Sir John Soane
Born: 10th September 1753
at Whitchurch, Oxfordshire
Died: 20th January 1837
at Lincoln's Inn Fields, Westminster, Middlesex
Sir John Soane was born at Whitchurch in Oxfordshire, the son of a mason, in September 1753. His real name was Swan, which he changed, first to Soan, and later to Soane. After attending Mr. Baker's school in Reading, the nearby town in which his father worked, John was engaged as an errand boy by the architect, George Dance the Younger, who, observing his artistic talent, took him into his office, and later transferred him to that of Henry Holland, with whom he remained until 1776.
In 1772, Soane gained the Royal Academy silver medal with a drawing of the elevation of the Banqueting House at Whitehall and, in 1776, the gold medal with a design for a triumphal arch, a remarkable composition which also earned for him the travelling studentship. In March 1777, he went to Italy, where he spent three years, chiefly in Rome, studying the remains of antiquity and making original designs for public buildings. There, he made the acquaintance of Thomas Pitt, 1st Baron Camelford, Frederick Augustus Hervey DD, 4th Earl of Bristol, and other influential persons, who were of service to him in later years. In 1778, during his absence abroad, his first publication appeared, being a series of plates of temples, baths and such like, designed in the then prevailing style, and possessing so little merit that he afterwards bought up and destroyed all copies that could be found.
Soane returned to England in 1780 and, during the next few years, erected many country houses, the designs for which he published in a volume in 1788. In 1784, he made a wealthy marriage. In 1788, on the death of Sir Robert Taylor, he was appointed architect to the Bank of England and this success proved the starting point of his prosperous career. He was required to enlarge and practically rebuild the entire structure of the bank, a task which involved many difficulties due to the form and character of the site. The architectural style which he employed – Roman Corinthian of the variety found in the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli – was a great innovation, and the result, notwithstanding many grave faults in the details, has been generally admired. Upon this work Soane's reputation now chiefly rests. All his other important buildings in the metropolis having since been altered or removed. In his home town, he designed a large brewery complex and elegant residence for entrepreneur, William Blackall Simonds, in 1789; and, fifteen years later, at the request of Edward Simeon, the Director of the Bank of England and brother of local parliamentary candidate, John, erected a bizarre obelisk as a triple lamp stand in the market place. He also made alterations at nearby Wokefield and South Hill Parks.
In 1791, Soane was appointed clerk of the works at St. James's Palace and the Houses of Parliament; in 1795, architect to the department of woods and forests; in 1807, clerk of the works at Chelsea Hospital; in 1813, superintendent of works to the fraternity of freemasons; and in 1815, one of the three architects attached to the office of works. In 1794, Soane was commissioned to prepare designs for the remodelling of the House of Lords, but the work was eventually entrusted to James Wyatt. He afterwards unsuccessfully urged upon parliament proposals for a Royal palace in the Green Park and other magnificent public buildings. About 1808, he was employed upon restoration work at Oxford and Cambridge, especially at Brasenose College. In 1812, he erected the galleries at Dulwich College for the reception of Sir Francis Bourgeois' pictures; in 1818, the National Debt Redemption Office in Old Jewry; between 1822 and 1827, the Royal gallery and library at the House of Lords, the law courts at Westminster (removed in 1884), and the privy council and board of trade offices in Whitehall (afterwards rebuilt by Sir Charles Barry); and in 1829, the state paper office at Westminster, which was pulled down in 1862 to make way for the new India office.
Soane's buildings were generally well planned, but in his later ones the elevations rarely proved satisfactory, being marred by a profusion of ornament often mean and meretricious. He incurred much hostile criticism and ridicule, and a satirical attack upon his 'Baeotian' style, published in Knight's 'Quarterly Magazine' (1824) led to an unsuccessful libel action. Soane was elected ARA in 1795 and RA in 1802. In 1806, he succeeded George Dance as professor of architecture at the academy and the courses of lectures, which in that capacity he delivered, commencing in 1809, attracted much attention. In 1810, they were temporarily suspended in consequence of a vote of censure passed upon him by the academy for adversely criticising the work of a brother-architect. He became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1795, of the Royal Society in 1821, and was a member of the academies of Vienna and Parma. He was knighted in 1831. In 1827, he published 'Designs for Public Improvements in London and Westminster' and, in 1828, 'Designs for Public and Private Buildings'. In 1833, Soane resigned all his appointments and retired from practice and, in 1835, was presented with a set of medals by the architects of England in recognition of his public services.
Soon after his appointment as professor of architecture at the academy, Soane began to form, for the benefit of his pupils and other students, collections of antiquities, books and works of art; and, upon these, towards the end of his life, he expended large sums of money. In 1824, he purchased the celebrated alabaster sarcophagus brought from Egypt by Belzoni. He acquired Hogarth's two series of pictures, 'The Rake's Progress' in 1802, and 'The Election' (from Garrick's collection) in 1823; Reynolds's 'Snake in the Grass’ and a number of good works by the leading painters and sculptors of the day. These, together with many casts and models of the remains of antiquity, gems, rare books and illuminated manuscripts, and the whole of his own architectural designs, he arranged in his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, which he transformed into a museum, employing many ingenious devices for economising space. In 1827, John Britton published 'The Union of Architecture, Sculpture and Painting: a series of illustrations with descriptive account of the house and galleries of John Soane.' In 1830, Soane himself printed a description of the museum of which a third edition (1835), with additional illustrations by Mrs. Hofland, contains a portrait of Soane, mezzotinted by C. Turner from a bust by Chantrey.
Soane was a munificent supporter of charitable institutions connected with art and literature. His house and its valuable contents in Lincoln's Inn Fields, Soane, in 1833, presented to the nation, obtaining an act of Parliament by which it was vested in trustees, and endowing it with the funds necessary for its maintenance. He died at his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields on 20th January 1837, leaving the bulk of his property to the children of his eldest son, and was buried in the mausoleum which he had erected for his wife in old St. Pancras’ churchyard.
Despite his philanthropic instincts, Soane was a man of intractable temper, and not happy in his domestic relations. In 1784, he had married Elizabeth Smith (d. 1815), the niece of George Wyatt, a wealthy builder, to whose fortune he thereby succeeded. By her, he had two sons, John and George; the former died in 1823 at the age of thirty-six; with the latter he established a lifelong feud, and he is said to have declined a baronetcy in order that his son might not inherit anything from him.
Edited from Sidney Lee's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1898)
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