Half-Wrecked

Mary Beard

  • John Soane: An Accidental Romantic by Gillian Darley
    Yale, 358 pp, £25.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 300 08165 0
  • John Soane, Architect: Master of Space and Light by Margaret Richardson and Mary-Anne Stevens
    Royal Academy, 302 pp, £45.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 300 08195 2
  • Sir John Soane and the Country Estate by Ptolemy Dean
    Ashgate, 204 pp, £37.50, October 1999, ISBN 1 84014 293 6

Tombs do not rank high in the history of modern architecture. Only two grave monuments in London have been designated as Grade One Listed Buildings: the icon of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, and the aggressively idiosyncratic construction that is the memorial to the family of Sir John Soane (‘architect to the Bank of England &c &c &c’, as the inscription proclaims) in the burial ground next to Old St Pancras Church – the romantic spot where Shelley first caught sight of Mary Godwin, but now part of some lugubrious gardens sandwiched between the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, the mainline railway and St Pancras Coroner’s Court. ‘Listing’ has done little to protect either monument. Predictably perhaps, Marx’s tomb has suffered over the years from the hammers and spray guns of both enemies and friends. But Soane’s has fared even worse; not, I imagine, at the hands of desperate architectural ideologues, but from run-of-the-mill vandals, attracted by its sheer oddity. When I visited it in January, it was overrun by brambles; much of its balustrading had been kicked away; its four white marble columns had long since been heaved off (the nearby railway line their likely destination); and the temporary metal fence surrounding it was more of an eyesore than a protection.

Soane designed the monument in 1816, originally as a memorial to his wife Eliza. Above the brick burial vault and within a small precinct bounded by a heavy, classicising balustrade, he placed a tall canopy (almost three metres high) of rough Portland stone, supported on plain square columns and topped by one of his characteristic shallow domes. Inside this canopy was another – a striking visual contrast to the first, in gleaming Carrara marble, with a classical pediment resting on the four Ionic columns. Under the pediment stood a large block of plain marble. Eliza was commemorated on one face (in a torrent of sickly verses which Soane apparently chose in preference to a passage from Horace); Soane himself and his elder son were later commemorated on two of the others. The fourth face was for ever left starkly blank, as if to advertise the absence of George Soane, the younger son, whose vicious newspaper attacks on his father’s architecture – and character – were often said to have hastened Eliza’s end. (It is a measure of Soane’s narcissistic vindictiveness that for several years he hung framed copies of George’s articles in his drawing-room, giving them the title ‘Death Blows’ in gilt lettering.)

This extraordinary monument has attracted extravagant, almost mystical admiration from architectural historians: ‘a metaphor of the temporal within the eternal’, according to John Summerson; an embodiment of the ‘tension between enticement and resistance, openness and enclosure ... a mesmerising presence’, according to Christopher Woodward (writing in John Soane, Architect, the lavish catalogue of the recent Royal Academy exhibition of Soane’s work). More mundanely, it is regularly identified as the source of one of the most familiar (and also much vandalised) symbols of mid-20th-century British culture: Giles Gilbert Scott’s famous ‘K2’ telephone kiosk. There is, in fact, no direct evidence (beyond a tenuous similarity of shape) that Scott actually used the tomb as his model. But such is the power of the Soane legend that his inspiration is taken for granted; and the red kiosk is illustrated time and again in studies of Soane, as proud proof of his legacy to modern Britain.

Soane’s architecture, no less than ‘Soane the man’, has always provoked intense reactions. He won some of the most significant architectural commissions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries: Dulwich Picture Gallery, the first purpose-built art gallery in the world; the Westminster Law Courts; the Bank of England (where he was resident architect between 1788 and 1833); in addition to a host of major country house projects, from Cornwall to Yorkshire. He was an influential member of the Royal Academy and, from 1806, its Professor of Architecture. Yet, as Gillian Darley charts in her meticulous new biography, John Soane: An Accidental Romantic, he was also repeatedly mocked for his arriviste pretensions (a bricklayer’s son, born John Soan, he added the more dignified final ‘e’ when he was setting up practice in the early 1780s), for his ludicrous irascibility (one of his standard responses to criticism was to issue a libel writ) and for the perversity of his architectural idiom. The renegade son George, who had thwarted all his father’s attempts to turn him into an architect, married against his wishes and embarked on an unsuccessful literary career, was not the only critic to sneer at Soane’s brand of classicism. (‘Disproportion is the most striking feature in the works of this artist,’ he wrote in one of the milder passages of the article that reputedly drove Mrs Soane to her grave, ‘he plunders from the records of antiquity things in themselves absolutely good, but which were never intended to meet in the same place.’) Years earlier, just after his first work at the Bank, Soane’s idiosyncratic antique style had already been satirised in an anonymous poem entitled ‘The Modern Goth’ (‘To see pilasters scored like loins of pork,/To see the Order in confusion move,/Scroles fixed below and Pedestals above,/To see defiance hurled at Greece and Rome’ etc, etc). When Soane heard that this had been recited by one of his rivals at an architects’ dinner party, read out to the fellows of New College, Oxford and finally published in the Observer, he resorted (unsuccessfully, as usual) to the law.

Over the last fifty years or so, the tide has turned emphatically in Soane’s favour. Many of the design features which so irritated his 19th-century critics – imaginative combinations of the classical orders, ceilings perilously suspended, virtuoso displays of light and shade – found a more enthusiastic audience in the late 20th century. And some of his most characteristic tropes found distinguished copyists: Philip Johnson, for example, created an extraordinarily Soanean New York synagogue in the 1950s, and referred disarmingly to ‘the most cuddly, marvellous feeling’ of imitating Soane. Even more strikingly, Soane has been conscripted into the genealogy of modern architecture, as a founding father of almost any aspect of contemporary theory or practice you care to name, with an influence extending far beyond the telephone kiosk. For some critics (such as Robin Middleton, in John Soane, Architect) Soane’s wholly unclassical handling of space makes his work the ultimate origin of architectural Modernism; others, stressing his playful pastiche of classical Order, see him instead as the fountainhead of Post-Modernism. In other guises he appears as the founder of architecture as a profession in Britain, instrumental in marking the split between architect and builder, and in defining an architect’s professional duties to his client. He has even been hailed as the major channel into this country for the theories of the European Enlightenment – or so David Watkin’s generous reading of Soane’s muddled (and, at the time, scarcely audible) Royal Academy lectures would suggest.

These rival claims to Soane’s legacy are neatly captured, and subverted, in a cartoon currently on show in Sir John Soane’s Museum, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, parodying the reaction of a series of expert visitors to last year’s Royal Academy exhibition. Expert after expert sums up the contribution of the great architect: ‘a master of the semiotic signifier ... the first Post-Modernist’; ‘Zoane vas ein pioneer Late-Modernist’; ‘the original Non-Pluralist-Classicist’; ‘a Deconstricted (sic) Geometrist’; and so on. Only to be upstaged by the final, and instantly recognisable, figure of ‘Homer Simpsoane’, who (obviously having read Darley’s frank biography) has no trouble at all in identifying this obsessive and sadistic father as ‘the first Dysfunctionalist’.

The 20th-century enthusiasm for Soane’s work might seem to be just another strand in the traditional tale of architectural revaluation and changing fashion, of the genius recognised only long after his death – were it not for one thing which (though fleetingly acknowledged) is rarely emphasised in modern studies of Soane. The uncomfortable fact is that almost nothing of his major work survives, certainly not complete or in anything like its original form. His Bank of England was demolished in the 1920s (only the massive curtain wall is now Soane’s); the Law Courts were pulled down in 1883; many of his country house projects have been lost or altered out of all recognition (at his largest house, Tyringham near Newport Pagnell, for example, only the lodge gate and river bridge survive in recognisably Soanean form; Tendring Hall in Suffolk was demolished in 1955, leaving just the front porch; and so on). Even Dulwich Picture Gallery, claimed as a notable survival, has not only been substantially remodelled but was also bombed during the war, and is now a ‘Soane building’ only in the sense that it has been reconstructed as such. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Soane’s central place in architectural mythology is connected to the fact that he can be ‘reinvented’ more freely than those architects whose buildings do survive, to haunt their reputation.

In the absence of almost all this major work, studies of Soane must try to recapture the visual impact of his architecture by different routes: through grainy black and white photographs taken prior to demolition; through Soane’s own sketches and plans (though how far these represent what was actually built is often unclear); and, especially, through the extraordinary perspective drawings and watercolours of the buildings which Joseph Michael Gandy produced for Soane. Gandy was a brilliant architectural theorist: he had been a Royal Academy Gold Medallist and was the author of two visionary books on rural architecture, which attempted to bring the cutting edge of neoclassical design to labourers’ cottages and village pubs. He was, however, lamentably unsuccessful in practice, twice ending up in the debtors’ prison (an experience which – so he claimed in a letter to Soane – did much to refine his views on prison architecture). Soane employed him from 1798 on, to capture his architectural schemes on paper; and it is these dramatic images, with their tricks of light and perspective, their miniature figures and, in Darley’s words, ‘magnification of space’ that now stand proxy for the bricks and mortar we have lost. It is now impossible to see Soane’s buildings except through Gandy’s moody, romantic and deeply unsettling paintings.

How accurate a view of Soane’s work do these offer? Are they, inevitably, Gandy’s architectural vision, rather than Soane’s? Most architectural historians wish to resist any such awkward conclusion and prefer to cast Gandy simply as the faithful amanuensis of his master’s work. (All the books reviewed here are unusually scrupulous in even acknowledging Gandy’s hand; most studies of Soane reprint his impressions of the major commissions without reference to their artist – merely entitled, as if they were photographs, ‘Bank of England, by Soane’.) There is some justification for treating Gandy in this way; and a good deal of evidence that he shared, or was expected to share, his employer’s vision of architecture. Gandy, for example, depicted the newly rebuilt Bank of England as if it were a ruin: an ironic prequel, as it turned out, of the building’s much less romantic fate – as the Royal Academy catalogue hints, when it opens its chapter on ‘Soane’s Legacy’ with a stark full-page photograph taken in 1925 of one of his famous domes in the Bank’s Colonial Office being demolished. But he was not going against the grain of Soane’s own aesthetic. For Soane, like many of his generation, was fascinated by the paradoxical status of the ruin and the ambivalent distinction between construction and demolition (how can you tell the difference between a monument that is half-built and one that is half-wrecked?). In fact, at his own country house, he not only built some ‘fictional’ classical ruins, but even wrote an ‘archaeological description’ of them and in one of his many acts of paternal sadism set his elder son to ‘restore’ them, as part of his architectural training. And a few years later, his first account of his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (Crude Hints Towards the History of my House) cast its author/narrator as an archaeologist visiting the site in the future, and speculating on the original form and function of the building he finds.

Nevertheless, Darley is surely correct when she bravely suggests that the connection between Gandy’s paintings and Soane’s buildings must be more complicated than this usual (optimistically naive) reading allows. She hints at a much more complex symbiosis between artist and architect, in which Soane gradually began to see (and create) his work in the idiom that Gandy had established; Gandy, in other words, taught Soane what ‘Soanean’ architecture was to be. One could push this even further and conclude that the extravagant manipulation of space, light and texture which we have come to take as Soane’s, and which is re-emphasised in the subtitle of the exhibition catalogue, were more Gandy’s creations than his master’s. That view of the artist’s relative independence would certainly fit with the evidence of Gandy’s painting of Soane’s tomb – which places it within a haunting but entirely imaginary wooded setting, monumentalises it beyond all reason (to follow Gandy’s scale, either his mourning human figures next to the tomb are dwarfs 40 centimetres tall, or the canopy has been inflated to more than 12 metres high), and includes underneath the blank memorial panel a sculpture – which was certainly never executed or even planned – of a skeleton hurling a spear. It would also fit with the impression left by Ptolemy Dean’s attractively gentle watercolours, which he includes as illustrations to Sir John Soane and the Country Estate (a careful study of ten of Soane’s best-preserved country house schemes). These prove, as clearly as anyone could wish, that a different style of painting suggests a quite different style of architecture. A far cry from the unsettling theatricality of Gandy’s Soane, in Dean’s versions Soane’s country houses could almost have been designed by Hugh Casson, on a particularly daring day.

There is one striking exception to the general rule of demolition that has applied to Soane’s work: his own house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He gave this in trust to the nation, to be kept ‘as nearly as circumstances will admit’ in the state in which he left it at his death. It is this house and its collection (now the Sir John Soane’s Museum) that ought to offer some control on Gandy’s vision: some independent and authentic evidence for Soane’s style of architecture and interior design, throughout a preserved building of his own creation.

The house is disquieting, exhilarating and exhausting in turn. Ingenious light-wells flood the most surprising areas with shafts of light, consigning other parts to gloom; spy-holes and windows offer views from one floor to another, onto hidden courtyards or the Gothick ‘Monk’s Parlour’ in the basement; whole walls open up to reveal further vistas behind; mirrors in domes and doors confuse the boundaries between reflection and reality, and between floor and ceiling. In Soane’s display galleries, there is the predictable haul of a middle-ranking 18th-century collector, the figurines, statues, busts and regulation plaster casts (Antinous, the Apollo Belvedere and so on). But here each one is exactly placed so as to direct the viewer’s gaze or to interact with another object: every statue looks at something. Meanwhile, hundreds of insignificant fragments of classical ornament and sculpture (slivers of moulding, animal claws, fingers and toes) are fixed in elaborate patterns all over the walls – as if to reclaim the kind of ancient bric-a-brac that most self-respecting antiquarians would simply have thrown away, to make a radically new style of classical display.

Not all visitors enjoy this Soane Experience. Young George was predictably dismissive of the house and its collections. The interior, he wrote, was ‘a ludicrous contrast with the exterior’, the antiquities collected merely a testament to his father’s vainglory and greed – ‘here is the image of Ephesian Diana, once the object of human adoration, but now only valued as a rarity, that by its high price may feed the grovelling pride of its possessor.’ Even today, the comments inscribed in the Visitors’ Book attest to the wildly different responses the house provokes – ranging from the naively enthusiastic (‘Amazing, could you design my house?’) to the mildly shocked (‘Is it a grave?’) and the uncomprehendingly supercilious (‘Interesting, but tasteless’). The lighting effects turn out to be a particular focus of disagreement: on the one hand, those who simply do not see the point (‘Very interesting – but you could use some decent lighting’; ‘So many details lost because of bad lighting; what a pity!’); on the other, those who feel compelled to defend the Soanean aesthetic (‘Please don’t give in to the “more light” enthusiasts – the moody dim areas are enchanting, peaceful and preserve the air of privacy that infuses this magical place’). It would all make salutary reading for those architectural historians who consider Soane the undisputed ‘master ... of light’.

The continuing impact of this extraordinary house-cum-museum is beyond doubt. How far it represents a preciously preserved slice of authentic Soane, independent of Gandy’s vision, is a rather more complicated question. Lincoln’s Inn Fields certainly cannot be typical of Soane’s architectural idiom. Houses that architects design for themselves rarely are; for they are conceived outside that three-cornered relationship (between architect, client and builder) that Soane himself defined. Once architect and client are conflated, the delicate equilibrium between creativity and control, money and common sense always risks being lost; in this case brilliant but mad eccentricity is the result. But that is not the only problem. We also need to reflect on the house’s history since Soane gave it in trust to the nation. Despite his injunction to preserve it exactly as he left it, however literally (or not) he may have meant it, there have been all manner of changes to the building over the last hundred and sixty years: partly to handle visitors (Soane’s plans presumably did not include a set of male and female lavatories); partly following the initiatives of successive curators. A fascinating article by Helen Dorey in the Royal Academy catalogue traces the history of these interventions: one curator in the late 19th century removed much of the stained glass, remodelled the basement crypt and had plans to demolish large sections of the upper floor, including the dome – though (luckily) he died before he managed to carry them out; others wreaked their will on the colour scheme (painting the stairs and gallery areas green, for example). The current, more enlightened management is committed to undoing this damage and restoring the house to its Soanean glory – as well as to explaining to visitors how exactly they are going about that difficult task.

And here comes the sting in the tail. In the beautifully restored breakfast parlour an information leaflet explains that their main guide in recreating the original appearance of the room was nothing other than the painting by Joseph Michael Gandy. Even in his own home, we are committed to Gandy’s version of how Soane should be.