Sir John Soane

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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. In 1778, having been awarded 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 erratic and enormously rich Lord Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and later Earl of Bristol (1730–1803), 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, Bunting-ford, Herts. (1781–3), and a new house, Letton Hall, Norfolk (1783–9). He built up a reputation for probity and competence, exhibited at the Royal Academy, 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 one of the leading English architects. The death of his wife's uncle in 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 important 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; crossvaults 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 in the 1920s and 1930s.

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 in 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’.

In 1806 Soane became Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, 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, of 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, he does not seem to have exercised any lasting influence on English architecture, and indeed his own work was lampooned by A. W. N. Pugin, who did considerable damage to his reputation. Earlier, an anonymous attack on his work in The Champion (1815) turned out to be by his son, George (1790–1860), from whom he was thereafter estranged. Although knighted in 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.


Arkansas clxiii/973 (Mar. 1978), 147–55;
Bindmann & and Riemann (1993);
Bolton (1927, 1929);
Colvin (1995);
Crook (1972a);
Crook & and Port (1973);
Darley (1999);
Dean (1999);
E. Harris (1990);
Jencks (1999a);
Middleton & and Watkin (1987);
Nevola (2000);
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004);
Placzek (ed.) (1982);
Ruffinière du Prey (1982);
M. Richardson & Stevens (eds.) (1999);
Schumann-Bacia (1989, 1990);
Soane (1830, 2000);
Stroud (1996);
Summerson (ed.) (1952);
Summerson et al. (1983);
Waterfield (1996);
D. Watkin (1979, 1986, 1996)

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Sir John Soane

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was one of England's most original and distinguished architect in the neoclassic idiom.

The son of a bricklayer, John Soane was born on Sept. 10, 1753, at Goring-on-Thames, Reading. He entered the office of George Dance, Jr., surveyor to the city of London, in 1768, and in 1771 was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools, where he was awarded the Silver and Gold Medals. He was an assistant to Henry Holland from 1772 to 1778 and was probably responsible for designing the Entrance Hall at Claremont House, Surrey, rebuilt by Holland for Lord Clive.

In 1778 Soane traveled to Italy on a king's studentship. There he met the eccentric bishop of Derry (later Marquess of Bristol) and in 1780 returned to England with him, encouraged by dazzling promises of elaborate building commissions. These did not materialize, but eventually Soane established a successful practice, chiefly building small houses in Norfolk and Suffolk. In 1788 he was selected as surveyor to the Bank of England.

In 1806 Soane became professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, and from 1807 until his death he delivered a famous series of elaborately illustrated lectures. In 1814 he became one of three "attached architects" to the Board of Works.

Soane's outstanding achievement was the rebuilding of the Bank of England (1788-1830), in which he gave the fullest expression to the highly personal style that he evolved. This was a primitive kind of neoclassicism, in which he abandoned the conventional orders of columns, entablature, and pediment in the interiors and replaced them by a system of flat wall surfaces with shallow recessions and with a severe linear ornament of incised lines and fluting. Structurally he made great use of shallow domes, clerestory lighting, segmental arches, pendentives, lantern lights, and mirror friezes, by these means often creating a sense of infinity within a confined space. His facades, in which he employed the classical orders, possess great dignity and elegance.

Other important works are Shotesham, Norfolk (1785-1788), Chillington, Staffordshire (1786-1789), the Chapel at Wardour Castle, Wiltshire (1788), Tyringham, Bucking-hamshire (1793-1800), Aynhoe Park, Northamptonshire (1800-1804), Pitzhanger Place at Ealing (now the Public Library, 1800-1803), Moggerhanger, Bedfordshire (1806-1811), and Dulwich College Picture Gallery in London (1811-1814).

Soane designed his own house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London (1812-1813), and adapted it as a museum "for the study of architecture and the allied arts"; his collection of drawings, models, casts, paintings, sculpture, antiquities, and architectural fragments survives intact, and the house is now a public museum. He died there on Jan. 20, 1837.

Further Reading

Soane's own work, The Union of Architecture, Sculpture and Painting (1827), contains a full description of Sir John Soane's Museum. The most detailed monograph on Soane is Arthur T. Bolton, The Works of Sir John Soane (1924). Harry J. Birnstingl, Sir John Soane (1935), is a brief monograph containing good photographs of the Bank and other principal works. The excellent work by Dorothy Stroud, The Architecture of Sir John Soane (1961), incorporating the most recent research, is particularly well illustrated with modern photographs, including many of the country houses not shown in other works. A general account of Soane's style and influence is in John Summerson, Architecture in Britain, 1530-1830 (1963).

Additional Sources

Du Prey, Pierre de la Ruffiniere, John Soane, the making of an architect, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Du Prey, Pierre de la Ruffiniere, John Soane's architectural education, 1753-80, New York: Garland Pub., 1977.

Watkin, David, John Soane, London: Academy Editions; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983. □

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Soane, Sir John (1753–1837). English architect. Following an apprenticeship and successful studies at the Royal Academy, between 1778 and 1780 Soane travelled in Italy on a scholarship awarded by George III. In 1788 he won the competition to design a new Bank of England and remained as surveyor to the Bank until 1833. Of this, his most important work, only some fine interiors remain. Two houses he designed for himself show his mature style; Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing, is now a library, while 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields is the Sir John Soane Museum, containing his collection of antiques and paintings. Dulwich College Art Gallery, another most original design, was destroyed in 1944, but faithfully rebuilt. Less successful than his great rival John Nash, from whom he differed in every respect, Soane was probably a truer interpreter of the period's taste for the classical. He was knighted in 1831.

June Cochrane

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Soane, Sir John (1753–1837) English architect. One of the most original of all British architects, Soane developed his own personal style of classicism. He designed (1795–1827) the Bank of England, London.