Sir John Soane ranks with a few others among the great designers of originality in the history of British architecture. Of all such masters, Soane has suffered the worst at the hands of the demolishers.
Sir John Soane’s work is very much part of the Neo-Classical revival and of the Interest in ancient Greek, rather than Roman, architectural forms which swept through Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. He used these forms with a brilliant inventiveness which has ever since fascinated those interested in the penetration of solid forms by space, the enclosure space in interiors and the use of subtle daylighting.
The Soan family (he added an ‘e’ when he married) came from the Reading area. The father was a fairly humble builder, living at Goring-on-Thames, when John was born. Eight years later they moved to Reading itself, and John, the Youngest of seven children, went to school there. The boy met one of George Dance’s assistants and at the age of fifteen went to work in Dance’s London office. This was the year in which Dance inherited his father’s practice and became preoccupied with the design of Newgate Gaol.
After two years, Sir John Soane felt He needed wider experience and went to work with Henry Holland (1745—1806), the architect of Brooks’s Club of 1776 at No. 60 St. James’s Street and partner of “Capability” Brown. Soane also attended the Royal Academy Schools and after winning the Academy’s Gold Medal in 1776, the young man was presented to the King by Sir William Chambers. “This was the most fortunate event of my life,” Soane wrote later, for the King awarded him a travelling studentship which enabled him to study and travel in Italy and Sicily from 1778 until 1780. In Rome, like Dance, Adam and Chambers before him, John Soane met the great engraver Piranesi and numerous wealthy travelling Englishmen who were to give him work later.
One of these noblemen persuaded Soane to come back to England early and, because his promises of employment failed to materialise, probably started in the young architect the almost paranoid suspicion of plots against himself from which he suffered all his life. “I know your constitution, it is too eager for stormy weather and easily becomes feverish,” a friend wrote to Soane later.
In the following year, 1781, Sir John Soane’s luck changed, and he started to build up a good practice in designing country houses. His few London works of the 1780s have been demolished, and his importance to London starts dramatically with his appointment as Architect to the Bank of England in succession to Sir Robert Taylor. The appointment was made by the Prime Minister, William Pitt, to whom Soane had been introduced by one of his Roman acquaintances, Thomas Pitt.
Dorothy Stroud, who has written much about john Soane, has divided the great architect’s work into four main phases the formative years up to 1790, the development of his own characteristic style and favourite features in I790-1810, the experimental deployment of these typical Soanian features in various ways during the following decade and the period after 1820 of major public buildings.
Of Sir John Soane’s country houses of the 1790s, Bentley Priory at Stanmore (1789-99-only some distinguished interiors remain of this work) and Tyringham Hall near Newport Pagnell are not far from London. His London houses of this decade have all gone, with the exception of the interiors he built for himself in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
In 1784 Soane married Eliza Smith. It was a close and happy marriage, which was just as well for a creative man of a headstrong and neurotic nature. Moreover, his wife’s wealthy uncle left Soane his fortune upon his death in 1790. The security of the money may well have freed Soane’s boldness in architecture, and it certainly enabled him to buy a house for the family at No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Some interiors are still Soane’s, done before he moved into his famous house next door. In this house Mr. and Mrs. Soane would hold dinner parties, one of the few relaxations the architect allowed himself from an obsessively hard-working life. Occasionally he liked to go to the theatre or to take a day off to go fishing. The rest of his life was work, and travel for work, all over England.
In about 1795 Soane was in charge of the division into two parts and the present porch of what is now Nos. 57 and 58 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, on another side of the square from his own house. In 1800 he bought what was then a country house called Pitzhanger Place, now the public library in Walpole Park, south of the Broadway, Ealing in west London. The house had been designed by his old teacher, George Dance, but Soane rebuilt it inside and outside in 1801-03.
The facade is nobly Classical, but wholly typical of John Soane. Four free-standing Ionic columns, supporting statues, punctuate a strongly quadrilateral composition with only two windows in the walls. The entrance hall and two other rooms on the ground floor are excellent examples of Sir John Soane’s developing talent for strange effects with space and lighting even on the smallest site. The former front parlour has a typical low dome supported by caryatids at the corners.
Royal Hospital Chelsea
Praed’s Bank (1801) in Fleet Street and many other London works by Soane have disappeared. Of his work in Chelsea Royal Hospital (where he was appointed Surveyor), the Infirmary was bombed in the Second World War and demolished; but the Clerk of Works’ house and Stables (1809-17, on either side of. Wren’s main building in Royal Hospital Road) are full of unmistakable Soanian features. The arches of the Stables, in particular, show what can be achieved by concentric layered arches of common brickwork.
Sir John Soane had many personal troubles. He was a difficult friend, with frequent quarrels punctuating his warm relationships. Of his contemporary architect rivals, he disliked his former pupil Smirke intensely and despised Nash as an architectural charlatan. He was an autocratic father and his children rebelled; it was due to his sons’ disinterest in Pitzhanger that Soane decided to sell it in 1810.
His son George finally attacked his father’s work in a London magazine in 1815. The article was anonymous but Mrs. Soane recognised her son’s style. To Soane’s despair she died of severe gallstones only two weeks later, and he could not believe that the events were unconnected.
His professional life prospered. Apart from the continuing work at the Bank of England he held official appointments, and commissions poured in during the building boom after the end of the Napoleonic wars. Most of these have now disappeared. His National Debt Redemption Office (built to cope with the debt amassed during the wars) in Old Jewry (1818-19), was demolished in 1900. His new range of the Law Courts (1820-24) by the Palace of Westminster was pulled down in 1883, while his extensive work in the House of Lords and the Commons was burned in 1834.
His dining rooms (1825) are still there in Nos. 10 and 11 Downing Street. The new Treasury Building of 1824-27 in Whitehall (now the Cabinet Office) was re-built by Barry only seventeen years later, although Soane’s entrance hall and other interiors remain. His final government building, the State Paper Office off Whitehall, of 1829-33, was knocked down for other government offices as early as 1862.
Of his work in London after 1820, the principal survivors are three scattered churches. The most central of these is Holy Trinity Church (1824-28) on the corner of Marvlebone Road and Albany Street, near Regent’s Park. The exterior is a fine compact design with a two-stage tower whose proportions seem to be stretched upwards. Little can be seen of the interior, for it has been largely filled in with offices for the Church of England publishing house.
St. John’s Church (1825-28), Cambridge Heath Road, at Bethnal Garden in the East End of London is very different. Its massively rectangular entrance, front and tower (originally intended to be higher) are a typically Soanian play with solid volumes and their penetration by space. The brilliant game is carried on inside the entrance, but there it ends. The interior was burned out in 1870 and re-built quite differently.
It is only at St. (1823-25), Liverpool Grove, at Walworth in south London that we can see a complete Soane church in London. The exterior is generally like that of Holy Trinity, rather than the more vigorous St. John, with another vertically stretched tower above a brick block and strong arches along both sides. The interior here is still Soane’s, a cool space of no intensity, with flat ceilings separated by arches which the architect has remorselessly made to look as thin and un-solid as possible. They are typical of one aspect of Soane’s manner which make one wonder what he was trying to express.
Sir John Soane lived to a great age deprived of family companionship but comforted by many friends and young pupils who loved “the dear old tyrant” in his mellow periods and could put up with the irascible and neurotic side of his temperament.
His leadership of the architectural profession was acknowledged by a knighthood in 1831, but his style was not carried on by any successors. He had always been as thin as an arrow and “taller than common”. A pupil named George Wightwick wrote of him in old age dressed always in black with a high brown wig, red-eyed as his sight gradually failed, his face extensive in profile but seen from the front “something of the invisible”.
In 1835 Sir John Soane was presented with a gold medal by his fellow architects, which gave him great pleasure. Two years later, after only a few hours of illness, he died at home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He is buried with his wife in the Soane Mausoleum which he had designed for her in 1816 and which remains a notable example of his mastery of three-dimensional design in the churchyard of Old St. Pancras Parish Church, Pancras Road, behind St. Pancras Station. In 1834 the Institute of British Architects had been established, and Sir John Soane took a keen interest in its foundation.
Its royal charter was granted in the year of his death. The money he gave the new organisation still provides pensions for widows of architects and an annual medallion with a travelling studentship so that young architects may enjoy the experience of seeing buildings abroad.