- The drawings from the office of Sir John Soane
Following the growing pressures to reform the Court of Chancery, in 1811 a parliamentary bill was introduced to create a deputised official and court to help clear the backlog of cases. This led to the erection of the Vice Chancellor’s Court; the bill being passed two years later, with the caveat that this innovation was a temporary measure. The first office holder was Sir Thomas Plumer (1753-1824) a figure closely allied to the Lord Chancellor, John Scott, 1st Earl of Eldon (in office 1801-1827). Supporters of root-and-branch judicial reform felt this solution would merely add to the existing inefficiencies and delays. This position was most represented in the House of Commons by Michael Angelo Taylor (?1757-1834), the only son of architect Sir Robert Taylor, and Sir Samuel Romilly (1757-1818), a sometime Chancery lawyer. However, from 1819 a growing awareness of widespread unrest in the country effectively stymied further calls for reform.
As suited a temporary expedient, the Vice Chancellor’s Court first sat at Lincoln’s Inn. In 1816 a Select Committee was set up to investigate better accommodation for both Courts of Chancery. Members of Lincoln’s Inn offered at suitable plot for purpose-built accommodation, located on the north side of New Inn Square. However, this was countered by a rival petition to the Commons opposing the proposal. When this scheme was not proceeded with, the Vice Chancellor’s Court occupied a Commons’ committee room, most likely located in the southern flank of The Stone Building. As a result of the committees set up following the contested elections of 1819, the court moved into the Prince’s Chamber, adjacent to the south end of the old House of Lords; a space only used during State Openings. That same year Plumer’s successor, Sir John Leach (in office 1818-1827), asked the Lords of the Treasury for permission to furnish this room accordingly. After the objection of the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Gwydir, in early 1820, this modest proposal was revised to include a completely new Court room to the south of the Prince’s Chamber. This was approved by the Treasury on 27 May 1820, but never proceeded with, owing to the return of Caroline of Brunswick on 5 June.
Despite its recent erection amongst the ancient Courts associated with Westminster, the Vice-Chancellor’s Court was the first to be designed by Soane. This was undertaken in a focused campaign from October - November 1822, and the experiments and solutions reached on refining the preliminary idea would establish the aesthetic tenor of the Law Courts as a whole. The Day Book entries record these drawings were undertaken by George Bailey, Charles Papendiek and Arthur Mee, frequently assisted by David Mocatta. Regrettably, specific references to drawings for this court are very intermittent. The majority of those which can be ascribed to an individual hand date from the closing week of November and are here associated with Mee.
The earliest surviving design is dated 30 October 1822, prepared just after this part of the site had been cleared (SM 53/2/53). The disposition of portals and windows implies that the form of the core walls (subsequently recorded in SM 53/1/8 and SM 53/4/67v) had already been established. Soane’s solution was in essence to extract from the overall plan the near-square area allocated for the Vice Chancellor’s Court, and to divide the walls by two tiers of arches. Given their relative position within the wider complex, and such practicalities as entrances from adjacent spaces and proximity to light wells, these arches could either be open, or simply left blank and recessed. They also allowed construction work to proceed prior to the exact form of the interior to be determined. SM 53/2/53 represents the first section to indicate the appearance of one of the new Law Courts. The lower level is treated in a restrained manner, with a triple arrangement of monumental portals providing implied access and endowing the interior with a sense of monumentality. The almost cubic volume is divided above by the introduction of a gallery carried on diaphragm arches. Broken by an oval it supports an Ionic peristyle in a seeming display of virtuosic weightlessness. To articulate the axial direction of the Courtroom, the widest part of the oval was given coupled columns, while its adjacent narrow ends supported convex bays. As yet, the Courtroom would be lit by lateral windows behind the colonnade, and it there is no indication of a lantern light being proposed (SM 53/2/47).
By 15 November 1822 the colonnade had been revised to include coupled columns joined in between by a screen wall (SM 53/2/49); the resulting plan suggesting a phalanx of aedicules without a continuous entablature. This was confirmed on 18 November in SM 53/2/52, where each aedicule carried a triangular pediment, and on 27 November a low circular lantern light is introduced to the design (SM 53/2/46). A mere two days later, on 29 November, as recorded in SM 53/2/51, the aedicules are abandoned in favour of a balustrade broken by plinths. These carry busts, over which are placed a series of canopy arches, mirroring the oval profile of the balcony beneath them. The coupled colonnade motif is reintroduced within the lantern light, providing greater articulation what is now the interior’s main light source.
Following this concentration of inventive energy, there was a surprising absence of developing this design further until 6 March 1823, when Soane noted that he had returned to it (SM Notebook 177, 6 March 1823). As recorded in George Bailey’s section of 12 March 1823, there is a rationalised, broader treatment of the interior, where the horizontal divisions offered by the gallery is eschewed. However, the same unifying effect of its diaphragm arches is echoed in the shallow concave pitch of the ceiling, and the distinction between the space’s upper and lower tiers is (tentatively) asserted by an ornamented frieze. In a form first recorded in SM 53/2/57, this took the form of consoles carrying a continuous line of antefixes. The lantern, now square in plan, still carries a colonnade within, but its scale in relation to the interior is notably reduced, yielding place to the sizable ‘clerestory’ windows of the Court room’s upper tier. This process of selecting revising and arranging a select series of visual elements to compose the interior of the Vice Chancellor’s Court was arguably the formative moment when the pattern for the other Law Courts’ interiors was established.
The eventual provisions of furnishings are recorded in SM 53/2/55, as is an alteration common to the Courts which were adjacent to the Public Corridor: the three arched openings have been thrown together into a single opening, no doubt facilitating less congested access from Westminster Hall. As completed, the interior was recorded in a series of survey drawings undertaken by Stephen Burchell from 15 - 22 March 1825. Entering Soane’s practice in January 1823, many of his drawings relating to the Law Courts appear to be exercises in training his hand (as the emphatically crude quality of his draughtsmanship makes clear). More impressively, the Vice-Chancellor’s Court was included amongst the interior views undertaken from August - September 1826, undertaken by Joseph Gandy.
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).