- The drawings from the office of Sir John Soane
This sequence of drawings to revise the position and treatment of the Law Court’s north façade sprang from the intervention of a Select Committee of the House of Commons. This was prompted by debate of 1 March 1824, regarding the estimate (of £30,000) for continuing the construction of the Law Courts, which was called into question. The matter was taken up by Henry Bankes (1757-1834), the member for Corfe Castle (1780-1826). His residence was on the north side of New Palace Yard, allowing him to frequently attend the Commons and sustain his reputation as a fearsome contributor to debates. On 23 March Bankes tabled a motion that the estimate and design of the part-built façade be referred to a Select Committee. His motion was carried the following day by 43 votes to 33 against, and its fifteen members included John Charles Herries (Secretary to the Treasury, 1823-27), Sir Charles Long (Paymaster General, 1817-26) and Frederick John Robinson (Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1823-27), all of whom had previously been involved in the design of the Law Courts. With Bankes acting as chairman, Soane made his first appearance before the Committee on 25 March.
Over the course of the following month, Soane was repeatedly compelled to revise his design for the north façade in response to the Committee’s dictations. Throughout April 1824, the Day Book entries record that this flurry of activity was undertaken by George Bailey, Stephen Burchell, David Mocatta and Charles Richardson. The rapidity with which successive alternative proposals were produced (and different proposals worked on consecutively) offers an almost bewildering record of the design process overseen by Soane. They betray great haste, and individual hands are consequently difficult to ascribe to any one draughtsman. The Day Books record that Soane attended the Committee on 5, 12 and 13 April, and 5 May, and the resulting accommodation of their suggestions by Soane can be divided into five distinct phases.
The first, dating from 1-8 April 1824 dealt with demolishing everything to the north of Westminster Hall’s second bay (SM 53/3/62), and screening the Law Courts with a Gothic façade (SM 53/3/34). Such a proposal was evidently impossible, and only served to illustrate what the Committee sought to achieve, and how little understanding it had of the site. The second proposal, worked on from 8-11 April 1824, brought the Law Court’s façade further forward than the previous scheme, but still left substantial clearance for the north front of Westminster Hall (SM 53/3/55). The resulting restriction to the site would have necessitated substantial revisions of the Court’s locations within the building’s northern range (SM 53/3/54-55). The Court of King’s Bench would be relocated further south within the complex, thereby necessitating the rearrangement of the Courts of Exchequer, Equity and the Bail Court within the confined space remaining. This proposal’s façade was likewise Gothic, with a square tower, of seemingly indeterminate function, at its north-west corner (SM 53/3/35-36). Its presence was surely to mask the junction with The Stone Building’s northernmost extent.
The third proposal retained the northern building line of the second scheme (SM 53/3/38) and the compressed redistribution of the Courts. The dated drawings indicate this variant was worked on from 9-30 April 1824. This was housed behind a two-storey façade, displaying an application of elements derived from the adjacent Hall, whose north-west corner now terminated in an elongated polygonal turret (SM 53/3/43). This feature was clearly inspired by the octagonal stair turret which had stood on the north side of the Exchequer Chamber, demolished in the previous year.
This led onto the fourth, most extensive, alternative scheme, which Soane’s Office worked until the 14 June 1824. It demonstrates that Soane had successfully persuaded the Select Committee of the insolvability of his internal arrangements behind the north façade, which are shown as they were constructed (SM 53/3/56). The northernmost extent of the Law Courts has been brought yet further forward, but still leaves a clear margin for Westminster Hall to appear the more prominent. The wall in question was originally the internal north wall of the Court of King’s Bench. This proposal is supported by a gamut of alternative treatments of the exterior, mostly executed in apparently rapid succession, which deal with the external massing of the reduced north façade. While many are Gothic, in response to the Committee’s wishes (e.g. SM 53/8/61-62), some Classical solutions were proposed (e.g. SM 53/8/37 and SM 53/8/42). The proposals to construct a symmetrical building to the north of Westminster Hall, already been experimented with as a design far in excess of the Law Courts’ brief, reappear here (e.g. SM 53/6/13), counterbalanced by proposals to wholly clear the site to the east of the Hall (e.g. 53/8/68).
With the retention of the existing wall as the new northern extent of the Law Courts, the Select Committee exercise its judgment over the fifth (and final) proposal, first drawn by George Bailey on 6 May 1824 (SM 53/3/41). There was clearly no space for reconstructing the lost ancillary spaces. By 13 May 1824, the Committee busied itself with finessed the design; to the point of dictating the number of crenelles on its parapet (SM 53/3/39). The corner turret’s footprint had now been made into a regular octagon, and the disastrous results where the Gothic screen wall joined the existing interior of the Court of Kings’ Bench is made clear from George Bailey’s drawings of the windows (SM 53/4/70). Only two working drawings have been identified for the north front as realised (SM 53/4/73 and SM 53/3/28). The truncated result is recorded in a series of plans here attributed to Charles Richardson, and drawn over mid-September 1826 (SM 53/8/12-16). There delicacy and controlled draughtsmanship, with restrained coloured washes, contrasts sharply with the hasty drawings produced under the Select Committee’s aegis.
The Committee published their report on 14 May, outlining their reasons for preferring a Gothic façade, in complete deference to Westminster Hall. Bankes persisted in maintaining an influence over the design, and on 14 June the Committee’s memorandum of its final instructions was forwarded to Soane. Ten days later, demolition of the part-built façade began.
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 Select Committee Revisions, 1824-29 (79)
- Alternative Number One: Solid Block, April 1824 (6)
- Alternative Number Two: Square Corner Turret, April 1824 (7)
- Alternative Number Three: Polygonal Corner Turret, April 1824 (8)
- Alternative Number Four: Forward Block, April-June 1824 (27)
- Alternative Number Five: Octagonal Corner Turret, May 1824-April 1829 (27)
- Alternative Miscellaneous, 1824-26 (4)