Perspectives from Sir John's podium

Sir John Soane
January 10, 1997

Sir John Soane has a unique place in English architectural history, as a practitioner, educator and antiquarian. As professor of architecture at the Royal Academy from 1806 until his death in 1836, Soane's annual series of architecture lectures were compulsory for all students, including those studying sculpture and painting. He took his duties extremely seriously, preparing special illustrations which were also available for inspection at his office on the days immediately before and afterwards.

The materials he used in preparing for the lectures still survive in the Soane Museum: ancient and contemporary sculpture, drawings, books and models collected during his lifetime, all of which were donated to the nation after the passing of a special Act of Parliament in 1833. It is surprising that it has taken historians and publishers so long to make these important primary sources more widely available, since Arthur Bolton's 1929 edition of the lectures has long been out of print. Pierre de la Ruffiniere du Prey's The Making of an Architect (1982) only covered Soane's life up to 1785, before his work at the Bank of England had started. Dorothy Stroud's biography (1984) is an excellent distillation of his life with a perceptive commentary on his buildings, given the constraints of less than 300 pages.

David Watkin himself has already touched upon the importance of Soane's lectures in his essay in the Academy Editions' 1983 monograph, but despite the quality of the colour illustrations and Sir John Summerson's vignette of the museum buildings, a full account of this complex architect was still missing. It has taken the resources and commitment of the Cambridge University Press to commission Watkin to examine the materials squirreled away by Soane and reveal the architect's inner thoughts as he evolved his personal architectural philosophy. This volume makes amends handsomely for the brevity and incompleteness of recent publications with its lavish typography, numerous illustrations and scholarly contents. Margaret Richardson has also collaborated on the compilation of a complete list of all the illustrations used by Soane for each lecture, although it would be even more revealing to know at what point in the delivery they were shown.

Soane's humble background and ambition to succeed gave him an extraordinary determination to study as many treatises on architecture and philosophy as he could find, including those written in French, Italian and German. Having been in pupillage from the age of 16, he taught himself these languages which his rudimentary education had not provided, copying extensive translations and sometimes whole books into his own folios. After placing Soane's lectures in the context of architectural discourses from Sir Henry Wotton to Thomas Sandby (Soane's predecessor as professor if one ignores George Dance who resigned owing to his inability to deliver the lectures), the first part of Watkin's book examines the impact on Soane in three themes. Each is the subject of a separate chapter, in which the influence of ideas is followed from individual authors to Soane. This is occasionally repetitive, but given the rigour required to unravel Soane's progress over decades and link his reading to the lectures, Watkin ultimately provides conclusive evidence of how influential the French Enlightenment was upon him.

The first theme is the principles of the orders and the myths surrounding their origin. It is tempting to criticise the naivety of 18th-century architects like Soane trying desperately to discover how classical architecture evolved from simple construction techniques. Laugier's theory of the primitive hut and Soane's hypothesis of Gothic vaulting being inspired by the interleaving of the upper branches of avenues of tall trees seem trivial and pointless from our modern perspective. Yet Watkin reminds us of the importance of these concepts in classical architecture from Vitruvius through Palladio to Soane. Sir John even criticised his own design of 1802 for the Prince's Street vestibule in the Bank of England, because he had used the Doric style internally, which he realised would have been an impossibility according to the constructional theories of the Greeks.

Watkin's second theme is Soane's discovery of the doctrine of architectural propriety by which a building conveys its purpose through its character. He was aware that Aristotle and Horace's notions of decorum had influenced Vitruvius and went on to study authors such as Boffrand, Blondel, his pupil Ledoux, and Le Camus de Mezi res. The last in particular was convinced that different sensations could be aroused in the viewer in architectural and landscape design - light was of special assistance. The debates on this subject in Paris in 1780 never happened in England until, as Watkin puts it, Soane recreated them in his study in Lincoln's Inn Fields 25 years later. Many of Le Camus' ideas were repeated by Soane in his lectures, and Watkin reveals the close friendship and working relationship between Soane and J. M. W. Turner as fellow Royal Academy professors. Turner helped Soane adjust the lighting in the lecture room in Somerset House, and copied the format of his architectural lectures.

The third theme is the symbolic language of antiquity. Soane turned to authors such as "Baron" d'Harcanville, who claimed a common origin for the religions of the ancient world, because of his obsession to justify architectural ornament. Watkin shows how very little of these ideas percolated into the lectures (only numbers six and nine), possibly because Soane felt he still did not have the answers for his pupils. However, his interest in Indian architecture was stimulated and objects acquired for the museum. What he may not have felt confident to say in the lectures certainly found expression in his buildings, for example the extraordinary display of the sarcophagus of Seti I in the gallery of No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, the whole illuminated with 100 lamps to 1,000 guests over three evenings in March 1825.

Soane's style was regarded as idiosyncratic even by his contemporaries, as well as succeeding generations, and he was the subject of several satirical tracts. He was renowned among clients for his extreme sensitivity to criticism and his pupils have left records of his prickly temperament. The young Robert Smirke lasted only for a few months before leaving for George Dance Junior's office to complete his pupillage. It must have been galling for Soane to share later with Smirke, then aged only 33, (and John Nash) the role of architect advisers to the Office of Works in 1813. Soane may have been annoyingly meticulous, but he was also extremely loyal to his assistants and pupils once they were practising themselves.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel met Soane at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1826, which he described at "ingenious" and "full of little deceptions". Unfortunately, Soane's notebooks are missing for this period and we have no record of his views of the great neo-classical German architect. Watkin sees parallels between the two architects, both poised uneasily on the divide between poetry and function, transcending this problem in their buildings. While Schinkel appreciated the aesthetic possibilities of the new materials technology of the industrial revolution, Soane confined his comments in lecture six to a comparative study of the aesthetic affects of bridge designs, especially those like Blackfriars which were picturesque. Although appreciative of the success of the new engineers such as George Stevenson and John Rennie, Soane did not see that the lightness of cast iron bridges, as for example at Coalbrookdale, could enhance a picturesque landscape scene.

Yet he was sensible to elegant engineering, for he made a detour on his hurried return from Italy in May 1780 specifically to sketch bridges at Reichenau, Weltingen and Schaffhausen for his patron the earl bishop of Derry. Considering the number of variations produced subsequently of his Triumphal Bridge design, which won him the Royal Academy's Gold Medal in 1776, one suspects that Soane was preoccupied with grander architectural issues.

Although his neoclassical architecture was unfashionable by the time of his death, the Italianate New Paper Office on St James's Park (1831) is of comparable quality to Charles Barry's Traveller's Club in Pall Mall (1830-32). Watkin draws attention to the deep irony in the closeness of Soane's views to those of A. W. N. Pugin, the great theorist of the gothic revival. Both believed that the current Greek revival had been reduced to a state of meanness due to the lack of association between buildings' architectural character and uses, not assisted by application of inappropriate detailing. Soane's careful analysis of the architectural reasons for the faults in buildings like St Peter's Basilica, Rome, contrasts with Pugin's idealistic invective. Yet, the domination of the architectural profession by speculators, surveyors and builders, motivated purely by commercial considerations was deplored by both. Pugin's argument that "the smallest detail should have a meaning or serve a purpose" showed a debt to the 18th-century picturesque ideas of Ralph Payne Knight, Uvedale Price and d'Harcanville, whose writings Watkin reveals as strong influences on Soane. If they shared the same philosophical bases, why should style divide them? The justification by Pugin for gothic over classical architecture now seems to have been based on misguided religious fervour, which later became fashionable taste. Soane warned his students repeatedly in his lectures against this attitude, as Sir William Chambers had counselled him before he set out on his travelling studentship to Italy in 1778: "Always see with your own eyes, and though it is right to hear the judgement of others, yet never determine but by your own..."

The delivery of the lectures was interrupted in 1806, caused by academicians disagreeing with Soane's criticism of a living architect's work - Robert Smirke's Covent Garden Theatre in Drury Lane - as an example of "sacrificing everything to one front of a building". It is noticeable that Soane always tried to be fair in his criticism for he also exhibited drawings of Robert Adam's Lansdowne House and Leoni's Uxbridge House as further examples of this "defect". He was not obsequious, even taking his mentor Chambers to task in lecture 11 for "being blind to the charms of Grecian architecture", like Piranesi before him, and not bothering to consult the best sources available. Soane even praised "my late friend Mr Robert Adam" (Chambers' lifelong competitor) for the "superb" Keddleston Hall.

Although Soane criticised ancient and contemporary buildings severely, he was never prescriptive about the means and final solutions to architectural briefs. James Gibbs's St Martins-in-the Fields was a continual target of his criticism, from the use of pilasters behind columns (lecture four) to the whole composition: "... he placed order upon order and crowded together so many small parts without sense that the mind is fatigued and embarrassed by their smallness, while the number of them prevents the eye from resting on any of them". It is instructive to discover some of the buildings praised by Soane: St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, by Inigo Jones was repeatedly singled out for explaining Vitruvius's description of the Tuscan Order (lecture three), the importance of a roof's appearance (lecture four) especially when designed appropriately for the climate (lecture nine), and the visual stability of porticoes above basements (lecture six). Sir John Vanbrugh's bold compositions at Blenheim and Kings Weston received similar warm approval, despite misgivings over the appropriateness of some detailing. A silhouette of Blenheim was specially drawn for lecture nine, which Soane's successor as professor, C. R. Cockerell, borrowed from the museum to use in his own lectures.

Soane's opposition in lecture eight to the destruction of 16th and 17th-century historic mansions, as well as the alteration and restoration of those which survived, anticipated the reactions and principles of John Ruskin and William Morris. Alteration should be designed "... so new parts are only distinguished by freshness of the materials... let young architects consider how one can best preserve the works of former ages". Additions should be appropriate: Soane took Inigo Jones to task for adding a classical portico to the pre-Great Fire gothic St Paul's Cathedral.

Through his analysis of the 12 lectures, Watkin has revealed an intellectual rigour in Sir John Soane which for too long has lain unexplained. In the light of his work, Soane's buildings can be re-evaluated using the uniquely detailed and complete sources in the Soane Museum. It is doubtful if this will make him a more attractive character, or even upgrade his already high standing in the pantheon of 18th and 19th-century neoclassical architects. Rather, one suspects that his integrity as a philosopher and educator will be better appreciated, as the first model professional architect. How ironic that Sir Robert Smirke should also have acquired this same reputation in his own lifetime before Soane.

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

Sir John Soane: Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures

Author - David Watkin
ISBN - 0 521 44091 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £75.00
Pages - 763

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

James Fryer illustration (27 July 2017)

It is not Luddism to be cautious about destroying an academic publishing industry that has served us well, says Marilyn Deegan

Jeffrey Beall, associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado Denver

Creator of controversial predatory journals blacklist says some peers are failing to warn of dangers of disreputable publishers

Hand squeezing stress ball
Working 55 hours per week, the loss of research periods, slashed pensions, increased bureaucracy, tiny budgets and declining standards have finally forced Michael Edwards out
Kayaker and jet skiiers

Nazima Kadir’s social circle reveals a range of alternative careers for would-be scholars, and often with better rewards than academia

hole in ground

‘Drastic action’ required to fix multibillion-pound shortfall in Universities Superannuation Scheme, expert warns