- The drawings from the office of Sir John Soane
The design and building of the Court of King’s Bench was to prove the most fraught and protracted aspect of the entire Law Courts complex. This was the only part of the site open on two sides; facing New Palace Yard to the north and St Margaret’s Street to the west. In order to accommodate the necessary accommodation for officers and attendants on this court, Soane proposed arranging the latter directly against the northern perimeter of the site, thereby effectively screening the Courtroom itself. Circulation was permitted by the corridors which ran at first-floor level against the north and south walls of the Court. Following the series of meetings and consultations of March 1823, and the essential layout of the Court was determined, but its interior and the northern façade would be successively revised. The former adopted core walls containing two tiers of arches derived at in the design of the Vice Chancellor’s Court in late 1822, and used throughout the different Courtrooms. Circulation at the effective terminus of the Law Courts complex, as much as additional accommodation, remained a determining factor upon the design.
The new range’s foundations were first excavated on 25 July 1823. An indication of different approaches to allowing access directly from New Palace Yard is recorded in alternative designs, prepared by Edward Foxhall on 3-4 June 1823 (SM 53/2/39). There are minor changes to the anteroom directly behind the north façade, and more significantly the change in positioning the entrances from the façade’s centre (SM 53/2/38) to its corners (SM 53/2/37). The latter solution was thereafter carried through into execution, with the doorways providing an anchoring articulation which the corners otherwise lacked. The earliest design for the façade, though undated, is shown in SM 53/8/48v, where the corner entrances are provisionally indicated. Clearly related to the alternatives shown in SM 53/3/37-39, it suggests that Soane still held to the alternating rhythm of arched pseudo-Serliana windows at first-floor level, with restrained attic storey above. As is clear from SM 53/8/47, the only working drawing for the façade as originally executed, the fenestration was made more uniform, with subsidiary windows consistently given square heads, and the linking range to Westminster Hall, is reduced in height. As a composition, it clearly adopts the Palladian idiom and horizontal levels of The Stone Building.
Numerous undated drawings by various hands compare the Court’s previous accommodation within Westminster Hall (e.g. SM 53/7/3). They appear to demonstrate Soane’s later claim, which appeared in his Public and Private Buildings (p. 10), that the previous Courts were sufficiently capacious, and provided Soane with a template for his own design.
There are only two surviving working drawings giving sections through the Court, both undated but clearly prepared between the second half of 1823-March 1824. SM 53/3/11 records the provision of a basement level beneath the northern side of the range, where the gradient declined towards Westminster Hall. SM 53/4/75 records the tiered seating in the body of the Court, largely as eventually realised. The radiating segmental curve of the latter clearly an evocation of the earlier Courtroom in Westminster Hall. Significantly, there are no working drawings for the core and decoration of the interior which can be dated to the period of construction. Instead, variant design drawings prepared by George Bailey and Stephen Burchell in late April 1825 indicate that the upper level of the interior bore direct synergy with the exterior. A concentration of similar drawings of the interior elevations (with minor variations, though datable to the same period) records the final realisation of the design. However, as subsequent survey dated survey drawings make clear, the basic form and lantern of the Court were in place by this date (e.g. SM 53/5/16). Here were repeated the pseudo-Serlianas of the north façade, with subsidiary rectangular openings between (e.g. SM 53/3/10), the lower level was articulated with recessed horizontal channels, punctuated by square headed openings. These gave access to the Court from the adjacent chambers and circulation spaces, and were necessarily square-headed given the galleries which ran at first floor level above them.
As ultimately realised, the interior was recorded in Stephen Burchell’s surveys of 3-8 January and (with furnishings) in March 1826. This series is augmented by another survey campaign of September 1826. Both series of drawings betray his still hesitant handling of details. More evocative are the sequence of views taken by Joseph Gandy from August - September 1826 (e.g. SM Vol 61/44). They make clear that Soane’s treatment of the interior gave the Court of King’s Bench the aura of primacy amongst the Common Law Courts. However, the common underlying idea of an almost cubic volume, given focus and unity by a prominent lantern light remains apparent. The same compositional idea of a ceiling resolving into a lantern light (explored previously) is present, but here articulated with the greatest degree of ornamentation and on the most expansive scale (SM Vol 61/43).
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).