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London: House of Lords, Palace of Westminster: official (mostly domeless) designs, July 1794 - February 1795 (134)


Soane was appointed Clerk of Works for Whitehall, Westminster and St James's in 1791. A position with little authority, primarily concerned with maintenance work, it was left to the King and Parliamentary officials to initiate new building projects. Thus the Surveyor-General, Sir William Chambers, was authorised to spend no more than £100 and any estimates of £1000 or more had to be approved by the Treasury and given royal assent. In January 1793 Soane made a survey of the House of Lords. In August of the same year Soane was asked to supply survey plans of the Palace of Westminster to a dozen architects including James Adam, S. P. Cockerell, George Dance, Henry Holland and James Wyatt. They were invited to make designs for the reconstruction of the House of Lords; the invitation did not include Soane. Soane resigned as Clerk of Works in February 1794. S. Sawyer writes that "In the early winter of 1794, there is a curious gap in evidence concerning the design competition. In fact there is no record that any of the architects moved beyond surveying the site and drafting the competition guidelines", (S. Sawyer, op. cit below, p. 144). In a meeting of the House of Lords Committee of 30 June 1794, Soane was asked to make designs for a new House of Lords. The terms were: "Mr Soane be directed to turn his attention during the course of the summer to what alterations can be made to render the House of Lords, and the rooms and offices appertaining thereto, more commodious, consistent with the general plan of the adjacent buildings" (quoted by Sawyer, op. cit p. 148).

On 1 July 1794, Soane's office consisted of eight men, that is, five pupils, two clerks and an assistant. The office Day Book for April 1793 to 8 October 1794 is missing but after that dated entries show that the pupils: Frederick Meyer (1775-?, pupil April 1791-1796) and Thomas Jeans (c.1775-1866, pupil August 1792-25 August 1797) and latterly with the addition of Henry Hake Seward (1778-1848, pupil, assistant May 1794-September 1808) were engaged in making drawings for 'The King' up to 26 February 1795. Few of the drawings catalogued here are dated and among the plans, for example, inscribed dates run only from 21 July to 31 July except for the final plan (51) dated December 1794. This lack of dates together with alternative and variant designs being produced simultaneously has made it difficult to achieve a strict chronological sequence. The key difference in these designs for the House of Lords lies in the site chosen for the chamber itself. Essentially there were three possibilities: the Court of Requests (drawings 3, 10-13, 21, 22, 28), the Painted Chamber (drawings 2, 23-25) or a new eastwards extension from the Painted Chamber (drawings 1, 4-9, 14-20, 26, 27, 29-51).

In the end Soane's designs remained unbuilt partly because of the economic situation but also because when James Wyatt succeeded as Surveyor-General in 1796 he undertook, from 1799, the reconstruction of the Place of Westminster. Only a small part of his proposals were carried out but it inspired Soane's re-working of earlier designs visualised through J. M. Gandy's perspectives and exhibited at the Royal Academy (see Domed designs) . Wyatt's work did include the adaptation of the Court of Requests for a new House of Lords that became essential when the Act of Union enacted in 1801 introduced a large number of Irish peers into the House of Lords. However, Soane was given a second chance to work on the House of Lords after the accession of George IV and conducted a major rebuilding campaign between 1822 and 1828 (q.v.).

Sean Sawyer, in his PhD thesis for Columbia University, Soane at Westminster: Civic Architecture and National Identity,1789-1834, completed in 1999, includes a chapter on 'Soane's designs for the House of Lords, 1794-1800' (pp. 116-247). In this, he tracks the evolution of Soane's designs. Page references to Sawyer's discussion have been added to the catalogue notes given here. The present catalogue consists of plans (1-51), elevations (52-80), sections, further elevations and interior perspectives (81-107) as well as record copies, some of which were made after February 1795 (108-132). Although a few drawings are dated, that is, 21, 24, 25 and 31 July and ('copied') 25 September 1794 the office Day Book for this period is missing and so 'hand' has to be attributed on the evidence of, for example, the style of bar scale. So that Frederick Meyer (it seems) used an upright with three dots and a great many drawings have been attributed to the more experienced (and more talented) Meyer; more than is perhaps feasible. Thomas Jeans is the other principal draughtsman.

Jill Lever, July 2014



Digitisation of the Drawings Collection has been made possible through the generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation

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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.

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Contents of London: House of Lords, Palace of Westminster: official (mostly domeless) designs, July 1794 - February 1795 (134)