Gandy was from a humble background, one of twelve children of a waiter at White's Club, St. James's, London, whose talent was spotted by the architect James Wyatt (1746-1813), who came across his drawings when he was rebuilding the club. He studied at the Royal Academy where he won both the Silver and Gold Medal before the age of twenty. In 1794 John Martindale, the owner of White's, paid for the young artist to travel to Italy. However in 1798, he fled Rome to escape Napoleon's troops, and approached John Soane for employment and one of the most creative partnerships in the history of British architecture began.
For thirty-five years Gandy drew Soane's designs, as Gillian Darley says in her biography of Soane (1999) 'it is as if Soane's architecture had been waiting for someone to translate his buildings from pleasing fair copies into a continuous narrative - a visual argument with which to confront a critical world'. Gandy was unique in his ability to express Soane's manipulation of space and light. He juxtaposed the fantasies of his master's youth with the realities of his later life; he compared the greatness of Rome with the littleness of modern London: understanding Soane's preoccupation with posterity he showed him how his masterpieces would look as ruins in the future.
In his drawings Gandy used a two point perspective combined with an architectural precision and his work was indebted to Piranesi. He utilised historical, literary and mythological themes, and his work is suffused with the sublime that is on a par with J.M.W. Turner, R.A. (1775-1851) and John Martin (1789-1854). His skill as a draughtsman was widely appreciated: Soane in his lecture said 'a superior manner of drawing is absolutely necessary, indeed it is impossible not to admire the beauties and almost magical effects in the architectural drawings of a Clérrisseau or a Gandy or a Turner'. His published and exhibited work was largely a critical and popular success and the contemporary press often reported on the contrast between the unrewarded Gandy and the well-patronised Nash, and their preference for Gandy's architectural style compared to, 'the cold Romanised style of Mr Nash which we fondly hoped had been sent to its deserved oblivion.'
Gandy's career as an architect in his own right was more limited, as he had a reputation for being rather difficult to work with, however he was responsible for projects such as The Phoenix Fire and Pelican Life Insurance Offices (1804-5, demolished 1920) and Doric House, Sion Hill, Bath (1818). In 1821 he published two articles in the Magazine of Fine Arts on the philosophy of architecture, the themes of which were expanded in an eight volume-work, Art, Philosophy and Science of Architecture, the manuscript of which survives. Sadly this great romantic of English architecture ended his life in debt and in a lunatic asylum in Devon.
The description of the present drawing in the Royal Academy catalogue reads 'A proposed town residence for the Duke of Wellington, to commemorate the battle of Waterloo surrounded by villas and dwellings-houses, forming a circus and trophied garden corresponding with the plan made of Mary-le-bone park estate by the late J. White, Esq. in 1809, and now improved by J. White, jun. Vide his publication in 1815 J. Gandy, A.'
The present drawing was executed in response to a request, in 1816, by a committee of taste including Richard Payne Knight and George Beaumont and sponsored by the Lord Commissioner of His Majesty's Treasury, for 'plans or designs which any gentleman of the Royal Academy may be disposed to offer' for a Waterloo victory monument and a Duke of Wellington Palace. Gandy's design was one of several for such a memorial exhibited during the years following the Battle of Waterloo.
Gandy tried to capitalise on the self-congratulatory mood of the country and an appropriate setting for a palace offered to a victorious general by a grateful nation: a Blenheim for the Regency age. There was also a growing debate over the development of the Marylebone estate- recently re-named Regent's Park. Gandy's design conformed to the 1809 plan for the estate by J. White, who first proposed erecting a mansion for the Duke of Wellington fronted by a garden and commemorative monuments along a grand crescent in a residential park.
As Brian Lukacher, op. cit. observes, 'Gandy has composed his perspective of this project as a sweeping landscape roughly divided into three receding zones: in the foreground the landscape of history and memory - gardens of ruins and triumphal remembrance cast in shadow; the built landscape of society and accomplishment - the monumental residence itself cast in providential light; and the landscape of nature - the perimeter of the park dotted with picturesque villas, the rising heath beyond skirted by clouds and sheets of rain.'
The palace itself has a hexastyle portico and shallow dome ringed by caryatids and a quadrangle of turrets with a Tudor theme, appropriate to the national theme of the building. Otherwise as Lukacher says 'the design is dominated by a virtual menagerie of sculptural decoration': winged victories, dragons, unicorns, pegasi and statues of elephants and camels guarding the entry to the palatial courtyard. In the garden is the column bearing the statue of the Duke; the ground around is littered with broken fragments from antiquity, broken column bases, detached capitals, an antique sandaled foot, Egyptian statues, obelisks and ruined sarcophagi. These would have struck a resonant cord as the Duke of Wellington was a strong advocate for the restitution of the arts, objects looted from the Louvre and imperial households that had been plundered during the war.