Sublime Propositions

John Summerson

This book is about the career of John Soane up to the age of 31. As Soane only started to build when he was 28, as all his important work was done after he was 35, as he practised architecture till his retirement at 80 and died at 83, it will be seen that the biographical coverage is likely to attract the dedicated specialist rather than the general reader. Nothing wrong with that. But the book is titled and packaged to give a somewhat different impression. The Bank of England and the Soane Museum are brought into the first few lines of the blurb but there is, of course, nothing about them in the book. The restrictive significance of the subtitle, ‘The Making of an Architect’, only emerges after a careful reading of the introduction. In short, the presentation of the work approaches the borderline of mendacity.

In these circumstances we may well ask: was the book worth writing? Fortunately, the answer is yes and for two reasons. First, because there is in the Soane Museum a mass of unpublished and rarely seen material relating to the founder’s early years. Not, indeed, as much as one would wish: his home life and schooldays are still virtually a blank and we do not even know exactly where he was born. But from 1772, when he was 19, drawings and documents begin to accumulate and continue to do so to the extent that no other Georgian architect’s early life is anything like so well documented. By the end of the period which du Prey has selected for his work there are diaries, ledgers, measuring books, a fair number of letters and many drawings.

The second reason the book was worth writing reflects honourably on the author. Du Prey is a fastidious scholar who knows how to describe Classical buildings and takes nothing for granted. He explains the social context of buildings as well as their architectural content. He knows that a hasty scribble on a verso may be as significant as the fancy drawing on the recto – possibly more so. In the ‘labyrinthine’ (his word) Soane archive a capacity for taking pains is a sine qua non of worthwhile research and it has resulted in a worthwhile exposition of a small corner of architectural history. Small but significant, not only in respect of the larger Soane story, but also of architectural education and patronage in the last quarter of the 18th century.

Soane was born in 1753, the son of a Berkshire bricklayer. At 15 he met a London architect, James Peacock, who was closely associated with George Dance, architect to the City of London. Dance gave Soane a place in his household. After three or four years he left Dance for Henry Holland, from whom he learned more of the business side of building and on whose book-keeping methods he probably modelled his own. He was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools at 18 and du Prey gives a lively picture of the Academy at this time, when Reynolds was president and Chambers treasurer. The Schools were accommodated in the Queen’s Gallery, built (allegedly from an Inigo Jones design) for the widowed Henrietta Maria. On the principal floor were the grand ‘plaister academy’ and the library. There was no studio for architecture and the students were expected to make their drawings at home or in whatever architect’s office they were employed. They had the use of the library and were obliged to attend the lectures of the Professor of Architecture, Thomas Sandby. Sandby’s lectures were hardly brilliant but they contained a good deal of common sense, besides reflecting the notions of architectural ‘character’ current at the time. As du Prey observes, Sandby ‘provided his students with the closest thing they ever got to a university education’.

A main object of the pupils at Somerset House was to win one or both medals offered by the Academy – the Silver for a measured drawing, the Gold for a design. In both cases the subjects were set by the academicians but for the Gold there was a preliminary five-hour test or, as we should say, esquisse, to be executed under the eye of the Keeper. Soane botched his chance of the Silver in 1771 by sending in a day late. In the next year, when the set subject was the west elevation of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, he won. The meticulous, nicely-shadowed drawing is in the Museum.

In 1774 he tried for the Gold. The subject was ‘a Nobleman’s Town House’. Soane worked hard and packed most of the fashionable gimmicks into his plan: but the victory went to a certain Thomas Whetton whom the world of architecture never heard of again. In 1776 the Gold was again on offer, this time for a Triumphal Bridge. This meant a bridge with colonnades and arches on top of it such as had been imagined by Palladio and dramatised by Piranesi. It was also a pet theme of Professor Sandby’s, who was accustomed, at the sixth lecture of his course, to exhibit his idea of this sublime (in the Burkean sense) proposition. It extended for more than half the width of the lecture-room. Obviously, the competitors had to take their cue from Sandby but without copying him. Soane very cleverly reinterpreted the Sandby design in the light of Marie-Joseph Peyre’s Oeuvres d’Architecture, a work published in 1765 but still fresh to most English eyes. The borrowings are shameless but they did the trick and Soane got his medal.

Soane’s bridge made a tremendous impression, notably on himself. He drew additional views of it and, in due course, translated it from Roman Corinthian into Greek Doric, presenting this purified version to the Parma Academy; later still it reappears in majestic perspectives by Gandy. But the best thing the Triumphal Bridge did for Soane was to win him, by an overwhelming vote, the travelling scholarship to Rome, which became vacant in 1777.

Before leaving for Italy he had a go at a real-life competition for the new St Luke’s Hospital for lunatics but without success. He also prepared for publication a curious little book called Designs in Architecture, consisting of ... Temples, Baths, Casines, Pavilions, Garden-Seats and other Buildings. Du Prey quotes me as having called it ‘a collection of slight and affected studies’, which it is: but to anybody investigating the beginnings of the Soane style it must be taken seriously and he is right to give it a chapter. The idea, no doubt, was to keep the gold medallist’s name before the public while he was away. Behind it was Sir William Chambers’s handsome folio on Kew, recording the various garden features in Classical and exotic dress which Chambers partly designed and partly sponsored. Some of these are reflected in Soane’s book, but du Prey reveals another, less obvious source, the Grotesque Architecture of William Wrighte. Many of the designs can be written off as hasty improvisations to implement the publisher’s prospectus but one that cannot be so dismissed is the last in the series, a preposterous mausoleum dedicated to the memory of ‘James King Esq., drowned on June 9, 1776’. King was a companion of Soane’s who had been on a boating party in which Soane (who could not swim) had declined to participate because he was too busy designing his triumphal bridge. ‘It looks,’ says du Prey, ‘like the final resting place of the same British hero who had recently crossed the bridge in glory.’ It does. It also reflects the gold medallist’s euphoria on the eve of his departure for Rome.

Soane left England in the spring of 1778 and returned in April 1780. To these two years, arguably the most important in his whole career, du Prey gives four chapters. In the first he considers patronage. The quest for patronage was at least as important to an obscure young architect as the experience of antique masterpieces and, paradoxically, foreign travel was the way to find it. In Rome, Florence and Naples, and still more in less conventional environments like Sicily and Malta, the social restraints of London tended to loosen. A bricklayer’s son who could style himself ‘the King’s travelling student’ was at no great disadvantage, given average tact, with peers and gentry travelling on their own account. Soane’s first attachment was to that most flamboyant of Grand Tourists, the Bishop of Derry, who, by the end of 1779, had inherited the earldom of Bristol. The earl-bishop took a liking to Soane, made him his travelling companion and offered him all sorts of future employment at Downhill, his Irish seat. Although the offer was to end in bitter disillusion and a lost year in Italy, the entry to the bishop’s circle proved invaluable. One of the group was Thomas Pitt, later Lord Camelford, first cousin to the prime minister and a near-professional architect in his own right. That acquaintanceship led far, as did that with Thomas Bowdler, the expurgator of Shakespeare, whose own circle of friends included, not only a Norfolk squire and a Scottish laird who helped to spread Soane’s national reputation on his return, but a North-Countryman, Rowland Burdon, who became a life-long friend and was one of the few who could penetrate the paranoiac defences which isolated Soane from so many in his middle age.

From patronage we pass to itineraries and guidebooks. Of the latter, Anna Miller’s Letters from Italy was the one which Soane favoured and in which his annotations flow most freely. In Sicily he and his friends used Patrick Brydone’s Tour through Sicily and Malta, testing the learned author on every point with mischievous good humour. The tempo of these excursions was fairly brisk and Soane’s companions were not of the kind to tolerate delay occasioned by sketching and measuring. Soane’s serious studies had to be done alone or in the company of professionals.

The serious studies were of two kinds and du Prey gives them a chapter apiece. First, there was the examination and measurement of ancient monuments. A difficulty here was to find subjects which had not been measured dozens of times before. The measuring of monuments in and around Rome had become a minor industry. Original drawings and copies of drawings passed from hand to hand, sometimes bought, sometimes borrowed, often pirated. Du Prey investigates the curious affair of Soane and the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. George Dance had made a thorough measuring job of that building in 1762 and his drawings eventually landed up in the Soane Museum with the collection which Soane bought from the Dance family after George’s death in 1826. But a set signed by Soane, purporting to be from his own measurements, had been hanging in the Museum for many years. The two sets are identical in presentation. Soane’s story (as retailed by Farington) was that his own drawings, made at the request of the earl-bishop, were lost on the journey home and that he borrowed Dance’s to make good the deficiency in his collection. It sounds a bit thin. Did Soane really go to the enormous trouble and expense of crawling all over that sizable temple when Dance’s splendid set was available to him in London? One wonders. Another odd proceeding concerns the drawings, also in the Museum, of Michele Sanmichele’s work at Verona. Du Prey has identified them as copies of drawings by an Italian architect, Luigi Trezza, now in the Biblioteca Civica at Verona. We know that Soane at one time contemplated a publication on the great Veronese master. The unattributed copies from Trezza would have helped.

The second kind of serious study which engaged Soane in Italy was the making of designs for ideal buildings. It was a condition of the Royal Academy’s award that their travelling student should send to London evidence of his progress in this direction. Soane set himself the theme of a ‘British Senate House’, which he developed on a majestic plan with sweeping colonnades of the Bernini kind and elevations and sections of noble aspect. Here his performance is on a level with what the pensionnaires from the French Academy were producing, year after year, even if he never quite achieved that sublime frigidity which was the ultimate test of the Grand Prix virtuoso. The British Senate House was followed by a mausoleum for the lately deceased Earl of Chatham and this in turn by a Castello d’Acqua, the set subject for an award offered by the Academy of Parma (though Soane did not actually submit it). The Castello was to be, in effect, a water-works treated as a public monument and the curiosity of the idea seems to have appealed to Soane for his sketches show a flexibility and humour not previously evident.

Returning to England with a sense of accomplishment and full of optimism, Soane crossed to Ireland and presented himself to the earl-bishop at Downhill. Alas! His lordship’s mood had changed. There was no work for Soane and after wasting five or six weeks he was dismissed with a cheque for £30. Back in London, he began the grim practical task of earning a living.

‘Establishing a Practice’ is the title of the last section of the book. Soane put in for the great Penitentiary competition of 1781, promoted by the Government to procure model plans for male and female prisons on the reformist principles of John Howard. Soane’s two designs, conceived as great geometrical masses with not a column in sight, are as impressive in their way as George Dance’s Newgate. But they did not win and in 1782 the rebuilding of a back alley off the Borough High Street as a speculation was nearly all the work he had. Then came a small bridge at Norwich and a few country houses. At this point the arbitrary selection of 1784 as a terminal date becomes embarrassing. Adequate discussion of the country houses is hardly possible without leading up to the finest of them, Tyringham, which was not finished till 1797; and the book ends rather weakly with a ‘Post-Mortem’ on the ill-fated Tendring Hall, a charming house certainly, but one that might have been designed by any loyal pupil of Wyatt or Holland.

The value of the book is in detailed, well-wrought episodes rather than in narrative outline and there is a good deal to be said for this way of handling the material. The illustrations are liberal, well-chosen and admirably arranged and the book is a pleasure to handle.