- The drawings from the office of Sir John Soane
The Regency era saw successive campaigns to impose order upon the topography of the City of Westminster. This factor explains the wider appearance of the Palace of Westminster, and was a key influence on Soane’s New Law Courts. Throughout the eighteenth century, the expanding suburbs to the west of London resulted in increased traffic upon the existing, largely unplanned, infrastructure. In addition there was a wish to give Westminster a more regular and uniform appearance, a reflection of its institutional and historic status. Attention was focused on the aesthetic dissonance between a worthy setting for a national parliament, and the actual conditions of the legislature’s accommodation. John Ralph’s Critical Review of the Public Buildings … about London and Westminster, published 1734, first articulated these sentiments in print. The resulting efforts saw the medieval distinctions of a palace enclosed by courtyards change to a series of buildings given new prominence as the focal points of vistas, framed by regular and uniform streets. The wider interest in this campaign of urban improvement is attested by the topographical maps and views of Westminster, issued with growing frequency as the eighteenth century progressed.
In 1707, at the request of Justices of the Peace for the City of Westminster, the Great Gateway of the Palace was demolished. The Inner Gateway, which abutted the Augmentations Office between New Palace Yard and St Margaret's Lane, was demolished in 1728. Eight years later, the Westminster Bridge Commission (comprising some 175 members) was established by Act of Parliament. Its prime concern was to oversee the erection of a new bridge linking Westminster to Lambeth, the northern approach to which would redefine both New Palace Yard and the northern perimeter of the Palace complex. Designed by the engineer Charles Labelye, construction began in 1738, following which Bridge Street was laid out, to the north of New Palace Yard. This new approach consolidated the architectural importance of Westminster Hall, whose north façade served as the de facto main entrance to the Palace complex. A by-product of this was the laying-out of Parliament Street to the north, which opened in November 1748. This superseded King Street by provided a more imposing route to Whitehall and the City of London beyond. Similarly, Dirty Lane to the south of Old Palace Yard was recast as Abingdon Street. Under the same aegis St Margaret’s Lane, which marked the Palace’s western perimeter, became St Margaret’s Street.
The programme of clearance continued into the final decades of the eighteenth century. Most conspicuous was the demolition of the Augmentation Office in 1793, which at last joined St Margaret’s Street to New Palace Yard. Its stump, conspicuous in all relevant survey drawings, continued to project from the Court of Exchequer’s western end (see North Range). A further campaign at the end of the century was overseen by the Commissioners for Westminster Improvements. Amalgamated from existing parliamentary bodies, with its powers extended by successive Acts from 1800-14, its nine commissioners represented the combined influence of parliamentary, legal and civic interests which centred on Westminster. The Commission’s goal was to ‘insulate’ the key landmarks of Westminster by purchasing and demolishing the piecemeal accretion of houses in the vicinity of the Palace. Through their efforts, the west side of St Margaret’s Street was cleared of buildings. This opened up the vista to Henry VII’s Chapel and St Margaret’s church, both buildings having seen recent restoration campaigns by James Wyatt and S.P. Cockerell respectively. Garden Square, the precursor of Parliament Square, was also first laid out at this time to create a view of the Abbey from Westminster Bridge. The miscellaneous array of buildings set up against the north façade of Westminster Hall and the Exchequer offices was also cleared away.
The ambitious schemes for reconstructing the Palace of Westminster, proposed by William Kent, James Adam, and indeed Soane, lie outside the scope of this note; all that was posthumously realised of the Kent’s designs, The Stone Building, is discussed in the relevant note (see South Range). Aside from Soane’s executed work at the Palace of Westminster (which is catalogued elsewhere) the recasting of the complex was the responsibility of James Wyatt as Surveyor General. Alterations were first necessitated by the Act of Union with Ireland, passed in 1800. With this the Lords moved from the medieval Queen’s Chamber, immediately to the south of the Painted Chamber, into the former Court of Requests. The Commons had their accommodation within the former St Stephen’s Chapel increased, to the dismay of such antiquaries as John Carter. From 1805-1808, the Speaker’s House was given the external semblance of a Gothic mansion, with the House of Commons appearing to be its chapel. The latter’s east wall was rendered in cement with a false Gothic window and polygonal turrets. To complement this on the Palace’s northern side, Wyatt erected offices for the House of Lords, adjacent to their new home along the east side of Old Palace Yard. However, his intentions far exceeded the realised design. Soane disparagingly recalled in his Royal Academy Lectures that Wyatt’s goal was merely to “produce a burst of Architectural Scenery”. During a parliamentary debate in 1808, Members likened the Old Palace Yard building, named ‘the eyesore’, to both a prison and a gentlemen’s lavatory (see drawings SM Vol 61/25-26).
The condition of the Palace’s buildings had been a longstanding cause for concern. In 1789, a House of Commons committee commissioned a report into the Palace’s fabric. Compiled by fourteen prominent architects (including Soane) it catalogued the decayed, ill-adapted and combustible state of numerous buildings. The overlapping responsibilities for maintenance, which largely fell to the Office of Works, further complicated matters. Subsequently, a piecemeal series of demolitions ameliorated some of these concerns. However, beyond the 1793 limited competition for a new Houses of Parliament, no systematic campaign of reconstruction was embarked upon. However, the acknowledged failure of Wyatt's exertions in the Gothic style at Westminster undoubtedly coloured the course of Soane's own designs for the New Law Courts and his arguments in defence of his stylistic choices.
For ease of consultation, the pre-Soane Law Courts buildings have been divided into four distinct ranges. It should be noted that this does not reflect historic or established practices when discussing this site. Rather it is intended to serve as a means of rationalising the complexities inherent in the site and, as far as is practicable, follows the divisions of jurisdiction across the site between the different resident Courts. Drawing of the respective Courts proper within each range appear with drawings which include surveys of adjacent offices. The ranges are divided between Westminster Hall, east, north and south ranges; all being classed under Courts and Office Surveys. Drawings which include details of Courts have been categorised under the respective Court. Those drawings which extend across separate ranges have been included in the range which is given greatest coverage. Surveys which cover all, or a significant portion, of the entire site are entered under a separate category: site surveys.
For both the survey drawings of existing buildings and the New Law Courts, the floor on which the Courts sat is referred to as the ‘main floor’. This should not be understood as a synonym for either ‘ground’ or ‘first’ floors, given the complex sequence of level changes across the New Law Courts. These were carefully considered by Soane, taking account of the existing floor levels in Westminster Hall and The Stone Building, as well as the site’s inclining gradient towards the Thames. As such, the catalogue does not follow the original designations given in inscriptions are not followed in all cases. Clarification of the exact level shown is given in the aspect description.
For consistency in both survey and New Law Court drawings, compass directions are given with reference to Westminster Hall. Though the building’s longitudinal alignment is north-north-east to south-south-west, it is referred to as though cardinally aligned. It follows that the compass directions recorded in inscriptions are sometimes divergent from this convention. Clarification of the latter is given in the aspect description.
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).