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date: 23 March 2019

Soane, Sir John

The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture

James Stevens Curl,

Susan Wilson

Soane, Sir John (1753–1837) English architect, 

arguably one of the greatest since Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor. Trained in the office of the younger Dance and at the Royal Academy Schools, he joined the office of Henry Holland (1772), where he gained valuable experience. Having been awarded (1778) the King’s Travelling Studentship, he went to Italy where he met several influential Englishmen on the Grand Tour. Led to expect employment by the enormously rich but erratic Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730–1803—Bishop of Derry from 1768 and 4th Earl of Bristol from 1779), he foolishly ended (1780) his stay in Rome to travel to Ireland where he hoped to design the Bishop’s house at Downhill, Co. Londonderry, but this came to nothing. He spent the next four years making good his losses by carrying out small works, some in East Anglia, helped by acquaintances who had heard of his disappointment. Among his designs at this time were lodges and a rustic dairy at Hamels Park, Buntingford, Herts. (1781–3), and a new house, Letton Hall, Norfolk (1783–9). He built up a reputation for probity and competence, exhibited at the RA, made a good marriage, and carried out alterations and additions to Holwood House, Kent (1786–95), for William Pitt (1759–1806), cousin of one of Soane’s friends from his Roman trip, and Prime Minister (1783–1801). In 1788, the year in which he intended to publish Plans, Elevations, and Sections of Buildings Erected in the Counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, etc. (it appeared in 1789), Soane, through his connection with Pitt, gained the Surveyorship of the Bank of England after the death of Sir Robert Taylor. This appointment gave him status and security, and set him up as a leading English architect. The death of his wife’s uncle (1790) brought a legacy that enabled him to build a house at 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London (1792–4), and start the great collections of works of art and books that form the contents of his Museum today. Other official appointments followed. Security also enabled him to evolve an individual style that, while rooted in Classicism, was yet original, and consisted of certain themes. These included the extensive use of segmental arches; shallow saucer-domed ceilings on segmental arches carried on piers and sometimes lit from above; cross-vaults carried on piers; top-lit volumes rising through two floors; a primitive, stripped language of architecture, sometimes featuring Orders such as the Paestum Doric, but more often the replacement of the Orders by a series of incised ornaments cut into unadorned simple elements; very careful attention to lighting, often involving mirrors (plain and convex) and tinted glass; and, above all, an obsession with the furniture of death in the form of sarcophagi, cinerary urns, oppressive vaulted spaces, and the like.

Among his greatest works was the Bank of England in London, with the Stock Office (1792–3—reconstructed by Higgins Gardner, 1986–8) and the Rotunda (begun 1796) two of the most remarkable spaces within the complex, both treated without reference to the Orders, but with the Classicism reduced to simple grooves. The exterior was largely a blank wall, enlivened by recesses and colonnades of the Corinthian Order from the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. Virtually nothing of his work at the Bank survived within the exterior wall after the drastic alterations by Baker (1921–39). After 1800 his work became more intensely personal, as with Pitzhanger Place, Ealing, Mddx. (1800–3), the Dulwich Picture Gallery and Mausoleum (1811–14, restored 1953—where his architectural language reached a new simplicity and refinement), and his own house, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London (1812–13—now Sir John Soane’s Museum), one of the most complex, intricate, and ingenious series of interiors ever conceived, with much top lighting (using coloured glass), mirrors, folding walls, double-height spaces, and parts where the extraordinary obsession with death and the Antique almost overwhelm. The exterior, with its plain ashlar incised front, shows how far Soane had moved in abstracting his Neo-Classicism. Schinkel saw the building (1826), and described the internal spaces as resembling cemeteries and catacombs, with everywhere ‘little deceptions’. Schinkel also found Soane’s ornamentation at the Bank of England ‘strangely simple’.

Soane became (1806) Professor of Architecture at the RA, and gave a series of meticulously prepared lectures. He demanded the highest professional standards, was passionately interested in architectural education, and was very well-read, having one of the finest architectural libraries ever collected. He was clearly influenced by French theorists, notably Laugier, and by certain architects, including the younger Dance, Ledoux, and Peyre. The impact of Paestum Doric was clear from the entrance-hall at Tyringham Hall, Bucks. (1793–c.1800), and the primitive ‘barn à la Paestum’ he designed at 936 Warwick Road, Solihull, Warwicks. (1798). He owned the original drawings of the Paestum temples by Piranesi, still in the Museum. One of his most beautiful creations was the Council Chamber, Freemasons’ Hall, Great Queen street, London (1828—demolished), in which his uses of top-lit saucer-domes, segmental arches, simple incised ornament, and a rigorous unification of walls and ceilings were demonstrated. In spite of the fact that Soane was a convinced Freemason (a portrait of him in his Freemasonic regalia survives), his biographies have been unaccountably reticent about this, yet much of his personal style can only be explained with reference to Freemasonic concerns with Ancient Egypt, death, and the moral meaning of architecture. The mausoleum he designed for himself and his wife in the overspill burial-ground of St Giles-in-the-Fields (now St Pancras Gardens), London (1816), with its segmental pediments and much curiously original treatment is indubitably Freemasonic, and was the model for Giles Gilbert Scott’s C20 GPO telephone-kiosks. His other tombs were severe and dignified, and some works, including the stables at Chelsea Hospital, London (1804–17), and the farmhouse at Butterton Grange, Staffs. (1816–17), were even more minimalist, of plain brick treated with the utmost simplicity.

Although Soane had many pupils, including Basevi, J.M.Gandy, and Wightwick, his own work was lampooned by A.W.N.Pugin, who did considerable damage to his reputation. Earlier, an anonymous attack on him in The Champion (1815) turned out to be by his son, George (1790–1860), from whom he was thereafter estranged (although knighted (1831), Soane is said to have declined a Baronetcy to prevent his son from inheriting the title). His exacting personality cannot have made him an easy man with whom to deal, and his struggle to evolve a new type of Classicism that was a synthesis of Greek, Roman, Italian, Egyptian, and French Neo-Classicism, handled with scholarship, sensitivity, and originality, did not lead anywhere after his death, although his architecture aroused new interest in the late C20.


AR, clxiii/973 (Mar. 1978), 147–55; B & R (1993); Bolton (1927, 1929); Co (2008); Crook (1972a); C & P (1973); Darley (1999); Dean (1999); E.Hs (1990); Js (1999a); M & Wa (1987); Nevola (2000); ODNB (2004); P (1982); RdP (1982); M.Rn & Stevens (eds) (1999); Schumann-Bacia (1989, 1990); Soane (1830, 2000); Stroud (1996); Su (1952); Su et al. (1983); Waterfield (1996); D.Wa (1979, 1986, 1996); W-E (2013)