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Sessions House, Clerkenwell, 1821 (3)


Architectural Note:-
Clerkenwell Sessions House, or more correctly Middlesex Sessions House, was the place where Justices of the Peace for the latter county held their quarter sessions, but not assizes. The building was designed by the County Surveyor, Thomas Rogers and erected 1779-1782, with revisions to the main façade and ornamental details at the behest of Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland. It replaced ‘Hicks Hall’, built 1610-1612 by Sir Baptist Hicks, on a different site in St John’s Street. By the late eighteenth century it was decrepit and, surrounded by busy thoroughfares, ill-suited for Court sessions. The new building, on a different site was conspicuous enough amongst the recent buildings in the metropolitan suburbs to be published in the first volume of George Richardson’s New Vitruvius Britannicus, published 1802, and Thomas Rowlandson’s & Auguste Pugin's Microcosm of London, published in three volumes from 1808-1810.

The design is notable for the main façade featuring an engaged Ionic portico over a rusticated arched basement, directly behind which are ancillary rooms. At the centre of the plan is the imposing double-height Hall, with Composite pilasters carrying a coffered dome on pendentive arches, lit by semi-circular windows beneath the latter. The whole was in clear emulation of Wren’s St Stephen Walbrook. Behind this at first floor level is the Court Room proper, originally divided from the Hall by a glazed screen. Such a device preserved the sense of an 'open court', and admitted the maximum of uninterrupted light into the adjacent spaces. Furthermore, the screening a large, domed volume with tiers of ancillary rooms also occurred at the Court of Common Pleas, and was a design solution Soane redeployed in his New Law Courts.

The original design for the Court, arranged around an oval table, apparently followed that of its Jacobean predecessor. This was revised in execution, but still referenced in the apsidal treatment of the Court’s west wall and the curved magistrates' benches (drawing SM 37/3/30). All that was retained of the previous building was a carved oak chimneypiece; an incorporation of architectural spolia which anticipates the salvaging of a chimneypiece from the Old Exchequer Chamber (drawing SM 81/1/22).

Drawings Note:-
The survey drawings were undertaken in a brief campaign from 24-25 May 1821. The corresponding Day Book entries make clear that the on-site survey was undertaken by Arthur Mee, accompanied by Charles Papendiek; perhaps a training exercise for the latter. The worked-up survey drawings, with their characteristic pink wash for sections, are clearly related to the surveys of the Old Law Courts at Westminster, recorded two years later by Mee in SM Vol 48. The survey drawings no doubt furnished Soane with a comparative architectural exemplar for his own designs for the New Law Courts.



Digitisation of the Drawings Collection has been made possible through the generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation. This catalogue of Soane’s designs for the New Law Courts was generously funded by The Worshipful Company of Mercers and The Pilgrim Trust.

If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: drawings@soane.org.uk

Sir John Soane's collection includes some 30,000 architectural, design and topographical drawings which is a very important resource for scholars worldwide. His was the first architect’s collection to attempt to preserve the best in design for the architectural profession in the future, and it did so by assembling as exemplars surviving drawings by great Renaissance masters and by the leading architects in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries and his near contemporaries such as Sir William Chambers, Robert Adam and George Dance the Younger. These drawings sit side by side with 9,000 drawings in Soane’s own hand or those of the pupils in his office, covering his early work as a student, his time in Italy and the drawings produced in the course of his architectural practice from 1780 until the 1830s.

Browse (via the vertical menu to the left) and search results for Drawings include a mixture of Concise catalogue records – drawn from an outline list of the collection – and fuller records where drawings have been catalogued in more detail (an ongoing process).  

Contents of Sessions House, Clerkenwell, 1821 (3)