In Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, in a family of bricklayers, Martha Soan, wife of John, gave birth on September 10th 1753 to John, her second surviving son.
The boy was strong and healthy and he was introduced by his father to the world of construction under the period that will be called “Georgian Architecture” (eponymous for the first four British monarchs of the House of Hanover—George I, George II, George III, and George IV—who reigned in continuous succession from August 1714 to June 1830).
At the age of 14, his father died and the Soan family had no other choice than moving to Chertsey, where the elder brother of John, William Soan, lived with his spouse, also him working as a bricklayer.
William, 12 years elder than John, probably working in a building site of the architect George Dance the Younger, introduced his little brother to James Peacock, surveyor and assistant of Dance, who liked the boy and allowed him to start his training as an architect in the Dance’s London office. John was just 15.
John spent three years working for George Dance, before becoming the assistant of Henry Holland in 1772, and that period was probably the spark that enlightened his incredible passion for architecture. He once said that he was “placed in the office of an eminent builder in extensive practice where I had every opportunity of surveying the progress of building in all its different varieties, and of attaining the knowledge of measuring and valuing artificers’ work”.1
Around 1799-1800 John Soane was already living in his famous 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields with his wife Elizabeth and his two surviving sons John and George (other two died prematurely), when he decided that he could afford a country seat with the intention of designing his manifesto of architecture to entertain friends and potential clients.
But the purpose wasn’t only to free his creativity: he wanted to build the house of a new dynasty of architects, willing for his two sons to inherit his cultural legacy.
At first he planned to design a new building from scratch, but after some research he found an available property that he visited on 21 July 1800 in the rural Ealing (now East London) of 28 acres (110.000 m²) with a fairly modest two-wing villa, called Pitzhanger Manor. He offered £4.500 to the owner Jonathan II Gurnell, who accepted the offer the following month.
The interesting aspect of this particular property was that the larger wing of the house was designed by George Dance and John Soane himself worked on the project in 1768 while he was an apprentice in the studio of his first employer and mentor.
From 1800 to 1804 Soane unleashed his creative genius in this project, starting with a great demolition of the existing building, but for the Dance’s wing. He opted for keeping the entrance at the centre, emphasized by a triumphal square façade with four columns topped by freestanding Coade stone caryatids and a set of six chimneys on the top. The new wing was designed lower, finishing with a series of faux Roman ruins on which Soane liked to joke, saying to his visitors that they were true artifacts from Italy, showing his drawings of how they were in origin.
The interiors were to amaze the visitors, with curious and audacious experimentations in light and space. The entrance for example, was designed as a dark passage with dark painted walls, flowing into a much bigger space with yellow marble-painted walls and diffuse zenithal light from hidden windows.
The symmetry of the spaces is reiterated with many different expedients, such as fake doors, mirrors, windows, paintings, niches, cabinets, lights, etc…
The beauty of the painted walls in rooms like the Upper Drawing Room is extraordinary with echoes in colours and effects probably to the period of “grottesco romano” of the 15th century, as a memory of Soane of his only stay in Italy in 1778.
Every room was a completely new environment and experience, according to Soane’s personal taste and desire. He amused himself to alter the perceived proportions of the space, by designing smaller chimneys or particular hand-painted patterns on the walls, resembling the Ancient Roman Pompeian Period.
The interior was designed as a private gallery of archaeological artefacts and artworks that now find their place in his most famous project, Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, and as an entertainment place in which he could host clients and influential friends at dinners and parties. He purposely designed a building in which he could clearly show his ego and his eclectic taste in antiquaries, suggesting to the visitors that the products of his works were actually the “incarnation of a longer lineage of antiquity and [he was] the inheritor of an ancient classical tradition”.2
Some features of the house seem even to foreshadow the early 20th-century rational movement, such as the conservatory, an unadorned glazed structure bathed in light in the rear of the house and the lantern on the roof of the house, developing on the whole length of the building without serving as a real light for the house, probably made with the purpose to find more easily the house at night. These elements allow a different point of view on Soane, putting his role in a predominant place as one of “the unexpected progenitors of the modern architecture”3, trying to surpass the classical order in new ways, reducing the ornament to pure personal amusement.
Unfortunately none of his sons were interested to embrace his passion: John, the elder, suffered from ill health and George, the younger, had an uncontrollable temper and went to Cambridge University to study Law.
As a consequence for the disappointment, John Soane decided to sell the property in July 1810 and retreated in his 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields with his wife. But the delusion wouldn’t stop here: in 1815 an anonymous article appeared on “The Champion” on 10th and 24th September entitled “The Present Low State of the Arts in England and more particularly of Architecture”4, from which John Soane was singled out for personal attack. Here a brief extract:
“Thus in the bank of England, the greater part of which is built by mr Soane, we meet with remnants of mausoleums, caryatides, pillars from temples, ornaments from the Pantheon, and all heaped together with a perversion of taste that is truly admirable. He steals a bit here, and a bit there, and in piling up these collected thefts, he imagines he has done the duty and earned the honours of an artist.[…]”
It soon emerged it was written by George and Soane’s wife Eliza, suffering already from ill health, was deeply upset about a so profound rejection of a father by a son. She will die just two months after writing on 13th October: “Those are George’s doing. He has given me my death blow. I shall never be able to hold up my head again.”5
The genius of a man, who was able to push the boundaries of Classical architecture towards new horizons, starting with nothing but his passion and consistency, may have failed within his family, but inspired and continues to inspire an infinite number of artists, sculptors, architects, historians, who look at him as the greatest British architect.
2 – E. Heathcote, “Soane and heirs”, article on Financial Times – House&Home, 16th/17th March 2019, pp.14-15
3 – Ibidem
4 –, From Enlightenment to Romanticism : Anthology II, Manchester University Press, 2003, pp. 194-197
5 – The death of Eliza Soane, from John Soane’s Museum London
– Sir John Soane’s Museum London
– Pitzhanger Manor Gallery and Collection
– H. Ibata, “The Challenge of the Sublime: From Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry to British Romantic Art”, Manchester University Press, 2018, pp. 312
Emily Allchurch – Grand Tour l – Homages to Soane (after Gandy) in reference to the illustration by Joseph Gandy “Perspective of various designs for public and private buildings executed by John Soane between 1780 and 1815 as if they were models in a gallery (1818) – 2012.
Source: Emily Allchurch