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Sir John Soane
1753 - 1837



Review of the talk by Christopher Rogers
on January 24th 2018

Sir John Soane, a forgotten genius of 19th Century Architecture

This extraordinary man came from a very humble background.  His family were agricultural labourers and he was one of seven children, but from a very young age showed an extraordinary ability for draftsman ship and drawing.  On the death of his father, he moved to Chertsey to live with his uncle, a bricklayer who introduced him to a surveyor working with George Dance the Younger.  Under George Dance, and at the age of 15, Soane began his training as an architect and was doubtless encouraged by Dance to join the schools at the Royal Academy where the classes were free.  He continued his education with Henry Holland where he had ‘every opportunity of surveying the progress of building in all its different varieties’.  In 1776 he won a gold medal for drawing and in 1777 won the Kings Travel scholarship which enabled him to travel to Italy with a group of gentlemen as their draftsman.  He visited Paestrum and Sicily where he became exposed to ancient Greek architecture which was to heavily influence his later designs.  Continuing through Italy, he returned to England in June 1780 and subsequently in debt from his travels he went to Ickworth to see the very wealthy 4th Earl of Bristol/Bishop of Derry who was planning a big extension to the House.  They fell out over designs and he didn’t get this commission but friends he had made on the Grand Tour, Thomas Pitt and Philip Yorke, gave him commissions for repairs and minor alterations to help pay his way.

Greek Doric flat based columns and rooms lit from lantern light in domes became signatures of his style and finally in 1783 he received a steady stream of commissions.  In October 1788, although young and relatively inexperienced, through the influence of William Pitt, he became architect and surveyor of the Bank of England, where he worked for the next 45 years virtually rebuilding the entire Bank and vastly extending it.  He also worked on Lincolns Inn Fields, Westminster and large parts of London.


Ground plan of the Bank of England by John Weale from an original at the Soane Museum, 1851.

An innovator, at his own country house, Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing, and elsewhere he used the new Codestone for the statues on the building.

Sadly, much of his work has been destroyed, but Dulwich Picture Gallery remains as a fine example.  No windows, more room for hanging pictures, and top lit by roof lanterns.

 
 
Sir John Soane (circa 1828-1829)
Thomas Lawrence

His London home, 12 Lincolns Inn Fields, was also used as a library for his extensive collection of antiquities and architectural salvage and he remodelled and extended the house into two neighbouring properties which can be visited today.  It contains paintings by Canaletto, Turner and Hogarth, thousands of architectural drawings together with hundreds of artefacts.  In 1833 he obtained an Act of Parliament to bequeath the House and collection to the Nation.

Although buried in a simple tomb in Old St Pancras churchyard, with no religious symbolism, his influence extended after his death as the design of the tomb was a direct influence on Giles Gilbert Scott’s design for the red telephone box.

An agricultural labourer’s son, who famously became a Fellow of the Royal Society and Royal Academy, was painted by Lawrence and knighted by the King.

Sue Harman

Related Link (opens in new windows):

Sir John Soane's Museum