- The drawings from the office of Sir John Soane
Erected during the reign of Edward I (1272 - 1307), this court was presided over by the Lord Chancellor of England, acting as the monarch’s principal secretary and exercising considerable judicial authority. Located at the south-west corner of the dais in Westminster Hall, its physical position demonstrated Chancery’s emergence from the administration of the royal household; the Curia Regis. It had the power to amend and overrule the sentences of the other law courts; an extension of the royal prerogative. As such, it heard all cases without benefit of juries and could subpoena individuals without a specific charge and detain them indefinitely. Its purview was disputes over probate and property, addressed by litigants to the monarch, which in practice were dealt with by the Lord Chancellor.
The Court administered a form of justice distinct from common law, one known as equity, with cases being judged with reference to precedent, not statute. This often necessitated extensive research into legal archives, adding greatly to the respective case’s time and expense. By the Regency era, Chancery had become a by-word for protracted, inefficient legal procedures, which due to the ensuing expenses was the preserve of the wealthy. A parliamentary select committee was set up in 1811 to investigate delays in Chancery cases. However, all moves towards root-and-branch judicial reform were effectively blocked by the incumbent Lord Chancellor, John Scott, 1st Earl of Eldon (in office 1801 - 1827). In his defence of Chancery’s jurisdiction, Eldon was supported by the Prime Minister, Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (in office 1812 - 1827). The backlog of cases was eventually eased by the temporary creation of a deputised official and court; that of a Vice Chancellor (discussed subsequently). However, from 1819 a growing awareness of widespread unrest in the country effectively stymied further calls for reform. As a result of the Supreme Court of Judicature Acts (1873 - 1875) Chancery’s functions were merged with the other superior courts to form the High Court of Justice.
The earliest surviving drawing relating to this court (SM 71/2/62v) is dated 19 October 1822. This positions it clearly within the concentrated activity for preparing designs for this and adjacent areas of the Law Courts through October - November 1822. 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. However, the solution proposed in SM 71/2/62v, is reflected in a more worked up state in a drawing produced later that month (SM 53/4/81), immediately prior to the start of construction on the site. It was to prove a valuable template by which building the core walls of the Law Courts could advance, while the surface treatment of the interiors was finalised. Soane’s solution was in essence to extract from the overall plan the near-square area allocated for the Court of Chancery 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. This solution provided a visual consistency for the interior Court of Chancery, upon which the internal finishes could be grafted.
That Soane closely oversaw such details is evinced by SM 69/7/1/v/a and SM 69/53/4/80v, where initial decorative treatments for the upper levels are recorded. The same holds true for the design of the canopy over the Judges’ Tribunal (SM 53/2/61 - 63). Designed in October 1823 when the structure was nearing completion the drawings, executed by Charles Papendiek, demonstrate through their annotations and revisions Soane’s guiding influence.
Following the initial drawings in late 1822, refining ideas for the interior disposition of this Court was only recommenced in April the following year. This flurry of activity may have been in part the result of a meeting on site held on 15 March 1823. The Day Book entries record that the same four draughtsmen returned to work on this project. Activity resumed in the second half the of following May when (largely unspecified) Day Book entries for the Law Courts were delegated to Edward Foxhall and Stephen Burchell; the latter having become Soane’s pupil in January 1823.
The first demonstration of Soane’s ideas for the Court’s interior are recorded on SM 53/4/80. Dated 8 April 1823, the two tiers of the interior are divided by an oval gallery with an ironwork balustrade. Above this, the main light source for the interior takes the form of a cubic lantern light, apparently hanging weightless over the space below on a series of canopy arches. Its inner faces are screened by fluted screens pierced with oculi; a remarkable aesthetic conceit. This extraordinary proposal not only responded to the enclosed position of the Court of Chancery within the site as a whole, but enhanced the means of providing natural light through such ornamentation, thereby giving the unbroken volume of the interior a unifying visual focus. The design for the upper level was slightly revised on 13 May (SM 53/2/65) though the aesthetic idiom and selective recourse to salient forms remains consistent with the original idea. It also pulls Chancery’s interior into visual synergy with the Vice Chancellor’s Court, suggesting a deliberate wish to endow these spaces with an integrated aesthetic, thereby demonstrating their judicial relationship. The ideas trailed and rejected in the latter were fruitfully returned to in order to emphasis the Court of Chancery’s superiority.
As completed, the interior was recorded amongst Joseph Gandy’s interior views, undertaken from August - September 1826. They record that the completed gallery was carried on diaphragm arches, pierced with oculi to allow additional light in the corners of the courtroom (SM Vol 61/68). It is also clear that the screening oculi within the lantern light were altered in execution to form arches openings; such a revision allowing more direct light into the interior (SM Vol 61/70).
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).