One of the most tenacious sentimental myths about the lives of artists is a variant of the Ugly Duckling tale: unappreciated, starving, even persecuted in his or her lifetime, the lonely genius is vindicated after death and universally hailed as a genius. Van Gogh is a classic case of the posthumous swan, as is Kafka, as is Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, as is Keats - Keats being a particular favourite: the most lachrymose form of his life story says he was in effect murdered by those nasty, snobbish reviewers. (Scrape at the myth of the vindicated artist for long enough and you uncover the figure of Christ crucified and resurrected; but these are murky waters.) This is reasonable, up to a point: the Edinburgh Review was plainly wrong-headed about cockney Keats. And yet the old tear-jerking tale of persecuted genius really applies to only a handful of cases. Many enduringly famous artists, probably most, enjoyed at least some fame in their lifetime - even Van Gogh sold more work than you would gather from the biopic Lust for Life. Critics, meanwhile, far from being spiteful crushers of talent, have often been the only sources of encouragement to artists ignored by the wider public and spurned by patrons.
Few lives illustrate this last tendency better than that of Joseph Gandy (1771-1843). Until very recently, Gandy's name would have been familiar only to specialists in architectural history or to fans (we are many) of the extraordinary Sir John Soane, with whom Gandy's fortunes were long and intricately involved as - by turns - employee, collaborator and charity case. Now, more than a century and a half after his death, Gandy is about to have his second chance at a place in the sun. Brian Lukacher, who teaches art history at Vassar, has produced the first full-scale monograph on the architect, painter and theorist, and a big, unusually handsome one at that: Joseph Gandy: an architectural visionary in Georgian England (Thames & Hudson, £40). To coincide with it, Christopher Woodward has curated an exhibition of Gandy's watercolours, sketchbooks and portraits, which opens on 31 March at Sir John Soane's Museum in London.
One of the things that Lukacher's monograph soon makes clear is that, although Gandy's career was in many ways a wretched business, punctuated by the mandatory spells in debtor's prison and ending still more conventionally in the lunatic asylum, the poor fellow could hardly be said to have wanted for praise. Here is Keats's friend Leigh Hunt in 1811, applauding one of Gandy's visionary drawings: "The architect with the greatest appearance of genius is Mr Gandy . . ." That glittering word "genius" runs through reviews of Gandy's work. Here is the man from the Literary Gazette, awed by "an artist full of the learning of his profession, imbued with the richest memories of Greece, and a man of Genius. Mr Gandy must have been distinguished wherever his noble art found honour. He would have been eminent in the time of Louis XIV . . . in the time of Leo X . . . in the time of Pericles."
Conspicuously absent from the list is the time of George IV. In this narrative, critics, so often cast as the bad guys, are obviously on the side of the angels (Gandy was fond of drawing angels). What Gandy lacked was not critical acclaim but pat- rons and, more generally, a climate of opinion that would allow him to translate his grand designs into reality. As the Morning Chronicle - a Whig journal - put the case: "Modern times has [sic] given birth to no such genius in design as this man, as extraordinary in his talent as in the neglect he has experienced; while meaner architects, begging, borrowing or stealing from him, have risen on the ruins that their barbarous ignorance and misapplication have produced."
The writer went on to pronounce Gandy's failure to find an outlet for his talents nothing less than a national disgrace. What he had in mind was the conspicuous recent flourishing of John Nash, entrepreneur and royal pet. That Nash should grow rich redesigning London while Gandy languished was, the paper contended, a emblem not of Britain's justifiably triumphal mood after Waterloo but of the nation's depraved taste in architecture: "In truth, Mr Gandy should have lived in other climes during the palmy days of architecture . . . but it was unhappily his lot to fall on an evil soil! England, with all its wealth, never knew how to use it with that classic feeling for grace, beauty, and poetry which forms the Corinthian capital of all the proudest State can leave behind it." Britain had won the war but - on the architectural front - was gravely losing the peace.
How might London have developed had Gandy rather than Nash scooped up the commissions? Conjecture on this point need not be blind, because Gandy left us abundant evidence of his schemes. His Proposed Town Residence for the Duke of Wellington to Commemorate the Battle of Waterloo (1816) is a jaw-dropping sketch - a sweeping vista divided into three broad zones, with a ruin-festooned sepulchral garden (somewhat akin to the Roman Forum) in the foreground, a gigantic palace in the mid-zone, and carefully modified "picturesque" landscape rising up behind the great edifice. Both in collaboration with Soane and independently, Gandy drew or painted designs for the likes of a royal palace, a chapel, a national entrance to the metropolis and, in 1825, a Sketch for New Senate Houses - in other words, new Houses of Commons and Lords, to replace the old ones that had been destroyed by fire. Had the scheme gone through, tourists from Kyoto and Kansas would now be taking snaps of a gigantic, pale-stoned Graeco-Roman fortress. On a more macabre note, he dreamed up a Design for a Cast-Iron Necropolis, which would hold the dead in metal cylinders, like man-sized cigar cases.
None of these grand projects was ever realised. In the course of many working years, Gandy completed only a few, relatively modest projects: the Phoenix Fire and Pelican Life Insurance offices in Charing Cross, built in 1804-1805 but demolished in 1924; the so-called "Doric House", built in Bath around 1803-1806 for the painter Thomas Barker; some remodelling work to Storrs Hall on Lake Windermere (1806-11); and a few others. Not that Gandy was ever idle: his output of words and images was as imposing in bulk as it was grandiose in conception.
Late in life, Gandy became absorbed in that great passion of the 19th century, comparative mythology. One of the fruits of this obsession was a seven-volume, 2,500-page manuscript entitled The Art, Philosophy and Science of Architecture; only fragments of this magnum opus have survived, but it is clear that Gandy was engaged in an occult quest into the deep-est origins of architectural form, starting with Noah's Ark and encompassing the religious edifices of Babylon, India and Mexico. In this he was, as Lukacher right-ly notes, something rather like George Eliot's Casaubon, hunting endlessly for the Key to all Mythologies. Material for a Hawksmoor-style novel here?
Gandy's retreat into occult scholar- ship was partly a response to commercial failure, and partly a late flowering of a mystical vein in his sensibility which had previously found expression in, for example, his illustrations to Milton. These giant imaginings - such as the Bridge Over Chaos of 1833 - will appeal to anyone who admires John Martin's work: and, once again, the much-maligned critics pierced to the heart of the matter at once. A contemporary reviewer concluded that "Martin cut up and set in the foil of effect, the rough gem which Gandy had dug up".
An influence on John Martin, a spiritual cousin of William Blake, an imaginer of interiors who was once favourably compared to Piranesi . . . Will Joseph Michael Gandy's name soon be as familiar as any of these? In any case, it's good to have him back from the dead.
"Soane's Magician: the tragic genius of Joseph Michael Gandy" is at Sir John Soane's Museum, London WC2, until 12 August. For further details visit www.soane.org
Kevin Jackson is the author of Letters of Introduction: an A-Z of cultural heroes and legends (Carcanet)