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First Phase - Site, 1822-23 (19)


Design Note:-
The final design revisions for the southern extent of the New Law Courts were worked on by Soane during September and October 1822. Throughout the successive alternatives the aim to refine the proposals, reconfigure provisions for circulation and light, and fully incorporate the existing structures becomes clear. This sequence begins with SM 53/2/74, dated to 20 September 1822. Here the Court of Chancery is separated by a light well from the Stone Building’s central block. Its pre-eminence within this part of the New Courts complex is clear not only from its size, but also its more elaborate architectural treatment. In plan, it is shown with pairs of openings in its lateral walls, demarked by circular shafts, implying an aesthetic correlation with subsequent designs for the Court of King’s Bench at the northern end of the site. Chancery’s ceiling is composed of a circle and oculus set between spandrels, and unlike Soane’s realised designs, was intended to be flat, without modulation upwards to the lantern light. The Lord Chancellor’s Room is a near square, awkwardly relating to the adjacent room for his Attendants, while a room for barristers is squeezed into the south-east corner of the site. The Vice Chancellor’s Court is bordered to its north by another light well. This was intended to provide light not only to the latter Courtroom, but also to the adjacent rooms for the Vice Chancellor’s Attendants and barristers. That the latter is forced to straddle the Public Corridor, which terminates at this point, with only a breakthrough into the existing Common Pleas’ corridor from Saint Margaret Street. The Vice Chancellor’s Retiring Room is also accessible from this existing corridor, and the location of heating or ventilation furnaces is sketched into both light wells. The disjunction necessitated by the rhythm of the existing buttresses frequently results in residual spaces, which Soane employs as discreet locations for water closets.

Revisions to this proposal are made in Soane’s own hand on 24 September 1822 for SM 53/2/75, which were then worked up the following day for SM 53/2/76. Here, concerns over the smoother transition of spaces causes Soane to introduce the forms of alcoves and apses throughout the design, clearly demonstrating an aesthetic preference for their effect, rather than their practicality. The Vice Chancellor’s Robing Room is given a hemispherical plan, keyed into the complex by two small ancillary volumes, both of which terminate in apses. These receive light from a very compressed concave light well, defined by the rear of the Stone Building’s central block. As will reappear throughout Soane’s revisions, the curved forms are used to soften misalignments at the junctions between existing structures and his own proposals. The Lord Chancellor’s Robing Room has also acquired a circle and oculus ceiling, directly relating it to the adjacent Court of Chancery. In the worked-up drawing of this idea, SM 53/2/76, the radius of the hemispherical Robing Room was increased, resulting in the former cutting directly into the rear of the Stone Building between its central block’s stairwells. These are now joined as the light well has been filled in a solution which, though aesthetically unresolved, improves the circulation around the Court rooms. The shared characteristics of levels between the respective Court rooms has now also been agreed, with the inscription recording that all the tribunals are to rise three feet above the main floor level.

More thought is also given to the forms of ceilings, with transverse arches or lintels appearing on the Public Corridor, and a combination of groin vaults, circles and rectangular panels over the Lord Chancellor’s passage. The latter’s Robing Room is shown with a large ornamented circle between spandrels, while the Vice Chancellor’s Court appears to show variant proposals for a similar large circle, juxtaposed with a square opening above canted trapezoidal planes. Remarkable here is the ceiling for Chancery, where three lantern lights are arranged longitudinally, with the central one topped by a dome. The remaining ceiling is divided by narrow rectangular panels punctuated by rosettes set in squares. No subsequent design returns to develop this solution.

The unhappy junction between old and new buildings prompted further revisions on 13 October, recorded on SM 53/2/77. The apsidal Robing Room is replaced with a rectangle, regardless of the resulting acutely angled wall in the corridor beyond. The pressures of circulation have also led to a doorway being broken through the rear of the Stone Building’s central block. The room for the Lord Chancellor’s Attendants is now accessed directly from the Stone Building, via a sequence of convex steps. Opposite this breakthrough is a square recess which was presumably intended as a lobby communicating directly with the Lord Chancellor’s Robing Room. The emphasis of this motif draws attention to the axis of symmetry running through these rooms, but the solution provides little by way of practical convenience for the space available, especially in relation to the Lord Chancellor’s passage to the south.

A fundamental change in the plan is recorded on SM 53/2/79. Dated to 17 October, Soane moved the alignment of the Vice Chancellor’s Court northward, and moved its lightwell from the north to the southern side. The displaced Barristers Room formed the eastern side of the latter, directly communicating with the Public Corridor. This arrangement would be preserved in the building as executed. This revision appears to have been prompted by Soane’s efforts to make the openings to the Public Corridor from Westminster Hall more regularly spaced. The former length is also punctuated by a series of transverse bays containing paired alcoves. The predilection for convex forms also appears in the lobby adjacent to the room for the Vice-Chancellor’s Attendants, which is treated as a three-quarter circle, without apparent regard to the circulation problems this would pose. The first ideas for the Public Corridor’s skylights are also indicated here as a series of intermittent rectangular openings. The connecting space between the Lord Chancellor’s Robing Room and the room for his Attendants has also been rationalised by being almost wholly thrown open to the former. The former also shows, for the first time, the sequence of cruciform semi-detached piers which would support its tripartite vaulted ceiling. The Lord Chancellor’s Corridor to the south is also shown here with a colonnade opening directly onto the adjacent lightwell.

This revise alternative is subsequently worked up for SM 53/2/72 and 53/2/73, with Soane trying to reinstate the lightwell to the rear of the Stone Building’s central block (in the former) and finally abandoning it (in the latter). He also establishes the ligature link between the north wall of the Court of Chancery with the south stairwell to the rear of the Stone Building’s central block. This will become the Court’s Lobby, and fuse Soane’s circulation to this Court from its designated entrance on St Margaret’s Street. As an indication of the Public Corridor’s potential both for practical and visual effect, after 30 October 1822 (as recorded on SM 53/2/78) Soane throws the entire east wall of the Vice Chancellor’s Court open to the Public Corridor. This move set the pattern which would be ultimately adopted for all but one of the five Courts aligned along the Corridor’s length. The Vice Chancellor’s Court is, for the first time, given direct access from the Stone Building by a breakthrough to the latter’s northern stairwell. The arches leading from Westminster Hall are also here shown to be of a uniform type with Gothic mouldings; that for the Vice-Chancellor’s Court is shown with a draught lobby.

The Day Book entries record that drawings for this part of the project were worked on in a concentrated burst of energy from October - November 1822. George Bailey, Charles Papendiek and Arthur Mee, joined by the recently-admitted David Mocatta. Regretably, the entries for this period, and those clustered around April and June 1823, seldom specify the specfic area concerned, thereby making direct atrribution of hands to any one drawing difficult.



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 First Phase - Site, 1822-23 (19)