Did he cry all the way from his bank?

John Soane, Architect - John Soane

January 7, 2000

N. E. Bridges on John Soane, a great architect and a difficult man.

 In 1707, Alain-René Lesage wrote in his novel Le Diable Boiteux : "I want to lift up the roof of that wonderful national building the interior will be revealed to you like a meat pie with the crust removed." This quotation, from a book by one of Sir John Soane's favourite authors, appeared as a caption, but not in the catalogue, to the aerial cut-away view of Soane's completed Bank of England, painted in 1830 by his preferred perspective artist, Joseph Gandy. The bank represented 45 continuous years of work, from the ambitious self-made youth to the nearly blind, embittered old man who had alienated most of his family, friends and colleagues by his pursuit of his dream of founding an architectural dynasty such as the Wyatts, Brettinghams or Hollands.

The recent exhibition of Soane's work, removed from the intense atmosphere of his home in Lincoln's Inn Fields to more fashionable Piccadilly, is a long overdue tribute by the Royal Academy to one of their own academicians who was professor of architecture for 31 years. Its catalogue is, of course, more than a dry sequence of numbers and small print. Editors Margaret Richardson and MaryAnne Stevens have commissioned a wide variety of distinguished contributors, one of whom is Gillian Darley, author of the second book, a biography of Soane, reviewed here. Each section, reflecting the content and sequence of the rooms of the exhibition, has a short essay illustrated by figures. This is followed by the catalogue items, each embellished with further information.

Although many of the illustrations will be familiar to habitués of the Soane Museum, the wealth of new material is a wonderful surprise. Gandy's watercolours of Tyringham are so fresh that they seem never to have been exposed to daylight, and the book and exhibition are strong tributes to his talent (he was an ARA, too). The drawings of the built projects are also illustrated by large crisp photographs that provide a contrast between the artistic impressions and weathered reality. The pictorial editing and printing is of the highest quality, and such is the detail in Gandy's paintings that many have been enlarged. The impressions gained at the exhibition can linger when contemplating the catalogue later at leisure.

It is inevitable that the full-size mock-ups in the exhibition of the ceilings of the breakfast room at 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields and the New Four Per Cent Office in the Bank of England find no place in the catalogue, but their value in providing scale to the drawings exhibited around the rooms is inestimable. For Soane had an annoying habit of instructing Gandy, and latterly Antonio van Assen, to paint figures at a diminutive scale to make the rooms appear larger in the pictures, as well as obscuring less of the detail. This does not help one appreciate Soane's interiors when his designs lack figurative detail anyway, due to his distillation and omission of classical ornament, and when so many of his drawings omit everyday objects such as furniture that could provide again a sense of scale. This minor criticism could be made too of the computer-generated walk-through, provided by the University of Bath, of the principal offices in the Bank of England, which has modelled only the surfaces, and halted at the spots where Soane commissioned his perspectives from Gandy to blend and superimpose the art form of 200 years ago with the present.

The Royal Academy has succeeded in making the work of an architect as understandable as possible without physically reassembling his buildings in the galleries. Yet the brevity of the essays in the catalogue does not do justice to the complexity of the subject, his character and his oeuvre. The wealth of material available is so extensive that, as Darley states in the introduction to her biography, the story of Soane's life, never mind his work, is sufficient for a whole book. Other writers such as David Watkin, Dorothy Stroud, Pierre de la Ruffiniere du Prey and most recently Ptolemy Dean have already provided scholarly analysis of his architecture. Darley claims that Soane's life has the potential to illuminate his architecture and its development, and her biography is a success ultimately because, in between the tension of Soane's painful rise to public eminence and later embarrassment by the diarist Joseph Farrington, his estranged son George and his own personal follies, she manages to cover lightly but adequately all of his architectural achievements.

Darley describes how the son of a Goring-on-Thames bricklayer rose to be the personal architect of the two longest-serving prime ministers of his era, William Pitt the Younger and Lord Liverpool. She explains the relevance of Soane's architectural and personal guides and heroes: George Dance, Sir William Chambers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Napoleon among many others. He was his own worst enemy: naive, impressionable, without Christian faith, and leaning on Rousseau's Confessions rather than the King James Bible, which may explain his attraction to freemasonry and his commissions from freemasons. Contemporary architects criticised Soane for being wilful, yet failed to understand that he was forever in search of precedent. Darley contends that his search for his own voice and for breaking with that precedent led to the romanticism in his architecture. His deprived childhood left him with an insatiable appetite for learning and collecting.

The details of Soane's private life are shocking, and one can sympathise with a curator of the Soane Museum who refused to allow public access to the records even 100 years after Soane's death in 1837. However, Darley exercises restraint and does not over-analyse the wealth of personal details that makes her biography another essential book for serious students of Soane's architecture. We learn of the contacts made during Soane's student days in Rome, where he met a mixture of aristocrats, such as the earl bishop of Derry and merchants such as John Patterson and Rowland Burdon. It was the latter rather than the former who were to give Soane his first real commissions and remain his lifelong friends, and Darley describes vividly the hard life of the young architect visiting rural sites by bumpy coach rides all over the country. The merchants' modest houses allowed Soane to develop and refine his views on the professional role of the architect, providing cost and supervisory advice independent from the builder. His experiences working for Henry Holland while a student at the Royal Academy are seen by Darley as being formative.

Soane's success in providing clients with their houses, breweries and humble farm buildings introduced him to the world of patronage, which he manipulated with consummate skill. Samuel Bosanquet and Richard Neave were directors at the Bank of England, Thomas Pitt (later Lord Chatham) was the uncle of William Pitt the Younger, both of whose houses Soane altered.

But Soane was not content to halt his ambitions there: he sought and applied for the many official appointments as surveyor to livery companies,the East India Company (lost to Richard Jupp) and Greenwich Hospital (also lost, to John Yenn). Even his friends were taken aback at his drive to succeed and cautioned him not to be disappointed and wait for other opportunities where his talent would surely be recognised and fulfilled. Eventually these came: clerk of works to St James's Palace, the Houses of Parliament and other public buildings in Westminster in 1790, deputy surveyor of HM Woods and Forests in 1795 and clerk of works to the Royal Hospital in Chelsea in 1807.

We learn of the purchase of Pitzhanger Manor, the subsequent move to Lincoln's Inn Fields and the friendships with Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noel Desenfans, which resulted in his appointment as architect to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The depth of research reveals the way these relationships developed and often broke up on Soane's hypersensitivity to criticism and insecurity among his peers.

His antagonism towards Robert Smirke Junior, despite the similarity of their professional probity and sound technical abilities, started shortly after Smirke left after a few months of pupillage in 1796, and continued within the Royal Academy when Soane criticised Smirke's elevations of the Royal Opera House in his lectures.

Positive relationships are explored, such as the architectural and personal debts between George Dance and Soane. All Hallows Church, London Wall, was a formative influence on the young Soane, and Dance helped him with the concept of the Bank Stock Office in 1791. J. M. W. Turner was elected professor of perspective 18 months after Soane's election to the chair in architecture, following Dance's resignation; and their joint efforts to improve the surroundings and content of their lectures could form the subject of a fascinating study of the cross-fertilisation of ideas between the picturesque and colour theory throughout their lifelong friendship.

Darley's success in writing such a complete biography of Soane has been achieved only at the cost of reducing the beautiful drawings so much that one cannot appreciate their graphic qualities. However, this has allowed the publication of many more sketches as well as Frank Yerbury's haunting photographs of Soane's Bank of England taken in 1923 shortly before its scandalous demolition.

Both these books have qualities of their own. Taken together, they are complementary and add much to our understanding of the great architect within a difficult human being.

N. E. Bridges is a chartered architect practising in London.

John Soane, Architect: Master of Space and Light

Editor - Margaret Richardson and Mary Anne Stevens
ISBN - 0 300 01895 0 and 0 900 94680 6
Publisher - Royal Academy of Arts
Price - £45.00 and £25.00
Pages - 304

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