- The drawings from the office of Sir John Soane
Along with the Courts of Exchequer and King’s Bench, this was one of the three High Courts of the Common Law; a status demonstrated by its convention of sitting in Westminster Hall. It was the de facto court of common resort for the monarch’s subjects, whose meeting place was stipulated in Magna Carta as in certo loco (in a particular place). The latter became fixed as the north-west corner of Westminster Hall, against the west wall and close to the entrance to the Exchequer. During the medieval period it was the busiest of the Westminster courts, since the cases it heard did not impact upon royal prerogatives or interests. The Court’s practice was dominated by Serjeants, acting as litigants’ advocates, but it went into decline with the rise of barristers during the early modern era. As a result of the Supreme Court of Judicature Acts (1873-75) Common Pleas’ functions were merged with the other superior courts to form the High Court of Justice.
There are no known design drawings for the Court of Common Pleas. The earliest working drawing (SM 53/3/45) dates to November 1825, and can be associated with David Mocatta. It concentrates on the provisions of a gallery for students on the south side of the Court, which would obstruct the corridor running alongside the latter. The plan indicates that by this date, the triple openings to the Public Corridor had been replaced with a single large opening. The furnishings as executed were recorded in Stephen Burchell’s survey of 15-22 March 1826 (SM 53/5/12-SM 53/5/12v), and the interior in Joseph Gandy’s series of interior views taken in mid-August the same year (SM Vol 61/62 - SM Vol 61/63).
As realised, Soane has deployed the motif of engaged piers projecting from the perimeter, rising into arches which are set against light sources from above (provided by a lantern light) or lateral (by ‘clerestory’ windows in the Court’s east and west walls). The latter solution is largely determined by the Court being completely enclosed within the plan, without an adjacent lightwell to ameliorate the effect. The use of piers was first employed in the Lord Chancellor’s Room, and would be again in the Bail Court. The treatment of the ceiling bears a close familial appearance to those of the adjacent Common Law Courts, and as such may imply a desire to endow these interiors with a distinct identity, in contrast to the Chancery courts to the south. The pierced diaphragm arches within the Court’s lantern return to visual ideas first explored in the designs for the Vice Chancellor’s Court in late 1822.
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).