prince were Regent Street and the development of an area then known as Marylebone Park. With the Regent’s backing, Nash created a master plan for the area, put into effect from 1818 onwards, which stretched from St James’s northwards and included Regent Street, Regent’s Park (1809–1832) and its neighbouring streets, terraces and crescents of elegant town houses and villas. No two buildings were the same, and or even in line with their neighbours. The park villages can be seen as the prototype for the Victorian suburbs.
Nash was employed by the Prince from 1815 to develop his Marine Pavilion in Brighton, originally designed by Henry Holland. By 1822 Nash had finished his work on the Marine Pavilion, which was now transformed into the Royal Pavilion. Nash was also a director of the Regent’s Canal Company set up in 1812 to provide a canal link from west London to the Thames in the east
Together with Robert Smirke and Sir John Soane, he became an official architect to the Office of Works in 1813, (the appointment ended in 1832) at a salary of £500 per annum. This marked the high point in his professional life. As part of Nash’s new position he was invited to advise the Parliamentary Commissioners on the building of new churches from 1818 onwards. Nash produced ten church designs each estimated to cost around £10,000 with seating for 2000 people, the style of the buildings were both classical and gothic. In the end Nash only two were built and included the classical all Souls Church, Langham Place (1822–24).
Nash was involved in the design of two of London’s theatres, both in Haymarket; The King’s Opera House (now rebuilt as Her Majesty’s Theatre) and the Theatre Royal Haymarket (1821), , which still survives, facing down Charles 11 Street to St James’s Square. Nash’s interior no longer survives (the interior now dates from 1904).
In 1820 a scandal broke, when a cartoon was published showing a half dressed King George IV embracing Nash’s wife with a speech bubble coming from the King’s mouth containing the words “I have great pleasure in visiting this part of my dominions”. Whether this was based on just a rumour put about by people who resented Nash’s success or if there is substance behind is not known.
Further London commissions for Nash followed, including the re-modelling of Buckingham House to create Buckingham Palace (1825–1830), and for the Royal Mews (1822–24) and Marble Arch (1828). The arch was originally designed as a triumphal arch to stand at the entrance to Buckingham Palace. It was moved when the east wing of the palace, designed by Edward Blore, was built at the request of Queen Victoria whose growing family required additional domestic space. Marble Arch became the entrance to Hyde Park and The Great Exhibition.
Many of Nash’s buildings were built by property developer James Burton, who also lent him financial assistance when he encountered financial problems during his projects on Regent Street. In return, Nash promoted the career of Burton’s son, Decimus Burton, who assisted him with several of his designs.
Nash’s career effectively ended with the death of George IV in 1830. The King’s notorious extravagance had generated much resentment and Nash was now without a protector. The Treasury started to look closely at the cost of Buckingham Palace. Nash’s original estimate of the building’s cost had been £252,690, but this had risen to £496,169 in 1829; the actual cost was £613,269 and the building was still unfinished! This controversy ensured that Nash would not receive any more official commissions nor would he be awarded the Knighthood that other contemporary architects received. He retired to the Isle of Wight to his home, East Cowes Castle where he died on 13 May 1835. His was buried in the local churchyard.
His widow acted to clear Nash’s debts (some £15,000). She held a sale of the Castle’s contents selling paintings by J.M.W. Turner and Benjamin West and several copies of old master paintings by Richard Evans. His books, medals, drawings and engravings were also sold and The Castle itself was sold for a reported figure of £20,000 to Henry Boyle, 3rd Earl of Shannon.
Nash’s widow retired to a property Nash had bequeathed to her in Hampstead where she lived until her death in 1851. She was buried with her husband on the Isle of Wight.
A blue plaque commemorating Nash was placed on 66 Great Russell Street by English Heritage in 2013